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The Gulf's eco-war expands.

(DAMMAM, SAUDIA ARABIA) Flags snap bravely in the desert wind, identifying the headquarters trailers of coalition forces. As a 4x4 from the Royal Saudi Defense Agency brakes to a halt before the Dutch encampment, on-site commanders converge for quick consultation. Other men hurry across the road, their stained jumpsuits obscured by dust from a passing column of heavy vehicles. The roar of reving engines adds urgency to the fight taking place only a few meters away.

Welcome to the front lines of the Gulf's rapidly expanding Eco War. Beneath sun-faded corporate banners on the banks of the Arabian Sea, a desperate rear guard action is being waged by Dutch, American, Saudi, Hindi and Sudanese workers. Their foe is the fabled jin of Aladdin's oil lamp -- a grim, grasping genie which once released cannot be stuffed back into its bottle.

The strategy is simple. Just as Saddam's army was caught and cut to pieces on the road from Kuwait, Saddam's oil has been trapped behind booms here and is being devoured piecemeal by dredges. For two months, Abu Ali -- a crescent of sand jutting 30 kilometres into the Gulf -- has acted as a natural barricade preventing two large oil slicks from reaching the island nations of Bahrain and Qatar to the south.

But the oil is as relentless -- and imposing -- as pack ice. On March 18, a helicopter flying patrol for the Royal Saudi Meteorological and Environmental Protection Agency sighted fresh sheen off the Jubail power plant and desalination water intakes south of Abu Ali. Three days later, the first submerged clots of emulsified tar balls appeared off Bahrain. The barrier had been breached. Thousands of barrels of oil pouring daily into the sea from battle-damed supertankers and the Sea Island loading terminal in Kuwait were forming slicks in the central Gulf unconstrained by land.

Twelve times bigger than

the Exxon Valdez spill

Still the main action remains here, where the overpowering reek of "sweet" Kuwaiti crude brings on an intense and immediate headache. Pumps throb and

clatter, sending streams of thick brown 'mousse' from several hoses into brimming holding ponds by the water's edge. A line of tanker trucks streaked like the workers' coveralls with their toxic cargo waits to transfer oil from these temporary catchments to desert disposal sites.

The intakes of these few hoses lead to floating pumps, where they sip like soda straws at a sea of oil.

Ad-Dafi Bay, Al-Musallamiyyah Bay, Batinah Islands, Manifa Port, Tanaqib Port, Saffaniyah -- the litany of heavily oiled sites includes half the Saudi coastline. Even though weathering had reduced the initial volume of oil by 40 per cent, MEPA estimates the current Gulf slicks to be at least 12 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill.

Imagine more than 400 kilometers of the St. Lawrence -- or BC's Gulf Islands -- awash in clinging black crude and you will begin to have a fresh appreciation of Saudi Arabia's agony -- and the word 'catastrophe.' Despair and horror surge within me as I look our over miles of marshes and winding estuary so choked with heavy oil it is barely comprehensible that water was once the natural element here.

How can this be? Think of the energy involved. Ten per cent of this planet's known oil reserves lie beneath Kuwait's empty sands. Open those taps, touch a match to even a fraction of that total and the forces unleashed reduce the unprecedented tonnages of the munitions exploded here so recently to a sandlot scuffle.

Dr. Abdullah Touqan, top scientific adviser to the King of Jordan; Joe Farman, discoverer of the ozone hole, Dr. Carl Sagan and other top scientists warned the UN and allied governments last fall of the environmental consequences of Desert Storm. That war has ended. But the storm continues.

Wildlife effect

The roll of innocent victims grows. Close inshore, a fish tries to jump. Once, twice it struggles to the surface. But it cannot break through the thick skein of oil. After the third attempt, the fish slowly sinks from view.

On the opposite bank, war's crude brush has blackened a vast expanse of precious marshland to the high water mark. According to a MEPA wildlife expert of many years experience, more than half of Saudi Arabia's wetlands have been destroyed.

Already, reports the Union For The Conservation of Nature, as many as 20,000 birds have died. In less than a month the main migrating begins. Endangered Hawksbill turtles will come ashore to lay their eggs off Karan and Kurayn Islands. Hundreds of thousands of Cormorants, grebes and other waterbirds will wing in from northern Persia to familiar breeding grounds such as this Abu Ali marsh. Unknown to wild creatures incapable of such folly, these once safe havens have become tarry traps.

With the environmental


As one of the first environmental activists to reach the Gulf, I have endured Scud missile attacks and the frustrations of long distance communications to bring ecological expertise into a region where devastation is daily widening. Through the Gulf Environmental Emergency Response Team -- a planetary networking group co-founded by Vancouver artists Carl Chaplin and myself after meeting with Dr. Touqan in Amman -- we are helping to bring in wildlife rescue specialists from Earth Trust, and environmental experts from Japan. We are also working with the Sea Shepherd Society and the UN Environmental Program to secure a research ship for sample collecting voyage into the northern Gulf.

In terms of appropriate technology, I am also working with Saudi company to bring in a test sample of naturally occurring, non-engineered 'bugs' to feast on this hydrocarbon banquet under MEPA direction. It is obvious that bioremediation is the best chance for even partial cleanup of so many fouled beaches.

But floating oil comprises only half of the genie's black-toothed grin.

Squeezing out the


The body knows. You can juggle numbers on a computer screen; kid yourself that 600 blazing oil wells are just so many bonfires. But fear of darkness and conflagration are primal instincts which do not permit denial. As the big Kawasaki chopper clatters north, low over the Arabian Sea, I look down from the open side door into shallow waters so translucent I can make out the ripple of dunes across the seabed. Without warning, a vagary of wind sends a shadow stealing over the curving rim of the sea.

The sky turns black. Turning toward the cockpit for reassurance, my blood turns cold as an unearthly darkness floods over the pilots.

The temperature plummets. Back in the passenger cabin, MEPA's 'Eye In The Sky,' Assiz, sips up his parka, cursing. The sight of an Arab shivering in what is normally one of the hottest months of the years holds me momentarily transfixed.

This is all wrong. When I turn back to the open hatch, my skin crawls in atavistic aversion. A midnight sky is pressing down on a sea rapidly darkening at midmorning. Far out on the horizon, the Gulf sunlight has been squeezed into a blinding band of pure white radiance that can oly presage the world's end.

"Go back! Turn back!" my body screams. Seabirds wheel in fright as we thunder over Saffaniya's oil-blackened beaches. The machine banks inland, revealing three twoering columns of smoke rising above the Kuwait City more than a hundred miles distant.

Only days before, Kuwait's oil minister, Rashid Al Ameeri told the Arab News that it will take eight Canadian and American fire-fighting teams 75 weeks to cap the 300 "easiest" bruning wells. The remaining 300 or so pyrotechnic displays -- each burning hot enough to melt steel girders -- will, Ameeri said, take "much longer" to control.

Poisoned fish,

poisoned air,

violent rain

Dr. Touqan's computer models predict a climate-changing "petroleum winter" if 300 oil wells were to burn for 60 days.

Kuwait city officials have asked Germany to rush 300,000 surgical masks to residents whose youngest and oldest family members are already suffering acute respiratory effects from the poisoned air. The Gulf Daily News warns that permanent lung damage, heart disease, even cancer can result from prolonged exposure to petrochemical benzenes and the sulphur dioxides released by burning high sulphur Kuwait crude at levels possibly five times higher than Saudi Arabia's maximum permissible limits.

As the growing intensity of the oil fires increases the 'draw' of the bore holes, an estimated six million barrels of oil -- four times Kuwait's daily production before the Gulf war -- are being transformed into carbon, heavy metals and additional toxic compounds every day. Deadly clouds of hydrogen-sulphide gas are also rising from spreading lakes of oil gushing from damaged, unlit wells.

Lakes of water are forming across the Middle East as well. Countless Iranians have drowned, leaving the survivors to wade through that country's worst flooding in nearly a century. In Damman and Dharan, Saudi Arabia, several days of violent rains stunned desert dwellers who watched pools rapidly expand across sands too sunbaked to absorb the downpour. Some bedouin dwellings became lakeside cottages overnight.

Kuwait and southern Iraq have also experienced unusually heavy rains as the burning oil wells draw cool, moist air in off the Gulf to form water droplets around the dust particles which saturate the air.

That smoke also blocks sunlight far more efficiently than volcanic eruptions which have altered world climate in the recent and historical past. New Scientist explains how one gram of carbon soot can completely shade an area up to 10 square meters. Hundreds of thousands of tons of soot are rising into Kuwait's skies every month.

Iran is already complaining of poisoned fish, and an oily "black rain" falling on crops and western towns. The London-based World Conservation Monitoring Centre reports that a 50,000 square-kilometer smoke cloud now extends from Kuwait to Karachi, and out over the Indian Ocean.

In Kuwait City, where breathing the air is the equivalent of smoking a dozen packs of unfiltered cigarettes per day, temperatures on some days have plunged by half to 15 degrees C. Dr. Touqan predicted a 20 degree temperature drop as a smoke cloud the size of North America circled the globe on the tropical jetstream. The Royal Scientific Society adviser told Carl Chaplin and me that hundreds of thousands of deaths could follow the failure of India's monsoons.

Huge clouds of smog

David Payne, an environmental consultant to that government, recently warned his employers to expect widespread crop failure if temperatures fall just a few degrees below norms.

But this growing smoke cloud has not yet risen above 15,000 feet. Dr. Makram Gerges, UNEP's Senior Program Director, told me in Bahrain that "catastrophic scenarios" foretelling a mini-Nuclear Winter are "not acceptable." Declaring that the huge cloud of smog "will never reach the stratosphere," Dr. Gerges noted that while it will eventually reach India and Bangladesh, the effects of the cloud will diminish over distance.

Others are less sure. At an emergency conference held earlier this month in Bahrain by the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment, leading Arab scientists for the Gulf states met to work out mutual assistance plans in the face of the twin oil threats. In a statement issued after a two day meeting interrupted by incoming missile alerts, these experts stated that the spreading smog from Kuwait's oil fires will most likely impact the entire northern hemisphere.

The Gulf Eco War is already claiming human casualties. An hour's flying to the north, a Saudi C-130 transport circling low in dense smoke dug a wingtip into the sand and cartwheeled, killing 96 military personnel onboard.

Many more will die before nature's conflict ends. What is needed now is a new Middle East coalition to combat immense ecological fallout with the same determination, force and financing exhibited during the recent shooting war. But Qatar and Bahrain lack the necessary fiscal resources, the southern emirates no longer feel threatened, and Saudi Arabia -- reeling under a $40 billion invoice for the Gulf war -- has for the first time been forces to seek loans abroad.

The geopolitical landscape has shifted as drastically as the ecological balance in the post-war Middle East. Idle fishing fleets, scarcity of potable fresh water and smoke filters for those lucky enough to get them may yet become daily aspects of the new world disorder here.

Will the heat of the approaching of the approaching desert summer lift the Middle East smoke cloud into the stratosphere? Is the "yellow snow" now falling on Finland related to the high sulphur content of burning Kuwaiti crude? Will columns of superheated air rising at the head of the Gulf attract cool Indian Ocean winds, deflecting the summer monsoon away from the billions of wild and human lives dependent on its rains?

The coming months will decide the difference between regional disaster and hemispheric calamity. But events have escalated far beyond computer projections and media denial of the "managed" Eco War.

The scream of jet turbine seems to echo a greater anguish. Cold wind plucks at my hair. Staring out into a lowring carbon sky, I feel the blackness of some terrible abyss welling up in my soul.

Mother Galla, this is not good!

The MEPA helicopter hurtles north.

Freelance journalist Randy Thomas, of Saltspring Island, BC, is a founding member of the Save the Georgia Strait Alliance.
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Title Annotation:oil spill in Persian Gulf
Author:Thomas, Randy
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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