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Though based in Washington, the World Resources Institute looks at issues far beyond U.S. borders. Its director, Jonathan Lash, has been out front among environmental leaders in raising concerns about the fallout of a new Gulf War. Below are questions and answers put to Lash by MSNBC.com.

What concerns, if any, do you have on marine life, groundwater resources, etc.?

Speculating on potential loss of life and damage to ecosystems as a result of war is an inexact science at best. What we do have, however, are some salient facts from the 1991 Gulf War.

Just over a decade ago, facing imminent defeat at the hands of Western forces, Saddam Hussein gave the order to unleash an ecological disaster of terrible proportions. As Iraqi forces retreated, they set fire to more than 600 oil wells across Kuwait and intentionally spilled another 4 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf.

Indeed, what many recall as a short-lived conflict resulting in the liberation of Kuwait was in fact an environmental disaster — one from which the region and its people have yet to recover. Iraqi forces themselves created much of the immediate ecological hardship facing the gulf region after the war.

Oil spilled into the Persian Gulf, tarred beaches and killed more than 25,000 birds — not counting those of the 2 to 3 million birds that regularly use the gulf as a resting area during the spring migration to Europe and may have died elsewhere. Scientists predict the toxic residue could continue to affect fisheries in the gulf for over 100 years. More than 80 percent of the livestock animals in Kuwait — primarily cattle, sheep and goats — died between the Iraqi occupation in August 1990 and the cease-fire in March 1991. Livestock, horses and camels continue to perish as they wander into unmarked fields of land mines left behind by retreating Iraqi forces.

As much as 6 million barrels of oil a day — almost 10 percent of the world’s daily ration of oil that year — shot into the air from the burning wells. It took more than 250 days to extinguish the fires. Oil spilled on land formed huge pools in lowlands, covering fertile croplands. One oil lake in southern Kuwait was a half a mile long and 25 feet deep in places. It contained nine times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez spill.

The deposition of oil, soot, sulfur and acid rain on croplands up to 1,200 miles in all directions from the oil fires turned fields untillable. The fires released nearly half a billion tons of carbon dioxide, the leading cause of global warming, emissions greater than all but the eight largest polluting countries for 1991 that will remain in the atmosphere for more than a century. The oil that did not burn in the fires traveled on the wind in the form of nearly invisible droplets resulting in an oil mist or fog that poisoned trees and grazing sheep, contaminated freshwater supplies and found refuge in the lungs of people and animals throughout the gulf.

To date, Kuwait has submitted more than $17 billion in environmental damage claims to the United Nations Compensation Commission.

Would you expect more damage than during the Gulf War?

It really depends on how the war is waged by both sides.

It has become more and more apparent that victory in a war with Iraq may come at too high a cost to both people and the environment. According to U.S. officials, there is strong evidence to suggest Saddam plans to pursue a “scorched earth” strategy in the event of war with the United States and would destroy his country’s oil fields, electrical power plants, food storage sites and other facilities while blaming U.S. military forces for the damage. As was the case in 1991, if he believes his government is about to fall, it appears he will try to create a humanitarian crisis that could slow any U.S. invasion and foster international opposition to the war. While oil was Saddam’s weapon of choice in 1991, this time around it would most likely be accomplished through the release of biological or chemical weapons as a last desperate act.

Ecosystem damage also depends on whether the United States and its allies are prepared to mitigate that kind of destruction. This means being better equipped to deal with potential human suffering as a result of the release of biological or chemical agents, put out probable oil fires and contain massive spills, as well as being prepared to repair disruptions to the country’s infrastructure, particularly aqueducts, caused by bombs and shells. Plans also need to be drawn accounting for the mass exodus of Iraqi refugees, if this conflict is indeed the type of urban warfare many experts predict.

What’s your worst fear?

U.S. officials have predicted a “scorched earth” war strategy by Saddam Hussein. That would be a tragedy for his people and the region. Regardless of the level of conflict, however, there is still the question of who succeeds Saddam’s regime in the aftermath.

Any plan for a war in the gulf must address how Iraq will be governed in the future. The Baathist regime currently in power has been a disaster in the area of environmental governance. Between 1973 and 2000, over 85 percent, or 8,000 square kilometers, of the Mesopotamian wetlands, Iraq’s primary source of freshwater, was destroyed. The United Nations has called the management of the delta “one of humanity’s worst engineered disasters.”

The United Nations Environmental Program in 2001 released a report on the demise of the Mesopotamian Marshlands. In it, they outlined the systematic destruction of the ecosystem by Saddam’s regime. Marshland dewatering, as a result of massive draining of the wetlands by Iraqi engineers, is labeled the immediate cause of the crisis. More than half a million Marsh Arabs have been displaced because of the loss of freshwater resources. The disappearance of the marshlands has placed an estimated 40 species of waterfowl at risk; mammals and fish that existed only in the marshlands are now considered extinct; and coastal fisheries in the northern Persian Gulf, dependent on the marshlands for nursery and spawning grounds, have experienced sharp declines. UNEP remains hopeful that the remaining wetlands can be saved with bold measures.

Should a U.S.-led coalition attack Iraq and topple Saddam’s regime, the succeeding government must be equipped with the knowledge, technology, equipment and desire to act as protectors of those who live there and good stewards of the environment they are inheriting.

Economic and ecological recovery are intrinsically linked, and preparing for both is the only way to truly better the lives of the Iraqi citizens and prevent the collapse of the ecosystems that support life. Personal well-being and political stability are at risk when ecosystems continue to be stretched beyond their limits. As communities and social structures are disrupted, livelihoods are destroyed, traditional cultures endangered and wildlife exterminated.

War destroys; it does not create. It is not destruction but reconstruction that can give hope for the future. Ultimately, security and stability in Iraq will depend more on the long-term impact of war and its aftermath on people than on the short-term military outcome, and over the decades, the environmental consequences of armed conflict will loom large. For that reason, they must be part of the strategy.

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