Friday, September 17, 1999

Environmental Impacts of Iraq's War against Kuwait

Aggression - Related Damage to Iran’s Environment:
Factual Basis of Causation

Ali-Asghar Kazemi

Professor of International Law , Legal Counsel

A. Iraq’s Aggression Against the Environment
1/ Intentional Discharge of Oil
2/ Oil Wells Destruction and Abasement

B. Release of Radioactive and Toxic Material to the

C. Damage to Various Environmental Components
1/ Damage to Terrestrial Resources
2/ Damage to Marine and Coastal Resources

D. Environmental Impacts of the Exodus of Iraqi
Refugees into Iran

A. Iraq’s Aggression against the Environment

Iraq’s act of aggression against sovereignty and independence of Kuwait and its atrocities during the occupation period against people, public and private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, etc. are normally categorized among crimes against peace, and war crimes. But, Iraqi aggression against the environment, which is a common heritage of mankind, is considered as crime against humanity (1). This is because environment belongs to mankind as a whole and not necessarily any particular State. Yet, sovereign States, enjoy territorial rights over their natural resources at sea, on land and coastal zones (2).

Iraq’s activities that caused direct environmental impacts and damage to Iran, as well as other countries, in the proximity of the war zone, are listed below:

1/ Intentional Discharge of Oil

On January 20, 1991 the Iraqi men of war and agents opened Kuwait pipeline at Mina Al-Ahmadi Sea Island Terminal and released an estimated 4-6 million barrels of oil to the Southern Kuwait Coast.

About 3.5 million barrels of oil were discharged from Iraqi tankers near the terminal(3). Estimates of the total amount of oil discharged and spilled from various sources into the Persian Gulf, near Iranian Coastal Zones and Exclusive Economic Zones, range from 6-8 million barrels(4). Predominant winds and currents pushed that slick towards Iranian coasts, causing unprecedented pollution to internal waters, bays and ports. These releases of oil to the Persian Gulf, containing toxic substance, aromatic organic compounds such as benzene, toluene, xylene, etc., represent an actual and potential source of damage to the coastal zone, mangrove forests, marine ecosystems, as well as public health through the ingestion of contaminated volatized organic components.

2/ Oil Wells Destruction and Abasement

It is now officially confirmed that, Iraqi forces, under direct orders from Iraqi leader, detonated explosives at 798 Kuwaiti oil wells, of which 604 burned and 45 gushed oil to the desert surface. An estimated 2 to 7.5 million barrels of oil were consumed each day in the fires before the last oil well fire was extinguished on November 06, 1991.

The fall out of smoke, oil mist, soot and black rain from the fires settled on Iran’s marine and terrestrial environment. Among the hazardous constituents of the oil are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), aliphatic hydrocarbons, PAHs, nickel, and vanadium, all of which are hazardous to human and natural environment.
The airborne residues from the oil well fires represent the most pervasive contaminants that resulted from the aggressive act of Iraq, as they deposited on the terrestrial, coastal marine surface and seabed. In some cases they went as far as mountainous areas, west and southwest of Iran, covered with snow and natural glaciers (5), leading to unusual environmental consequences, such as flooding, drought and therefore negative effects on forage, medical plantation, etc. The residues have also penetrated deep into the soil and subsoil, contaminating water sources and ground water.

B. Release of Radioactive and Toxic Material to the Environment

According to informed sources, during the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi nuclear reactor in Tuwaitha was attacked by airplanes and missiles. It was reported that the reactors were operational (in full power), and had they been hit at that time, another catastrophe to the environment would have taken place. (See Iraqi report to the Special Session of the General Assembly on Environment and Development, 23-27 June 1997, in Exhibit 6).

In addition, it was also revealed(6) that during the Allied military campaign radiological weapons were used against Iraq’s forces in the southern front, near Iranian territory (7) .

Depleted Uranium (DU) is used in the guidance system of precision guided munitions (PGM). When DU rounds impact with a hard surface, it emits radioactive and toxic substances which are harmful for the environment and present a serious health hazard.

Iraqi sources report that after many years the long-term effects started to appear(8). The statistical data presented by Iraq in its National Report to the Special Session of the General Assembly on Environment and Development (23-27 June, 1997) (9), regarding unusual increase of cancer cases corroborate with WHO publications and the result of international research and studies on the impact of ionizing radiation.

A UNEP mission, asked to assess the impact of military operations against Iraq, on the terrestrial ecosystem concluded inter alia:
· Some toxic chemical were spilled into soil and into running streams, when several industrial factories were bombarded.
· Agricultural products, crops and livestock, were very adversely affected.
· Rangelands and deserts were drastically affected and degraded.
· Large mammals, especially the gazelle population were also more adversely affected.
· After this extensive destruction, the components of the ecosystem changed (10).

Given the contiguity of the war zone to Iran’s territory, and based on preliminary environmental assessment in western region of Iran, the negative impact of radioactive material and toxic chemical released to Iran’s environment and the whole ecosystem is quite flagrant. Further environmental quality monitoring programs are being carried by specialists.

C. Damage to Various Environmental Components

1/ Damage to Terrestrial Resources

I. R. Iran has received much pollution because of it’s contiguity with Kuwait and frequently dominate favoring winds carrying heavy loads of contaminating pollutants. There are numerous published articles regarding wide spread pollution in the region, especially in southern provinces of Iran (Penner, 1991; JICA Report, 1991; Small, 1991; National Geography Society, 1991; Barnaby, 1991; WMO Report, 1991 and Browning, et. all. 1992). Report of WMO (1991) explains in detail the kinds, concentration and distribution of various pollutants resulted from Kuwaiti oil well fires. Meteorological synoptic maps of 700 and 800 HPA provided by the IRIMO, also confirms the precipitation of polluted rain (as black rain) in southern and southwestern provinces of Iran, especially, Khuzestan, Fars, Bushehr, Charmahal and Bakhtiari, Kohkeluyeh and Boyer Ahmad, Hormozgan and Kerman (See Exhibits 2 and 6).

Fossil fuels are of main polluting factors contributing to environmental destruction. This is known worldwide based on studies performed. Such contaminating pollutants affect various ecosystems via direct contacts with aerial part of plants and or indirectly via wet and dry depositions.
Evaluation of dry deposited pollutants was not accomplished because of a lack of proper instrumentation, but, wide distribution of pollutants in many parts of Iran has been established through measurements performed on wet deposited substances, especially in black rain. Results of analyses carried out on samples of black rain collected from southern provinces of Iran indicate severe atmospheric pollution depositions on natural resources there.

Calculations reveal that at least 2 million tons of organic hydrocarbons, soot and pollutants have been deposited in above provinces. This amount of pollutants represents only 20% of the sedimentation load possible. Associated heavy metals, e.g. Pb. Cd and V and dangerously poisonous PAHs, sulfates, chlorides and ... are deposited as well. It is reminded that the complete versions of research reports regarding type, concentration and distribution of pollutants are presented as scientific documents in appendices.

Destructive effects of environmental pollution to natural resources of Iran:

1. Vegetation cover: Soot deposition associated with oil droplets caused serious physical and biological damage to plants, especially to annual forage and medicinal plants. Damages include reduction in photosynthesis, primary productivity, seed production and forage value. In many instances, necrosis of leaves, desiccation and death of plants occurred very extensively. Similar losses have been reported for Kuwait(11).

2. Forest trees: In addition to short-term physical damage, long-term ecological effects on forest trees is experienced by cycling of pollutants throughout the food

chain and also by changes in chemical equilibrium of soil and water. Extensive researches carried out in Germany indicate the severe damaging potentials of fossil fuels on forest trees(12). These studies have shown that increased levels of fossil fuel gasses, such as, SO-x, NOx, and .... cause changes in photosynthetic potentials, necrosis of leaves, increased susceptibility against pathogens and insects and freezing of aerial parts of plants. Also, changes in chemical balance of soil and water cause damage to root hairs of trees and thus, bring about wilting and drying of trees in industrial areas of Europe.

3. Soil-Deposition: The deposition of more than 2 million tons of polluting compounds, consequent of the Persian Gulf war, in terrestrial ecosystems of Iran caused imbalance in C:N ratio; changed soil texture and polluted underground water resources with dangerous pollutants such as Pb and Cd and dissolved organic carbons (PAHs). Levels of polluting compounds discussed are based on sample taken by WHO’s experts field survey in Iran, analyzed in WHO Laboratories in Geneva.

In researches performed on black rain, the number of samples was limited. However, since the source of all pollutants carried out to Iran is the burning oil wells of Kuwait; and the nature and concentration of pollutants resembles those obtained from WHO sample analyzed in Geneva, only few samples of black rain from each province were analyzed.

In a Research carried out in southern regions of Iran, samples of soil and water from 10 stations were analyzed. Results indicated increased levels of heavy metals and hydrocarbons in soil and water. Therefore, soil contamination and pollution of billions of m3 of surface and underground waters are other clear evidences of repeated pollution episodes taken place because of black rain.

2. Damage to Marine and Coastal Resources

Direct release of more than 1 million tons of oil from Kuwaiti island terminals into the Persian Gulf caused extensive pollution to water and coastal regions of the Persian Gulf (13). Direct exchange of water between waters of Iran and that of Kuwait region in the Persian Gulf (14) near Bushehr and Khuzestan transported considerable quantities of drifted oil slick towards Iranian coasts; this caused heavy pollution in affected areas.

1. Pollution in Shadegan Wetland: Shadegan wetland with an approximate area of 200,000 Km2 is located in the southwestern part of the Khuzestan province. This area was severely polluted with oil to such a degree that even after 6 years, remnants of deposited oil is still visible at higher elevated areas of it and on plant surfaces. These polluted areas release weathered and degraded pollutants gradually with diurnal tidal activity; and thus, marshland is completely affected by a micro-layer of oil routinely. Experiments performed on Shadegan water and soil quality, indicated the contamination to greater levels of oil and heavy metals associated with oil hydrocarbons.

Shadegan saltmarsh is a protected area under Ramsar convention. It is one of the most important habitats for migrating birds. It is also a genetic resource for some of the unique and rare species of birds. Many aquatic biota also migrate to this marshland for breeding. Therefore, it is an important stock habitat for such biota. Additionally, other animals, e. g. buffalo, feed extensively in this marshland. Reduced number of migrating bird populations in years following the Kuwaiti oil well fires and reduced nutrition availability in the marshland are clear evidences of heavy contamination. Urgent and extensive recovery measures are to be implemented.

2. Coastal Regions: Northern coasts of the Persian Gulf along the Iranian side include extensive sandy-muddy, and rocky shores. Many of these areas are important fishing ground of shrimp, lobster, fish and other biota for many natives. As it is evident from colored photographs (See Exhibit 3-I), about 300 Km2 of Iranian coastal regions are polluted with various kinds of asphalt, tar balls and weathered oil. Reduced fishing in estuaries and death of individual or groups of fish are important evidences the presence of heavy oil pollution. These areas need serious clean-up.

3. Mangrove Forests: Mangrove forests of Iran constitute about 75-80 % of the total mangrove coverage of the Persian Gulf. These are important breeding areas for more than 80 % of shrimp species (15).

Studies conducted by the Office of Research and Education of Fishery Department of Iran indicate the severe pollution to heavy metals in sediments of mangrove forests following the Iraq-Kuwait war. Remnants of oil pollution are still visible among trees; and reduced stocks, especially benthic communities, are registered over past years.

D. Environmental Impacts of the Exodus of Iraqi Refugees into Iran

Another war-related environmental damage, which Iran incurred during and after the Persian Gulf War, was the forced exodus of about two million Iraqis into Western Iran(16). They have been settled in many camps established mainly in the Iranian provinces of Western Azarbaijan, Kurdistan, Bakhtaran and Ilam. With more than 3 million refugees from Afghanistan and 250,000 Kurds whom this country took earlier, the refugee pressure became intolerable(17).

The already unfavorable environmental condition in the Zagros mountainous areas, where the refugees were settled, have further worsened. The increased pressure on rangelands has caused their biological degradation. The need for forage to feed refugees’ livestock and cultivable land forced the people to cut trees, remove brush and plough the higher steeper lands. When the protective cover of native vegetation was removed, the bare soil became vulnerable to erosion, and already high erosion rates have been further intensified. The arrival of newcomers and increased water requirement caused also many damage to the irrigation canals and water supply systems. The forests have been exposed to higher degradation; trees have been cut for fuel and timber, or to obtain cultivable lands or construction sites.

The Government of Iran prepared plans for rehabilitation of the areas mostly affected by refugees influx, comprising watershed management, soil and water conservation, rangeland rehabilitation, afforestation, land husbandry improvement, establishing of seed centers and nurseries, programs for extension and involvement of local communities.

The main cause of mass movement of Iraqi Kurds and Arab refugees into Iran was the aggressive intentions of Iraqi leadership, who systematically subjugated people of Shiite and Kurdish background prior to the invasion of Kuwait. During the 1990-1991 war, specially after Allied intervention for liberation of Kuwait, Iraqi political apparatus put all the pressure they could, upon these people, in order to deter and intimidate coalition forces of military intervention and to put the blame on them for the destruction of eastern regions of Iraq.

Since Iran had declared its neutrality during the Second Persian Gulf War, the inhabitant of Iraq eastern front, had no choice but to take refuge into neutral Iran, where they could live in tranquillity during the war. Iranian authorities allowed them and their livestock to move deep inside the country, as a humanitarian gesture. The refugees dispersed into four provinces in the west of Iran, namely; Western Azarbaijan, Kurdistan, Bakhtaran (Kermanshahan), and Ilam(18). The ecological conditions in the areas where refugees settled, have been severely affected and damaged because of the mass influx of Iraqi

nationals and their livestock. Iraqi sheep and goats needed grazing, and thus exerted enormous pressure upon rangelands, forests and agricultural lands. The people also needed fuel for heating during cold seasons and food preparation. As a result, trees and forests have been systematically and extensively destroyed.

Size of affected areas and population (prior to refugee influx) is shown in tables below:

Province Size (Sq. Km) Population (Million)
Western Azarbaijan 43,660 1.5
Kurdistan 31,383 1
Bakhtaran (Kermanshahan) 24,549 1
Ilam 18,162 0.25

The rangelands in the cited provinces occupy about 2 million hectares distributed as follows:

Province Rangeland (ha)
Western Azarbaijan 600,000
Kurdistan 700,000
Bakhtaran (Kermanshahan) 400,000
Ilam 300,000

An estimated cost of environmental damage and depletion of natural resources in the above affected areas is provided in Exhibit 5 of this Statement and relevant data and tables are included in the same Exhibits.


(1) This classification is derived from the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal. see e.g. M. E. Bathurst, “The United Nations War Crimes Commission”, 39 American Journal of International Law (1945), pp. 565-57.

(2) See e.g. Draft Rules Concerning Changes in the Environment of the Earth, David Davies Memorial Institute of International Studies (London: 1964); Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, June 16, 1972. See also UN General Assembly Resolution 2158 (XXI) on Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources, November 25, 1966.

(3) Oil releases also occurred at Mina Al-Bakr terminal, the Mina Al-Su’ud refinery, and from various tankers damaged by the allied forces during the liberation of Kuwait.

(4) Satellite images taken on January 25, 1991 indicates that the resulting initial oil slick was approximately 50 km long and 8 km wide (See satellite pictures in the annex).

(5) As mentioned earlier, the deposit of black substance on snowy mountains and natural glaciers, caused quick melting, due to sunshine absorption, which in turn caused flooding and soil erosion. See reports of Iranian alpinists, endorsed by the Iranian Federation of Alpinists.

(6) See e.g.: Grace Bukowski, et. al. “Uranium Battlefields, Home and Abroad” (Depleted Uranium used by US Department of Defense) March 1993, Eric Hoskins, “US Uranium Shells Used in the Gulf War May be Killing Iraqi Children”, New York Times, January 21, 1993.

(7) It was reported by the Middle East News Agency on November 30, 1993 that a number of Iraqi soldiers and civilians were killed by depleted Uranium shells either directly or due to exposure to its radiation. It was also quoted from David Rifkind, the British ex-Minister of Defense, in his letter No. DS/S/SS0962/94M of December 06, 1994 addressed to Sir Malcolm Steel, MP, that British troops used 88 round of depleted Uranium in the war against Iraq.

(8) See ‘Impact of War and Embargo on Environment in Iraq’, A National Report presented by Republic of Iraq to the Special Session of the General Assembly on Environment and Development. 23-27 June, 1997. The health effects reported in the document include cancer, congenital anomalies, abortion, neuropathy and myopathy.

(9) ibid. The report says that increase in leukemia, lung cancer, etc. were observed. Furthermore, the increase in these types of cancer took place within three years after the war. Increase in abortion and congenital anomalies cases are also considered to be the rapid consequence of exposure to radiation.

(10) c.f. ibid

(11) Report of the UN Secretary General. 1991

(12) These researches have been carried out mainly in developed industrial countries (especially Germany)

(13) WMO Report, 1991. (14) Reynolds, 1992. Marine Pollution Bulletin. Pp. 305

(15) Savari, A. 1996. Report to MJS (Doc. 40)

(16) For detail see: Pavlovic and Behbahani, Environmental Impacts of the Exodus of Iraqi Kurds into Western Iran, Project done under the sponsorship of UNDP. (Exhibit 6) (17) Only a minor portion of the promised help from abroad has been delivered.

(18) Some of the refugees moved even further to the east into the provinces of Hamedan and Zanjan. These refugees were settled in the camps built by Iranian Red Crescent and other local authorities in the areas around many cities: Orumieh, Mahabad, Sardasht, Saqez, Marivan, Piranshahr, Naghade, Baneh, Oshnavieh, Gilan-e-Gharb, Sumar, etc. See ibid (Exhibit 6). Vol. 3.