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Saddam Hussein knew the war was over. He could not have Kuwait, so he wasn't
about to let anyone else benefit from its riches. As the 1991 Persian Gulf War drew
to a close, Hussein sent men to blow up Kuwaiti oil wells. Approximately 600 were
set ablaze, and the fires literally towering infernos burned for seven months.
The Gulf was awash in poisonous smoke, soot and ash. Black rain fell. Lakes of oil
were created. As NASA wrote, "The sand and gravel on the land's surface combined
with oil and soot to form a layer of hardened 'tarcrete' over almost 5 percent of the
country's area." Scores of livestock and other animals died from the oily mist, their
lungs blackened by the liquid.
As the specter of a new conflict between a U.S.-coalition and Iraq looms, some fear
that Saddam Hussein could repeat the tactics of 1991 within his own borders,
plunging the region into another, even greater, environmental and economic
In Kuwait, the Persian Gulf War left behind heavy environmental damage. Day
vanished into night, black rain fell from the sky, and a vast network of lakes was born
... lakes of oil as deep as six feet.
Saddam also poured 10 million barrels of oil into the sea. Thousands of birds
perished, and the people of the Persian Gulf became familiar with new diseases.

Kuwait Oil
Fields - August 31, 1990

Kuwait Oil Fields - February 23, 1991

Kuwait Oil Fields - November 14, 1991


'An environmental disaster'

The Kuwait oil fires burned for more than eight months, consuming an estimated five
to six million barrels of crude oil and 70 to 100 million cubic meters of natural gas per
day. Between late February, when the first fires were ignited, and November 6, when
the last fire was extinguished, smoke plumes containing a hazardous mixture of
gaseous emissions and particulate matter engulfed a downwind area as large as 150
by 1000 kilometers.
The geography and climate of the Persian Gulf region affected the distribution of the
oil well plumes, as well as the severity of their effect on human populations and
natural ecosystems. Though Saudi Arabia and Iraq border Kuwait's petroleum fields,
the region's strong prevailing northerly winds ensured that relatively tiny Kuwait bore
the majority of the fires' ill effects. Uneven heating of the land and sea surfaces
created local atmospheric inversions during the summer months that trapped smoke
in the lower atmosphere, and occasionally caused the plumes to blanket the Kuwaiti
land surface. Violent sandstorms, driven by intense summer winds, mixed sand and
dust with the smoke plumes.
In general, smoke produced by burning unrefined petroleum contains a mixture of
gases and particulate matter including carbon dioxide (CO2, carbon monoxide (CO),
sulfur dioxide (SO2, nitrogen oxides (NOx, volatile organics (VOCs), polycyclic

aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), hydrogen sulfide (H2), acidic aerosols, and soot.
(Soot is composed of solid particles embedded in tar.) Non-toxic carbon dioxide
accounted for approximately 96 percent of the relatively clean-burning Kuwaiti crude
oil smoke. The other chemical elements and compounds in oil well smoke, however,
can be toxic, carcinogenic (cancer-causing), and otherwise hazardous to human
health, as well as ecologically and climatically disruptive in relatively small
concentrations. Airborne measurements above the Al Burqan fires in May and June
1991 found that particulate matter and gases made up equal parts of the fires' noncarbonaceous emissions. The Al Burqan wells tap Mesozoicage limestone, dolomite,
and sandstone layers containing high-grade crude oil and salt deposits, geologic
factors that account for the fairly low concentrations of toxic emissions, and for the
presence of salt crystals in the smoke plumes.
Considering the dramatic appearance and scale of the Kuwait oil firessatellite and
space shuttle images showed the plumes extending across the Arabian Peninsula
and Persian Gulf, and the smoke blocked the sunlight from large areas for weeks at
timethe environmental and human health effects of the fires were much less
significant than expected. The largest and longest-burning fires, like those at the Al
Burqan field, burned crude oil with low concentrations of potentially harmful
impurities, and the "dirtiest" fires, typically pools of crude oil at the surface, were
quickly extinguished. Atmospheric inversions kept the plumes close to the land
surface where rain droplets and wind-blown dust particles could quickly cleanse
harmful particulate matter, organic compounds, and heavy metals from the
atmosphere. In fact, numerous studies found that concentrations of most harmful
airborne chemicals like VOCs, PAHs, and heavy metals were lower in Kuwait City
and at American military bases just miles from the fires than in major cities in the
United States. Concentrations were also below levels recommended by American
health and industrial regulators. The smoke did contain high levels of particulate
matter that may have caused some of the respiratory problems that Kuwaiti residents
and Gulf War soldiers reported as symptoms of so-called "Gulf War syndrome."
Fears that the plumes would inject soot and sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere
and cause global cooling or widespread acid rain also did not materialize.
The fishing industry in the Gulf was deleteriously affected by the oil spillage into the
Gulf, which was important due to the fact that it is one of the most vibrant productive
activties in the region after the production of oil. As an example of the vibrancy of this
industry, prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait the Gulf had yielded harvests of marine
life of up to 120,000 tons of fish a year; after the oil spillage, these numbers
significantly dropped. In addition to this degredation to an economic activity, many
people living on the Gulf coast depend on fishing as purely a subsistence activity,
and the oil spillage has disrupted the spawning of shrimp and fish. Other species
effected by the oil spillage included green and hawksbill turtles (already classified as
endangered species), leatherback and loggerhead turtles, dugongs, whales,
dolphins, migratory birds like comorants and flamingoes, and sea snakes

However, the fires did leave a legacy of more subtle impacts, including long-term
environmental damage and chronic human disease. Damaged wells have leaked
large amounts of oil into pools on the land surface that threaten fragile desert
ecosystems and present a human safety hazard.

Kuwait Oil Company (KOC), the state oil and gas operator, has approached
international consultants about master-managing a project to repair environmental
damage from the 1990-1991 Gulf War. It is the emirate's second serious shot at
rehabilitating some 100 square kilometres of northern Kuwait that are dotted with
more than 2,400 "lakes" filled with dirty oil and concentrated salt residues mixed with
Kuwait National Focal Point (KNFP), a committee established four years ago to
supervise the execution of environmental projects in the emirate, tendered a similar
contract in 2007.