Environmental Damages from Minefields

by Dr. Raafat Misak & Dr. S. Omar [ Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research ]

Desert Storm brought Iraqi Forces to Kuwait and, with them, mines. Aerial diagrams illustrate the areas of Kuwait still littered with landmines. Landmines are causing significant short- and long-term damage to the environment, resulting in soil erosion, destruction of vegetation and topsoil, and negatively impacting wildlife.

Immediately after the deployment of the Iraqi Forces on Kuwait on 2 August 1990, they started taking their defensive garrisons, preparing ground fortifications and laying mine belts. The Iraqi Forces, while occupying Kuwait, depended on mines to set up an integrated system of barriers and obstacles due to the fact that the desert—particularly southern regions—is almost void of natural rugged barriers such as ridges, cliffs or wadis. Their aim was to protect themselves from the expected attack of the Allied Forces from the south.

The Iraqi troops established a well-fortified strategic defense line extending along the whole country for 10 to 15 kilometers1 to the northern border with Saudi Arabia. This strategic defense line started from the Arabian Gulf coast in the east to Wadi Al Batin in the west, a distance of about 175 kilometers. The width of this line ranged between one-and-a-half and two kilometers and was composed of anti-personnel and anti-tank minefields, open trenches and fire emplacements that controlled the minefields.

Aerial photographs and satellite images of Kuwait taken in 1991 and 1992, and the map of dangerous areas prepared by the Ministry of Defense and Kuwait municipalities in 1991, show two major mine belts left behind by Iraqis in the southern parts of Kuwait. The first mine belt was advanced in the front, extending along the border with Saudi Arabia for a distance that ranged between three and 15 kilometers north of the Saudi border. The second was behind the first, extending to the north of the front belt in the depth of Kuwaiti territory for a distance ranging between 15 and 21 kilometers.

Right after the liberation of Kuwait in February 1991, the Ministry of Defense signed contracts for mine clearance with several companies and governments. For mine-clearing purposes the country was subdivided into eight sectors (see Figure 1).

Image 1
Aerial distribution of landmines (dot-density). Photo courtesy of Dr. Misak

Eight working teams were charged to undertake field tasks to clear these sectors from mines and explosives. A total of 1,646,926 landmines had been cleared from Kuwait by September 2000, including 1,078,966 anti-personnel mines and 567,960 anti-tank mines.2 The teams destroyed 95.7 percent of anti-personnel and 91.4 percent of anti-tank mines in the field. The remainder were stored.3

Research and studies on the environmental disaster resulting from the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait did not tackle the immediate and long-term environmental impact of landmines on the terrestrial resources of Kuwait.

Number and Density of Mines

Data and statistics provided by the Ministry of Defense on the strategic mine belts at the southern parts of Kuwait along the border with Saudi Arabia indicate the following:

Considering the lengths of the mine belts, relatively higher numbers indicates a relatively severe degree of surface disruption. The UK, French, and Egyptian sectors can be considered as severely affected (more than 3,000 mines/kilometer). The American sector is less affected (about 900 mines/kilometer).

Environmental Damage Caused by Landmines

To identify the environmental damage to the terrestrial resources caused by landmines, it is necessary to review the different landmine-related events from the laying of mines by Iraqi Forces until the time they were cleared. These events follow.

Dense implantation of mines (August 1990-January 1991). During this event, the Iraqi Forces mined the majority of Kuwaiti lands, especially along the borders with Saudi Arabia. No less than 36 percent of the total mines were planted in August and September 1990, as the soil and vegetation cover were dry. Such conditions accelerated soil erosion and wind dispersal of fine materials leading to depletion of soil fertility.

Destroying and exploding mines to open gaps (February 1991). During this event, the Allied Forces used aircraft and heavy land equipment to destroy mines to open gaps in the mine belts, enabling the attacking troops to penetrate the borders of Kuwait. The minefields were heavily bombed to enable secure corridors for the Allied Forces.4 This activity had a negative impact on the fragile desert ecosystem and, in particular, the fragile desert crust, which is stabilized by mechanical, chemical and biological sources. Disruption of this crust resulted in the depletion of the biological potential of soils. In 1991, the United Nations Environmental Programme found that the most environmentally damaging of all the explosives used on land in the Gulf War were the fuel-air explosive bombs used to clear minefields.5 The bombs pulverized whatever topsoil had formed in the affected areas and destroyed any vegetation that had established itself.6

Active mine-clearance and demining programs (March 1991–July 1993). During this phase, the following activities took place:

As a result of these three events, various environmental damages affected soil, vegetation cover and wildlife. Also, the destruction of the immense number of mines caused soil pollution by residual explosives.

Environmental damages are classified as either "immediate" or "long-term."

Specific examples of "immediate" damage in Kuwait include:

Specific examples of "long-term" damage in Kuwait include:

In 1999 we surveyed the mine-affected surface sediments in the southern parts of Kuwait. These sediments include eolian deposits, lag deposits (desert pavement), clayey deposits in depressions (Khabrat) and sabkhas (coastal and inland). Taking the Khabrat soils as an example, we concluded the following: Implantation of mines in Khabrat resulted in breaking up the muddy soil, which is the most fertile soil type in Kuwait. In addition, soil crusts were developed on the top soils of Khabrat. This crust prevents rainwater from infiltrating into soils, which results in deterioration of the biological potential of soils. Besides these damages, the vegetation cover in the Khabrat was destroyed as a result of mine emplacement and removal in a later stage. Studies conducted for Damage Assessment of the Desert and Coastal Environment of Kuwait by Remote Sensing mapped the strategic minefields using remote sensing and field investigations.9

Extent of Damage

The area contaminated with mines near the borders with Saudi Arabia (strategic minefields) extends from the Arabian Gulf coast in the east to Wadi Al Batin in the west for a distance of about 175 kilometers. The width of the area ranges between 25 kilometers in the eastern parts to about eight kilometers in the western ones. Recent field visits to the affected area indicated that it still suffers environmental degradation as a result of mine emplacement. As mentioned before, environmental degradation is represented by lag rupture, soil disturbance, soil compaction and loss of biodiversity and deterioration of vegetation cover.

In order to control the environmental deterioration and the adverse impact on soil, vegetation, wildlife, micro-relief, and surface hydrology, all measures to rehabilitate the mentioned area should be taken. Treating compacted soils to increase the rates of rainwater infiltration, limiting water erosion rates and, in turn, flourishing vegetation cover should have first priority. Bullet

Biography

Dr. Raafat Misak has 40 years' experience in arid regions studies. He is a published author, with 40 scientific papers and five books to his credit. He has been working in the field of environmental impact of mines since 1992.

Dr. Samira A. S. Omar is a Senior Research Scientist working as the Director of Food Resources and Biological Sciences Division at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. She has research experience in monitoring and assessment of desert ecosystems, inventory of natural resources, desertification control, rehabilitation of degraded lands, wildlife conservation and management, re-vegetation of arid lands, protected areas, aerial livestock census, and sustainable land-use planning.

Endnotes

  1. 1 kilometer is equal to 0.621 miles.
  2. "Kuwait." Landmine Monitor Report. International Campaign to Ban Landmines, http://www.icbl.org/lm/2001/kuwait/.
  3. Misak, R., M. Said, M. Al Ghunaim, D. Al Ajmi, H. Ma Allah, and A. Muhareb, 1999. Landmines and the Destruction of the Environment of Kuwait. Center for Research and Studies on Kuwait.
  4. Linden, O., A. Jernelov, and J. Egerup, 2004. The Environmental Impacts of the Gulf War 1991. Interim Report, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis A-2361-Laxenburg, Austria.
  5. UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme), 1991. A Rapid Assessment of the Impacts of Iraq-Kuwait Conflict on Terrestrial Ecosystems, Part 2.
  6. Cave, S. 1991. Our Planet: 3(2) UNEP, Nairobi, Kenya.
  7. Al Dousari, A., R. Misak and S. Shahid, 2000. "Soil Compaction and Sealing in Al Salmi Area." Journal of Land Degradation and Development 11:401-418.
  8. Al Sudairawi, M., R. Misak and Al Nifaisi, 1996. Environmental Impact Assessment of the Iraqi Strategic Mine Fields in the Southern Portion of Kuwait. Proceedings of the international Conference on the Effects of the Iraqi Aggression on the State of Kuwait, 2-6 April 1994, Kuwait.
  9. Al Ajmi, D., R. Misak, F. Khalaf, M. Al Sudairawi and A. Al Dousari, 1994. Damage Assessment of the Desert and Coastal Environment of Kuwait by Remote Sensing. Final Report, Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, KISR4405, Kuwait.

Contact Information

Dr. Raafat Misak
Professor
Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research
Kuwait PO Box 24885
Safat 13109 / Kuwait
Tel: +965 483-6100
Fax: +965 481-5202
E-mail: rmisak@kisr.edu.kw or rmisak@safat.kisr.edu.kw

S. Omar
Director of Food Resources and Biological Sciences Division
Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research