The Environmental Consequences of the War on Iraq



A Green Party press office briefing


9 April 2003


Spencer Fitz-Gibbon and Michelle Dixon


020 7561 0282






The environmental legacy of the war on Iraq could be irreversible.


The U.S or British Governments did not carry out any publicised environmental assessment relating to the conflict.


The huge quantity of toxic smoke produced by oil fires has been the clearest sign to date of extensive environmental damage caused by the war. Although fires have not been extensive as those of the Gulf War, the environment is already extremely stressed and a significant threat is posed to climate, vegetation and biota of the region.


The bombing campaign is expected to cause extensive and serious environmental pollution and physical damage that will compound environmental degradation already present.  Freshwater resources and aquatic ecosystems are most at risk and of particular concern is the damage that will be inflicted on the remaining Mesopotamian Marshes.


The use of ammunition tipped with Depleted Uranium represents a major chemical threat. It is possible that thousands of hectares could be contaminated with the deadly and debilitating substance following the conflict

An increase in plankton productivity in the Shatt Al Arab estuary and surrounding waters that has been recorded by the U.N indicates environmental stress caused by the conflict. 

Fuel used by the coalition in the conflict is enough to supply the economy of 1.1 billion people. 


Although worst case predicted scenarios of the environmental damage might not come to light the damage caused by the war will be at best serious and rehabilitation and decontamination will be vital in post-war Iraq.


The Iraq environment desk study due to be published by the U.N by the end of April will provide the basis to asses environmental damage caused by the conflict.




During wartime the environmental impacts of conflict are often forgotten in the midst of the massive human suffering and loss. It is likely, however, that the extent of environmental damage that will be inflicted will be felt long after the conflict has become a page in the history books.  Shortly after the outset of the war environmental experts gave the warning it will cause “massive and possibly irreversible” damage to the region of the Persian Gulf as well as adding significantly to global warming (Pianin, 2003).

According to Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector the environmental impacts of the war could be more ominous than the issue of peace and war itself. (Pianin, 2003). Despite this stark statement neither the U.S nor British governments made any publicised attempt to assess the environmental risks that the war would inflict (McLaren et al, 2003)



Oil Pollution


The plumes of black smoke billowing from southern Iraq’s oil fields and the oil filled trenches and bomb ignited fires in Baghdad are the clearest signs to date of the environmental damage caused by the war (UNEP, 2003a). On the second day of the conflict it was reported that Iraqi forces had started to set fire to several of the country’s oil wells (Times, 2003). Five days later (25.3.03) in the Rumaila oilfields around half a dozen wellheads were blazing, at a rate of $12m (£7.6m) of oil an hour (Judd, 2003).


Iraq’s environment is already highly stressed. During the Gulf war retreating forces set fire to 736 Kuwaiti oil wells. The resulting smoke was enough to block out the sun (EMS, 2002). This resulted in the average air temperatures falling by 10 degrees C while the oil well burned over 9 months (McLaren and  Willmore, 2003). Oil, soot, sulphur and acid rain came down as far as 1,900 kilometres (1,200 miles) away and the vegetation and animals were poisoned while the water was contaminated and the people choked (Kirby, 2003), The burning oil fields released almost half a billion tons of carbon dioxide. This is an amount that has been considered to be leading the current progression of climate change (Pianin, 2003). 


Despite the current smaller scale of the oil fires in comparison to the 1991 conflict they are none the less cause of significant concern. The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) satellite data has shown that huge quantities of toxic smoke have been emitted from oil well and oil filled trench combined fires (Scripps Howard, 2003). The smoke contains a cocktail of chemicals such as sulphur, mercury, dioxins and furans that are toxic to humans and are serious pollutants in the region’s natural ecosystem that is already stretched to the limit (UNEPa, 2003).

At the International Symposium on Climate Change that opened on the 31st March scientists stated that the war could damage the sub regional ecology mainly because of pollution caused by burning oil wells. The president of Meteorological Organisation of Iran predicted that the war would affect the ecological environment in Iraq and its immediate neighbouring countries causing acid rain and endangering agriculture and forestry. A special advisor on climate change with the China Meteorological Administration stated that any long-term oil fires in Iraq would negatively affect the climate and environment (Terra Daily, 2003).


Meanwhile, researchers in Cologne have predicted that contamination could easily spread to neighbouring countries based on the state of burning and pollution on 31 March with a worst-case scenario of air pollution reaching Afghanistan and Turkey (Newsfox, 2003). The United Nations Environment Programme has called for urgent air quality monitoring as soon as possible (UNEPa, 2003).


A serious threat is posed to the region’s marine habitats and species from fallout of burning oil products. During the Gulf war this created a toxic sea surface micro layer and sea temperatures fell acutely affecting birds and other marine life. The Global Environment Fund considers the Gulf and Sea of Oman region as "one of the most important marine turtle habitats in the world ... and plays a significant role in sustaining the life cycle of the marine turtle populations in the whole North-Western Indo Pacific region" Five of the world’s seven marine turtles are found in this marine habitat and four are 'endangered' and one 'threatened' (McLaren et al, 2003).


Based on experiences during the gulf war Oil pollution could also result in land, ground water and surface water contamination. Oil that was spilled onto ground resulted in the persistence of the contamination of over ten million cubic metres of soil into 1998, a major groundwater aquifer and two fifths of Kuwait's entire freshwater reserve being polluted to this day (McLaren et al, 2003). The World Resources Institute reported that over 4 million barrels of crude oil were poured into the Persian Gulf, turning beeches black, wiping out more than 25,000 birds and driving millions more away (Pianin, 2003), Over 1500km of coastline was affected (McLaren and Willmore, 2003).





Bombing destruction and pollution

Environmentalists have predicted that the result of the conflict involving fighter jets, tanks, armour-piercing shells and ground-shattering Massive Ordnance Air-Burst (MOAB) bombs will be wide scale and serious environmental damage. It is expected that no matter how precise the bombing campaign is the pollution that will be created will not only have a local affect and it will also travel to areas affected by the 1991 Gulf War compounding the damage already there (Pianin, 2003)

Resources of surface and ground water could, in a worst case scenario become widely contaminated by oil, industrial chemicals, and sewerage. (Star, 2003). During the 1991 Gulf War over 50,000 cubic metres of raw sewage was discharged into Kuwait Bay as a result of the destruction of sewage treatment plants (McLaren and Willmore, 2003). Increased freshwater would further damage Iraq’s remaining fisheries and the physical dame to dam infrastructure could result in flooding (Star, 2003).

The likelihood of the release of dangerous pollutants increases with the extent of bombing. The military targeting of industrial sites and armament factories will cause acute pollution. Nine sites, expected to be targets, were named by the UK government as being involved in the production of chemical and biological weapons (McLaren et al, 2003).

Everyday chemical industries, oil refineries, plastic factories and even paint shops can become sources of toxic and very hazardous pollutants due to war related damage (Scripps Howard, 2003). The UNEP is monitoring the extensive potential chemical pollution risk that may result from the destruction of infrastructure concerned with petrochemical, hazardous chemicals and that capable of generating toxic wastes, such as the foam, fertilizer, paper and pharmaceutical industries (ENS, 2003).

It is expected such freshwater ecosystems will be physically damaged and severely polluted. Thirty-three of Iraqi wetlands are considered of international importance particularly for wildfowl. They have been found to support at least seven IUCN Red List species of mammals and birds, over 60 waterfowl species and nine birds of prey (McLaren and Willmore, 2003). WWF have said that 16 globally threatened or near-threatened bird species and three unique endemic wetland bird species would be further threatened by the conflict  (Star, 2003).

The World Wildlife Fund for Nature is particular concerned about the predicted damage to what little remains of the Mesopotamian Marshes (Star, 2003). The Mesopotamian marshlands have already been severely damaged by the Gulf War and the proceeding drainage schemes by Saddam Hussein. A number of animal and plant species are believed to have become extinct (Kirby, 2003) and there has been a massive impact on the Ma’dan or Marsh Arabs that have resided in the area for over five thousand years (McLaren and Willmore, 2003). Ancient archaeological sites are also at risk (Pianin, 2003).

Toxic Weapons


A major chemical threat comes from the use of specific toxic weapons. Ammunition tipped with Depleted Uranium (DU) is used in projectiles. Due to its density it is able to pierce tank armour and reinforced bunkers and it is also used in the production of tank armour (EMS, 2002). The DU projectiles produce fragments that release uranium oxide into the air (McLaren et al, 2003). U.S forces used around 320 tonnes of the substance in the Gulf war and it spread radioactive material across Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia (Pianin, 2003). Estimates of the total amount of DU used by allied forces in the Gulf war are as high as 800 tonnes (McLaren and Willmore, 2003)


A leaked report produced by the UK Atomic Energy Authority revealed that 50 tonnes of DU pollution inhaled could cause up to half a million additional cancer deaths over several decades. The report also stated that human environmental exposure to DU is known to cause kidney damage, cancers of the lung and bone, respiratory disease, neurocognitive disorders, chromosomal damage and birth defects (McLaren and Willmore, 2003). Local people and humanitarian workers are most likely to be exposed to DU in the aftermath of a conflict and the World Health Organisation have said that young children are at the greatest risk (EMS, 2002).


It is possible that thousands of hectares could be contaminated in Iraq following the conflict (McLaren and Willmore, 2003). DU is incredibly persistent in the environment with a half-life of 4.5 billion years (EMS, 2002). A clean up operation requires soil removal and treatment of the radioactive waste. Decontamination has cost $4-5bn for 200 hectares at a US army proving ground (McLaren et al, 2003). The UNEP recommends a scientific assessment of sites targeted with weapons containing DU in Iraq as soon as possible (UNEPb, 2003).



Plankton Productivity

In addition to the smoke that has been pluming from the war zone another early indication of the environmental stress that the conflict is having is the increase in plankton productivity in the Shatt Al Arab estuary and surrounding waters at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (UNEPa, 2003). Satellite images show a marked change in colour of the water of the region that U.N. analysts believe indicates a significant increase in phytoplankton (Scripps Howard, 2003). The plankton bloom may be due to increased nutrients supplied to the water by the increased input of raw sewage from Basra and wastewater and litter from the unusually large number of ships in the area.  Previous increases in plankton productivity in shallow waters such as the Kuwait Bay has led to large fish die offs (UNEPa, 2003)






Fuel Use



The amount of fuel that is being burnt by military vehicles to keep the operation moving is massive. The US military has said that its planes, boats and tanks are consuming 15 million gallons of fuel a day. Britain will not say how much fuel it is using but it is estimated to be around a quarter of that.  To put this in context, the amount of fuel that the coalition is using in one day is the approximate amount that 1.1 billion people in India need to keep their whole economy going for the same amount of time (Brown, 2003).




Although the environmental impacts of the war on Iraq have yet to be assessed early indications such as the air pollution caused by the oil fires and the phytoplankton blooms Shatt Al Arab estuary indicate that extensive damage has been caused.  

As the so-called “end game” now appears to be being “played out” it may now be that the worst-case scenario will not be come to light. This is, however, of no great consolation as predictions made were at best serious and at worst catastrophic.

Environmental effects are likely to be felt across a range of habitats and ecosystems and extend to the region outside Iraq.  It is possible that species extinctions will occur.

It is clear that the post-war environment of the region will be heavily polluted and physically damaged and it is possible that irreversible damage would have been done. The worst affected areas are likely to be those that are already stressed by damage caused by the gulf war and that preceding it.

Rehabilitation and decontamination of affected sites will be needed. Aquatic environments are likely to need greatest attention and environmental decontamination of depleted uranium will need to be a priority.

The UNEP is due to publish its “desk study” on the Iraq environment by the end of April. This will provide the basis for field research to discover the extent of the damage. The document will look at risks to groundwater, surface water, drinking water sources, waste-management and other environment-related infrastructure, factories and other potential sources of toxic chemicals, and biodiversity (UNEP, b, 2003).







Brown P. Fuel gauge. Eco-soundings. April 2003


EMS (Environmental media service). 2002.  Environmental Impacts of War. 7 Oct 2002


ENS (Environment News Service). 2003.  Air Pollution, Hunger Stress Embattled Iraq. 31 March 2003.

Judd, T. 2003.  British insist oilfields are secure, despite continuing resistance in southwest Iraq. Independent.  25 March 2003

Kirby, A 2003. Gulf environment faces worse threats. BBC News Online.

McLaren, D, Higman, R and Willmore, I, 2003.War in Iraq: Why Friends of the Earth is Opposed.  Media Briefing 13 Feb 2003. Friends of the Earth.

McLaren and Willmore, 2003.  The environmental damage of war in Iraq. Observer. 19 Jan 2003,12239,878001,00.html

Newsfox. 2003. Air pollution from Iraq could spread to Turkey
Researchers in Cologne simulate 'worst case scenario'. 7 April 2003

Pianin, E. 2003.Environmental Damages a Concern. Experts Fear Effects of War on Persian Gulf Region Could Be 'Irreversible'. Washington Post. 20 March, 2003.

Scripps Howard , 2003 War leaves increased pollution in its wake 31 March 2003

Star, The. 2003 WWF: War in Iraq will badly damage environs. 03 April 2003


Terra Daily, 2003 Iraqi war likely to endanger sub-regional ecology: scientists. 31 March, 2003

Times, 2003. Sadam has set fire to oilfields. Times, March 20

UNEPa, 2003.   Air pollution from Baghdad fires poses risks for human health and the environment, says UNEP . 30 March 2003. March


UNEPb, 2003. UNEP Recommends Studies of Depleted Uranium in Iraq.  6 April 2003