CAMBRIDGE, UK, February 24, 2003 (ENS) - Threats
posed to the environment by war in Iraq have been identified
by BirdLife International, a global alliance of national
conservation nongovernmental organizations working in more
than 100 countries. In a package of information, maps and
photos sent to the United Nations Environment Programme,
the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -
China, France, Russia, the UK and USA - and the Government
of Iraq, the organization outlined threats to local people
and key natural sites.
Iraq contains 42 Important Bird Areas, and the Mesopotamian
Marshes Endemic Bird Area, which is inhabited by those birds
native to Iraq and found nowhere else.
Oil well fire, Gulf War 1991 (Photo courtesy U.S.
Unsuspecting birds migrating across Iraq on their ages old
flight paths will encounter oil spills, fires, toxics and
"Waders and waterbirds will be particularly at risk from
oil spills because Iraq is at the northern end of the Arabian
Gulf which is one of the top five sites in the world for
wintering wader birds and a key refuelling area for hundreds
of thousands of migratory waterbirds during the spring and
autumn period," said Mike Evans, a BirdLife researcher who
visited the Arabian Gulf in 1991.
In 1991 BirdLife International and the Royal Society for
the Protection of Birds sent three teams of scientists to
the Gulf region to collaborate with the National Commission
for Wildlife Conservation and Development, known as BirdLife
in Saudi Arabia, to assess the environmental impacts of
the Gulf War and resulting oil pollution. The results were
published in the "Journal of the Ornithological Society
of the Middle East."
The BirdLife package delivered Wednesday and other reports
show that the 1990-1991 Gulf War resulted in the largest
marine oil spills in history with six to eight million barrels
of crude oil spilled, severely polluting 560 kilometers
(347 miles) of coast, obliterating intertidal ecosystems
and resulting in large oil slicks that damaged the northern
Arabian Gulf. Extensive mechanical damage by the armies
harmed the fragile desert crust and its ecosystem, BirdLife
Based on the environmental damage caused by the 1990-1991
Gulf War and data on the environmental effects of recent
conflicts in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, BirdLife identified
seven risks to the environment and biodiversity - and as
a consequence also to local people - posed by war:
"Until recently the impact of war on nature has often been
ignored or obscured by the conflict itself," said Dr. Michael
Rands, director and chief executive of BirdLife International
from the organization's Cambridge headquarters. "As the 1990-1991
Gulf War showed, such conflicts have devastating effects on
the environment, biodiversity and the quality of life of local
people long after the cessation of hostilities."
- Physical destruction and disturbance of natural habitats
of international importance and wildlife resulting from
- Toxic pollution of natural habitats and wildlife resulting
from oil spills or oil-well fires caused by fighting or
- Radiological, chemical or bio-toxic contamination of
natural habitats and wildlife resulting from the use of
weapons of mass destruction and conventional bombing of
military or industrial facilities
- Physical destruction of natural habitats and wildlife
resulting from increased human pressure caused by mass
movements of refugees - water pollution, use of wood as
fuel, hunting of wildlife.
- Burning of wetland and forest vegetation as a result
of fighting or deliberate damage
- Desertification made worse by military vehicles and
- Extinction of endemic species or subspecies
Mesopotamian marshlands (Photo courtesy Iraq Foundation)
BirdLife says 16 globally threatened or near threatened bird
species occur in the country, plus three unique endemic wetland
bird species - Iraq Babbler, Basra Reed Warbler, Grey Hypocolius.
"It was the heart rending image of an oiled bird that became
a symbol of the environmental impact of the first Gulf War.
BirdLife International hopes that images of oiled birds
do not once again fill our television screens in 2003,"
said Dr. Rands.
Before their near total destruction between 1991 and 2002,
the 15,000 square kilometer Mesopotamian marshlands formed
one of the most extensive wetland ecosystems in western
This complex of interconnected freshwater lakes, marshes
and inundated floodplains follows the Tigris and Euphrates
rivers, extending from Baghdad in the north to Basra in
the south. Today only 50 square kilometers remain, but these
remnants have the potential to help restore the marshlands,
the organization says.
The United Nations Environment Programme report on the
Mesopotamian Marshlands issued last year shows that destruction
of the marshes in the 1990s had a devastating effect on
wildlife and people, with an impact on global biodiversity
from Siberia to southern Africa.
"Mammals and fish that existed only in the marshlands are
now considered extinct. Coastal fisheries in the northern
Gulf, dependent on the marshlands for spawning grounds,
have also experienced a sharp decline," the UNEP report
states. A sub-species of otter and the bandicoot rat are
believed to have become extinct.
The impact of this destruction has deprived the indigenous
Ma'dan people who have lived in these marshes for 5,000
years, pursuing a sustainable way of life based on the abundant
fish and wildlife living in the wetlands, of their traditional
These marshlands were spawning grounds for a multi-million
dollar shrimp fishery in the Arabian Gulf and also provided
60 percent of fish eaten in Iraq. Most of Iraq's rice, sugarcane
and water buffalo used to be reared in the marshlands.
The the Mesopotamian Marshlands were also heavily degraded
by the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Much of the fighting in
that war took place in and around these wetlands resulting
in extensive burning, heavy bombing and the widespread use
of napalm and chemical weapons.
"A new war in Iraq could lead to their final destruction,"
said BirdLife in its submission to UNEP, Iraq, and the Security