It did not take long for Saddam Hussein to start laying waste to the Iraqi landscape in a last ditch effort to save his tyrannical regime. Within 24 hours of the first bombing runs over Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers had already lit the first oil wells on fire. On Thursday afternoon, U.S. military officials reported that it appeared three or four oil wells were burning near Basra in Southern Iraq.
If Saddam Hussein directly ordered the torching of Iraqi wells, it would be nothing new. Iraq’s brutal dictator has given such orders before. Just as Hussein has shown an unsurpassed capacity for cruelty and brutality, the Iraqi regime has a stunning record of environmental ruin. Indeed, the Iraqi dictatorship may be the only extant regime that deliberately uses environmental destruction, as such, as a tool of government policy.
Saddam Hussein’s committed his most notorious ecological crimes in the midst of his defeat in the first Gulf War. As Iraqi forces fled Kuwait, they lit some 600 oil wells aflame. Iraq’s military deliberately spilled several million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf and over 50 million barrels more on land. The environmental toll was enormous, labeled “one of the worst engineered disasters of humanity” by the U.N. Environment Program. The oil killed an estimated 25,000 birds and contaminated thousands of acres of once fertile Kuwaiti land and the precious groundwater underneath. Livestock and fish populations were decimated. One spill literally created a lake of oil one-half-mile long, and contained nine times more oil than the Exxon Valdez spill loosed into Prince William’s Sound, according to the World Resources Institute.
The oil-well fires billowed smoke for months, spreading soot, oil mists, and deposition for hundreds of miles in all directions, contaminating air, water, and soil. (For those concerned about global warming, the fires released nearly 500 million tons of carbon dioxide, an amount greater than the industrial emissions of all but a handful of nations in 1991.) Should Hussein succeed with similar tactics in Iraq, the devastation will be dramatically worse, as Iraq contains twice the oil fields of Kuwait, and hundreds more wells. This time, however, such acts could lead to eventual prosecution. Such deliberate acts of environmental destruction during armed conflict are now recognized as war crimes under international law, according to Professor Michael Scharf, a colleague of mine at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
Less well known than the oil spills and fires, but no less environmentally severe, is Hussein’s ecological campaign against the “Marsh Arabs.” In the wake of the first Gulf War, numerous groups rebelled against the Hussein regime. Among those seeking to throw off Baathist tyranny were the Marsh Arabs, a society of nearly 200,000 Shiites living in the lush marshlands along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The region, part of what was once known as Mesopotamia, was also home to substantial wildlife populations and represented an important stopping off point for migratory birds. No longer.
After the failed Shiite rebellion, Hussein’s regime executed a long-standing plan to decimate the Marsh Arabs by destroying their environment. Iraq built a network of dams and drainage canals for the sole purpose of diverting water from southern Iraq so as to drain the marshes and destroy the wetland ecosystem on which they depend. Before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, there was an estimated 12,000 square miles of marshland, one of the largest wetland ecosystems in western Asia. Today the marshes are virtually gone, a parched, cracked landscape in its place. The most optimistic assessments estimate that only 15 percent of the original marshland remains, and this may not last. Even once Hussein is overthrown, the marshes may never recover. Some of the species that depended upon the marshes may be lost forever.
“The scale of the destruction” and its consequent ecological impacts, “can fairly be described as a leading example of ‘ecocide’ — the destruction of an entire ecosystem.” according to Villanova University Law Professor Joseph W. Dellapenna. Most prior instances of ecocide were arguably the result of good intentions gone awry. The environmental despoliation of the Soviet Republics under Communist rule was the result, in part, of efforts to spur economic development. In the case of Iraq, however, environmental destruction was a means to destroy a people, if not an end in itself.
War is never an environmentally sensitive enterprise. During armed conflict environmental concerns are secondary to the achievement of military objectives, and rightly so. Yet there is a substantial difference between the incidental environmental impacts of armed conflict and the deliberate environmental despoliation ordered by butcher of Baghdad. Hussein’s indifference for environmental concerns is only exceeded by his utter disregard for human death and suffering. If environmental activists are looking for ecological enemy #1, they need look no further than Saddam Hussein.
— Contributing Editor Jonathan H. Adler is an assistant professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.