x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Kuwait moves to clean up Saddam's scorched earth legacy

Nearly two decades since the retreating Iraqi army set fire to 800 oil wells, its fallout continues to fester into an ecological disaster. Under pressure from the UN, clean-up plans are in the works.

A sample is collected from an oil lake at Burgan Oil Field, 45km south of Kuwait City. The retreating Iraqi army set nearly 800 oil wells on fire in Kuwait, which are slowly corroding the environment.
A sample is collected from an oil lake at Burgan Oil Field, 45km south of Kuwait City. The retreating Iraqi army set nearly 800 oil wells on fire in Kuwait, which are slowly corroding the environment.

AHMADI // It has been nearly 20 years since Saddam Hussein's occupation army wilted under the coalition forces' onslaught and scrambled back up the road to Iraq, leaving 798 exploded oil wells by which Kuwait would remember its seven-month occupation.

The resulting infernos were under control within a year, but the legacy of Iraq's scorched-earth policy - destroying anything that advancing enemies can use - continues to fester. Crude oil that leaked from the wells mixed with formation waters and more than six billion gallons of seawater used to extinguish the fires, forming sludge-filled "oil lakes" that scar more than 100 square kilometres of local desert.

Since that time, thousands of oil lakes, largely located on restricted land owned by Kuwait Oil Co (KOC) have sat like an open sore, ravaging the desert's fragile ecosystem. The catastrophe has killed fauna and flora and the contaminants have seeped into the ground, polluting the freshwater aquifers in the north of the country. This week, under pressure from the United Nations and companies that are baying for clean-up contracts, Kuwait National Focal Point (KNFP), which is in charge of planning the remediation of the soil, convened a forum to try to kick-start the rehabilitation.

Redha al Hasan, KNFP's programme manager, said the three-day forum that began in KOC's Hubara Centre in Ahmadi on Monday was to "discuss the feasibility of the UNCC-recommended approach, to present alternative restoration approaches to independent reviewers and to seek input from experts". The United Nations Compensation Commission was created in 1991 to distribute money from Iraqi oil sales as compensation for losses suffered during the invasion.

"The goal of the Kuwait Environmental Remediation Programme is to get clean-up remedies in place - in a cost-effective manner as early as possible," Mr al Hasan said. The technical issues related to cleaning up the disaster are formidable. Lighter fractions of oil evaporated in soil temperatures that can reach up to 86°C in the summer, leaving a viscous sludge or a hardened, tar-like substance. In some areas, the contaminated soil was heaped into piles by earthmovers to control its spread.

More damage exists in the south of the country, where Iraqis dug trenches and filled them with oil to try to slow an attack. Any attempt to repair the damage caused to more than 40 million cubic metres of soil will be complicated by unexploded ordinance that was left by the retreating army. Some of the participants at the forum were unhappy with the KNFP's progress. An academic at Kuwait University's chemical engineering department, who asked to remain anonymous because he said the issue is sensitive, said: "Maybe they are waiting for someone to come from heaven to solve this."

The academic said the KNFP has talked about the issue a lot, and now pressure from the UN is pushing them to act. Companies are also keen to bid for contracts. Mustafa Maarouf, the manager of industrial waste management at National Cleaning Co, showcased his company at the forum. The Kuwaiti-based cleaning and waste management company was the first contracted to clean two oil lakes in Shuaiba Industrial Area in 2007, a job that it finished last year, Mr Maarouf said.

"Money-wise, we lost, but got a lot of experience using the equipment and technology, and now our name is established," he said. He said he had heard that tenders for the major clean-up projects would be offered "a couple of years ago" but they still have not. "Why it's delayed, we don't know. It's their strategy, not ours," he said. "The companies are jumping up and down trying to find more details," Mr al Hasan of KNFP said. He said Kuwait has been awarded US$3 billion (Dh11bn) to restore and rehabilitate the damaged earth, and the tenders will be offered next year.

According to Mr al Hasan, the process was prolonged by the fact that Kuwait was the first country to make a claim for environmental damage as a result of an invasion to the UN. He said Kuwait had to scientifically prove that the damage had been caused by Iraq and monitor the situation for five years "to reach the point where the UN agreed to some of the claims". He said since that time, the KNFP has been preparing the remediation process according to UN guidelines.

Even if the programme is moving slowly, Kurt Pennell, a UN independent reviewer and chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts University in the United States, believes that might not be a bad thing. "It's not as if the contamination is in the city or an area where people have exposure, so from that perspective, it's not quite as imperative that the action is really quick, Mr Pennell said. "There's some groundwater contamination, but the flow rates are very slow there so it's not like there are huge exposures - huge changes - with what's happening.

"In some cases, it might be better to go slow and wait for the technology to speed up and come down in cost, rather than rush in when you don't really know what you're doing," he said. "Everyone would probably be happier if it was moving forward more quickly, but I don't think it's a horrible thing that it's taking more time." @Email:jcalderwood@thenational.ae