THIS BORROWED EARTH

Oil Spills and Fires of Kuwait, 1991


The dugong is a strange, wonderful creature, like its closest relative, the manatee. As a mammal, it seems more human than fish.  Its face is that of a sad walrus, with a rounded head, small eyes, and a large snout. Its tail is like that of a dolphin, and its front fins allow it to move slowly and gracefully through water. The dugong is also known as the sea cow because it grazes on sea grass, devouring fifty-five pounds (25 kg) a day. It can weigh up to 880 pounds (400 kg). In East Africa, the dugong is known as the “wild pig of the coral.” 

The dugong can live for up to seventy years. One drawback to the long life of the dugong as a population is the fact that the female raises a calf only every three to five years. Any interruption of the breeding cycle, or destruction of females, casts a dark shadow over the survival of this fragile, endangered species.

The waters and sea grass off Kuwait in the Arabian or Persian Gulf are a thriving habitat for the dugong. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, he had no concern for the dugong or the environment of Kuwait. Hussein dispatched some 30,000 soldiers and 700 tanks, followed by another 100,000 troops. Kuwait had 20,000 soldiers. The conquest was swift.


The consequences were just as swift.  At the end of the short war, Hussein’s army set fire to over 700 oil wells.  The resulting conflagration discharged oil into the soils and groundwater, and emitted thick, black smoke that filled the skies of Kuwait and hovered over the entire region.  It was the civilian population that bore the brunt of these environmental assaults.




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