Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Kuwait's desert: From burning war zone to blooming nature reserve

From Zain Verjee, CNN
November 12, 2012 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Specialist firefighters approach a burning well in a Kuwaiti oil field as they prepare an attempt to cap it in March 1991. Specialist firefighters approach a burning well in a Kuwaiti oil field as they prepare an attempt to cap it in March 1991.
HIDE CAPTION
Rehabilitating a war zone
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kuwait was ecologically devastated during its annexation by Iraq in 1990-1
  • Environmental scientists have been working to rehabilitate the environment
  • Iraqi troops dug extensive military fortifications in the desert, upsetting the ecosystem
  • On retreat, they destroyed 700 oil wells in a "scorched earth" policy

Kuwait (CNN) -- A former military bunker in the desert is one of the last places you might expect to find nature bloom.

But above a maze of abandoned foxholes to the north of Kuwait's capital lies a landscape that shimmers green and purple with vegetation, attracting foxes, migratory birds and other wildlife.

The Sabah Al-Ahmad nature reserve occupies land that once served as an important base for Saddam Hussein's army during its invasion of Kuwait from 1990-1.

Iraq's annexation of its southern neighbor, which began in August 1990 and lasted until the liberation the following February, had a devastating impact not only on Kuwait's people, but its ecology, said Dr Samira Omar Asem of the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research.

Can Kuwait restore its desert?

One of Kuwait's leading environmental scientists, with three decades experience in resource conservation, Asem has played a major role in restoring Kuwait's war-ravaged ecosystems as head of the United Nations Compensation Commission's environmental remediation program. The body was established in 1991 to process claims and pay compensation damages suffered as a result of the occupation of Kuwait, and processed its final claim in 2005.

The war, said Asem, resulted in "a lot of aggression against the environment" -- most infamously, the destruction of Kuwait's oil fields as part of Hussein's "scorched earth" policy on retreat.

More than 700 wells were destroyed, choking the skies with black smoke in an inferno that raged for eight months before firefighters eventually extinguished the blaze.

But substantial damage was inflicted during the occupation as well. As the Iraqi army swept through the country, it built an elaborate system of fortifications, destroying the fragile desert ecosystem. About 24,000 fortifications were built in the area of the reserve alone, she said.

"I saw these bunkers immediately after liberation," she said. "They had services established under the ground. So you can imagine ... a natural reserve is being converted into a headquarters for military activities. The whole reserve was full of ammunition."

The abandoned, unexploded ordnance, combined with oil from leaks or deliberately flooded trenches, has left a hazardous environment for rehabilitation workers to operate in.

"All this heavy machinery and vehicles caused a lot of soil compaction, changed the landscape, and allowed more sand to move and caused a lot of erosion," she said.

At the Sabah Al-Ahmad nature reserve, environmental remediation has involved planting trees and building ponds to bring back wildlife, resulting in a flourishing desert ecosystem.

There was a lot of aggression against the environment
Dr Samira Omar Asem, Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research

"This is a major achievement for the government of Kuwait, to preserve the natural history for the new generations and the existing generations," she said. "It is our contribution for the international community to say that we are serious about protecting our environment."

But the reserve is only a first step. More than one billion barrels were burned and spilled in the oil field destruction at the end of the war, and the country still bears the scars of that legacy.

Outside the reserve, the deserts remain affected, with large lakes of oil -- caused by leaked crude oil mixing with the billions of gallons of seawater used to extinguish the flames -- contaminating the sands across about 100 square kilometers of desert.

The clean-up effort, says Asem, still has a long way to go.

Follow the Inside the Middle East team on Twitter: Reporter: Zain Verjee: @zainverjeecnn, producer Jon Jensen: @jonjensen, producer Schams Elwazer: @SchamsCNN, writer Tim Hume: @tim_hume and digital producer Mairi Mackay @mairicnn.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 0940 GMT (1740 HKT)
Saudi Arabia is set to start construction on the world's tallest tower that will be one kilometer tall.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 0244 GMT (1044 HKT)
You'll never guess where this record-breaking mural is.
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 0255 GMT (1055 HKT)
The Sea of Gallilee, where Christ reputedly walked on water, is today home to another miracle of sorts.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
In Syria, not all rebels carry guns, some carry cameras.
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
For three decades or so, Syrian artist Safwan Dahoul has been painting pensive, haunting images -- all of which are titled "Dream".
April 3, 2014 -- Updated 0323 GMT (1123 HKT)
Before releasing an album most bands would talk about record sales. Egyptian band Cairokee talk about whether they will get arrested.
March 28, 2014 -- Updated 0404 GMT (1204 HKT)
Dubai's most impressive monuments are looking a little psychedelic this week.
March 20, 2014 -- Updated 0224 GMT (1024 HKT)
Volunteers and academics in exile hope The Free Syrian University can save a lost generation of students.
March 20, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
What would classic Hollywood films look like if reimagined as tradtional Ottoman art?
March 17, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
Nawal Ba Abbad on why its time to stop child marriage in Yemen.
ADVERTISEMENT