ICE Case Studies

Case Number: 9

Case Mnemonic: Kuwait

Case Name: Environmental and Economic Repercussions of the Persian Gulf War on Kuwait

Draft Author: Melissa Krupa, May, 1997



1. Abstract

The environment always seems to be the victim of war, and the scenario was no different in the case of the Persian Gulf Crisis from 1990 to early 1991. The ecological and economic impact of the Gulf War began on August 2, 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the full impact probably will not be realized in the near future. What can be determined, is that Kuwait suffered severe losses not only to its oil industry, but also to its ecological system. The scale of damage was enormous, ranging from destruction cased by oil fires and oil spills, to economic decline for the Kuwaiti oil industry. This paper assesses the environmental and economic consequences of the Gulf War on Kuwait.

2. Description

Historical Preview

It can be argued that Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was linked to the historical claim by Iraq long before the era of economic boom and oil exploration in the area. Yet, oil politics provided the impetus behind Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Iraq had incurred a huge debt burden from ambitious military spending and the losses obtained during the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s. Although most OPEC countries were not eager to abide by a an oil quota system, Iraq desired very strict regulation on the quota system in order to stabilize oil prices and to reduce uncertainties in the revenue on which Iraq was very dependent. (Husain 1995). Iraq wished to maintain high unit oil prices to generate more revenue, and pay off their former debts. However, oil prices dropped because other Arab states, namely Kuwait and United Arab Emirates (UAE), were overproducing oil. Kuwait consistently produced above its assigned quota, which led the Iraqis to believe that Kuwait's primary intention was to undermine Iraq in the region (Husain, 1995).

The Iraqi regime demanded immediate increases in oil prices so that Iraq could pay off its debt to Kuwait and the other Arab states from which it borrowed money to finance the Iraq-Iran War. Still, the situation worsened, and in July of 1990, the Iraqi regime voiced their belief that excess oil production by Kuwait was intentional (Husain 1995). Tensions heightened in the Arab region, and although Saudi Arabia attempted to act as a mediator between the two states, this effort failed. Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2 of that year, and the devastation to the environment began immediately thereafter.

Environmental Impact

The environmental impacts of the Gulf War Crisis were felt immediately at the onset of the Iraqi invasion. Humans began suffering on day one of the invasion and the atrocities towards humans continued with the duration of the war. Thousands were either killed, wounded, raped, or taken prisoner before the war terminated (Sadiq and McCain 1993).

The other casualty of this war was the planet. The land was abused greatly from transportation of heavy artillery and movement of troops across the desert. Additionally, the build- up of solid wastes polluted the ground and a case may be made for future groundwater contamination. Outside of the desert soil, plant life was also destroyed in great numbers. Desert vegetation was uprooted, trampled, and destroyed over the course the war (1993).

Indeed, the atmosphere was damaged to some extent from the fire and smoke produced from explosives, oil fires, and from both known and unknown chemicals. At the same time that Iraqi troops were building-up their force, Saddam was threatening that "if he had to be evicted from Kuwait by force, then Kuwait would be burned" (Sadiq and McCain, p. 2 1993). As promised, upon evacuation, Iraqi troops set fire to over six-hundred oil wells in several Kuwait oil fields. The effect that the oil fires had on the Gulf environment were enormous. Even before the wells began burning, researchers warned that rising smoke may cause changes in the planet's weather pattern (Zimmer, 1992).

Shortly after the first oil wells began to burn, Carl Sagan appeared on ABC's Nightline and predicted that " the net effects would be similar to the explosion of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815, which resulted in the year 1816 being known as the year without a summer" (p. 37, 1992). Yet, researchers at the other end of the spectrum projected that the smoke's effects would be "marginal at worst" (p.37, 1992). Today, it was revealed that to some extent, everyone was wrong (1992). Sagan and others arrived at their conclusions based on a nuclear winter fall-out scenario in which smoke would remain entrapped in the upper atmosphere, and cause temperatures to drop radically on earth below. However, from the start of the Gulf War, if was widely believed that the amount of smoke produced from the Kuwait oil fires would be far less than that created by a full-scale nuclear war; subsequently, the comparison was irrelevant (1992).

Even the fear that the smoke would affect the monsoon was discounted. In actuality, the smoke caused local temperatures in Kuwait to cool (Zimmer 1992). A more serious problem was that acid rain forms from burning oil and also people with respiratory problems or other diseases could be dangerously impacted by smoke- clogged air. For instance, public health experts attending a conference at Harvard projected that the air pollution would kill approximately 1,000 Kuwait is over the following year (1992).

The Gulf's ecosystem was not spared in the least during the Gulf War. An estimated 11 million barrels of oil were intentionally released to the Arabian Gulf from January 1991 to May 1991 (Sadiq and McCain 1993). This is more than twenty times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill and twice as large as the previous world record (Zimmer 1992) More than 800 miles of Kuwait and Saudi Arabian beaches were oiled and marine wildlife was devastated. Oiled birds revealed on CNN by the media painted an accurate picture of the occurrences in the Gulf. In fact, birds were the hardest hit of any group of organisms and thousands lost their lives (Sadiq and McCain 1993). Along with the migratory birds, marine turtles were also in danger. Both the hawksbill and green turtles utilize the offshore islands of the Gulf as nesting sites. After the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD) investigated the Gulf beaches, they determined that some turtles had died and that most Karan Island green turtles had lesions (1993).

Another viewpoint indicated that at lease 80 ships were sunk during the Gulf War, many of which carried oil and munitions. These ships, along with those submerged during the Iraq-Iran War, will remain a chronic source of contamination of the Arabian Gulf for many years (1993).

Despite all the aforementioned environmental hazards caused by the Gulf War, the acute effects of the war do not appear as severe as scientists had initially predicted. However, many are still skeptical about the chronic effects of the crisis. Even though humans started the war, and were a integral part of the environment effected by the conflict's wrath, they can only do so much to improve the situation as is stands. In some cases, such as with the oil spills, the natural cleaning process may be the primary method utilized for repair. This includes waves and abrasion as factors helping the process along. Moreover, it has been concluded that the Gulf will recover from the oil spills, but it will be different after the recovery. Moreover, it may take decades for specific ecosystems to recover (Sadiq and McCain 1993). Essentially, the impact of the Gulf War on these various segments of the environment will be realized for a long time.

Economic Impact

It may be inferred that economic frustration was at the root of the Gulf Conflict in the first place. Saddam Hussein felt smothered, and unable to find funding for his economy to repay the other Arab states for Iraq's previous war with Iran. Some Arab rich states were unwilling to provide help to Iraq again, and many were complaining about Iraq's inability to repay its debts. The only way for Iraq to obtain revenue was through oil exports, but other OPEC nations would not allow increases in quotas. Moreover, Kuwait, who did not need the extra revenue, was overproducing which drove prices down, and drove Saddam's frustration up (Wilson in Davis 1995).

Enough time has elapsed to study the economic impact of the Gulf War on the region. Most of the economic costs were incurred by Iraq. Losses in military equipment alone totaled over $50 billion (1995). The time and effort needed to repair the damage and build replacement facilities will take years to accomplish. This will also be difficult for Iraq because of the pending arms embargo on the state.

Surprisingly, the economic position may be easier for Kuwait, although the impact is still hard-felt. The most expansive damage was that inflicted upon the oil installations. Also, Saudi Arabia incurred costs form the conflict on its border town of Khafji. Overall, the most costly damage was the environmental disaster caused by the oil slicks, which cost more the $700 million to clean-up (Wilson in Davis 1995).

Immediately following the invasion of Kuwait, oil prices rose from under $20 per barrel to over $30 per barrel in the spot market. Oil dealers reflected on Saddam's intentions to be master of the Gulf and became concerned if the war would be burdensome on suppliers. After the United States and the United Nations entered the picture; however, oil dealers were reassured not to be concerned with a threat by a leader who challenged Western interests (1995).

From 1991-1992, Kuwait's oil industry severely deteriorated and suffered a massive drops in production due the destruction of their oil wells. Yet, from 1993-1995, Kuwait's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased as a result of its growing oil industry. Namely, oil exports were on the rise once again. Still, the economic costs incurred by Kuwait will have to be managed for a long time. Moreover, there remains an on-going economic imbalance in the Gulf region which is characterized by the very envy and greed that contributed to the onset of the Gulf War (1995).


The environmental and economic hardships imposed on Kuwait, and to the Gulf Region in general, both during and after the Gulf War will be endured for many years to come. The destruction caused by the oil fires and the oil spills were devastating, and at times were fatal. Not only did humans suffer the consequences of the conflict, but the ecosystem and the atmosphere were also innocent victims. Additionally, the economic impact that the Gulf War had on the region was also experienced by numerous parties involved. Even today, some Arab nations, such as Iraq, are still repaying debt, while others such as Kuwait, are rebuilding both the economy and the ecosystem in the aftermath of the conflict.

3. Duration: 1990-91

Although the greatest damage was inflicted upon Kuwait, other Gulf Countries were affected in the conflict's aftermath, such as U.A.E., who shares the coast with Kuwait.

4. Location

Continent: Mideast

Region: Mideast Asia

Country: Kuwait

5. Actors: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, United Nations, US

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Pollution Sea

The environmental damage caused by the Gulf War was great. As mentioned, birds were among the hardest hit land species, many died from the oil spills caused by the oil fires Also, numerous types of fish and flora were at risk because of the oil-polluted waters. Various types of turtles, fish migratory birds, and dugongs were among those that suffered.

Indeed, the Kuwait oil fires generated air pollution and even greater, they polluted the land and the sea. Harmful gases were released into the atmosphere, and as a result, climate temperatures were noticeably effected at times.

7. Type of Habitat: Ocean

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Act Site       Harm Site           Example

Iraq           Persian Gulf        Oil Spill into Gulf

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: Interstate

10. Level of Conflict: High

11. Fatality Level of Dispute: 100,000

III. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Direct

The Gulf States are rich with oil, and although Kuwait is geographically one of the smallest Gulf Sates, it is one of the riches in oil. Saddam Hussein threatened Kuwait on a number of occasions to halt their over production of oil which was subsequently driving oil revenue down.

Kuwait shunned Hussein's threats, which ultimately spurred the invasion by Iraq on Kuwait in 1990. Thus, it was oil that spurred the conflict.

==> resource demand, oil ==> CONFLICT

==> historical claims ==> CONFLICT

==> power imbalance ==> CONFLICT

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Regional

14. Outcome of Dispute: Victory

IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and TED Cases

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Exxon Valdez Spill

Green Turtles

Hawksbil Turtles



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Marsh Case

Ataturk Case

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16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Relevant Literature

Crystal, Jill. Kuwait, The Transformation of an Oil State. (Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: Westview Press, 1992). pp. 194.

Husain, Tahir. Kuwait Oil Fires: Regional Environmental Perspectives. (Dhahran, Saudi Arabia: Elsevier Science Ltd., 1995). pp 292.

Kemp, Penny. " For Generations to Come" in Phyllis Bennis and Michael Moushabec, Beyond the Storm,(Brooklyn, new York: Olive Branch Press, 1991). pp 327.

Sadiq, Muhammad and John C. McCain. The Gulf War Aftermath, an Environmental Tragedy.(Boston, Massachusetts: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1993). pp 298.>/h4>

Wilson, Rodney. "The regional economic impact of the Gulf War," in M. Jane Davis, Politics and International Relations in the Middle East.(Brookfield, Vermont: Edward Elgar Publishing Company, 1995). pp 90-105.

Zimmer, Carl. "Ecowar," Discover, January 1992, pp 37-39.

Relevant Web Sites

Search Kuwait, Iraq Gulf War, Oil Fires, Environment and the Gulf Region

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November, 1997