Healing Iraq's Wounded Earth


As of Apr. 15, the U.S. had dropped an estimated 27,250 bombs on Iraq, a country the size of Texas. That's only about one-tenth the number in the first Gulf War of 1991, and in fact comes to only about one bomb for every 10 square miles. TV footage of the invasion has focused on destroyed tanks and buildings and children prowling barefoot through the debris. Relatively speaking, however, "it has been quite a 'clean war,'" says Kent Udell, director of the Berkeley Environmental Restoration Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

U.S. missile strikes were reasonably precise as such things go -- though not enough so to avoid killing several thousand innocent civilians, according to various estimates. And the dozens of companies and agencies from the U.S., Britain, and Ukraine, among other countries, that were poised to extinguish oil fires and combat chemical or nuclear contamination have had little to do but wait and bake under the Iraqi sun. In the 1991 war, more than 700 oil wells burned relentlessly for months in Kuwait. This time, Iraq's nine oil-well fires were extinguished within days.

As hopeful as all that sounds, though, Iraq today is still "an environmental disaster," declares Pekka Haaeisto, the chairman of the U.N. Environment Program Iraq task force. In its initial damage assessment, published on Apr. 24, the UNEP detailed widespread water and soil contamination, lingering air pollution, and unexploded ordinance. The effect is compounded by leftover damage from Iraq's war with Iran in the 1980s and the detritus of Gulf War I -- as well as Saddam Hussein's gross mismanagement of everything except his private fortune. "There's an immediate need for environmental assistance," Haaeisto says.

RELIEVING THE THIRST. To businesses around the world, that need spells opportunity. The U.S. Office of Management & Budget estimates that $3.6 billion in funding from Washington is available for the Iraq cleanup effort. The environmental evaluations could take two more months to complete, but already in Poland alone, more than 500 companies are lining up to participate in the effort to restore Iraq and its environment. Indeed, many companies and research centers hope to use the country to test their latest cleanup products and gear -- including new land-mine detectors and chemicals that purify water tainted with everything from depleted uranium used in U.S. shells to human remains.

Providing clean drinking water to Iraq's 23.3 million citizens is the first priority. U.N. sanctions imposed in 1990 meant that Iraq, which derived 95% of its foreign currency from oil, could sell only that commodity in exchange for food. Thus, it could no longer get enough spare parts to keep all of its water-treatment plants working, according to the UNEP.

In 1990, some 800 garbage trucks served Baghdad. By 2000, that number dropped to 80 because of a lack of spare tires, the U.N. says. Sewers were channeled directly into streams in some parts of the country, causing periodic outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever.

BUCKET BRIGADE. In Nasariya, which is located on the Euphrates River in southeastern Iraq, the U.N. estimates that about 20% of the city's 500,000 residents are in peril because they can't get enough safe drinking water. Humanitarian organizations distribute about a gallon of clean water a day to each resident who requests it. That's still short of the 1.5 gallons or so that's considered adequate for good health, notes Frank Broadhurst, senior technical adviser for environmental health at the New York-based International Rescue Committee, which provides aid to refugees. As a result, many people are drinking water from Iraq's contaminated rivers.

That's where Procter & Gamble (PG) comes in. The Cincinnati-based maker of household products has developed a powder, soon to be tested in Iraq, that comes in ketchup-like mini-packets. When dissolved in a 10-gallon bucket of river water, it attaches itself to impurities so they fall to the bottom of the bucket. The clean water can them be poured out, and the sediment thrown away.

The 350,000 packets the IRC has bought for 3.5 cents each should enable the agency to provide 3.5 million gallons of clean water, says Broadhurst. P&G hasn't made the product commercially available yet, says Greg Allgood, associate director of its Health Sciences Institute.

LISTENING FOR LAND MINES. Unexploded bombs and mines are another concern. U.S. Army officials estimate that about 3% to 5% of the bombs dropped didn't explode, though this number could reach 15% because Iraq's sands soften the impact, according to industry experts. The UNEP estimates that unexploded weapons number 10,000 to 40,000 pieces, including weapons left over from Gulf War I. Ordinary retrieval methods -- such as a person walking around with a metal detector -- are risky and often unreliable. So the military is switching to robots and so-called combination detectors.

Privately held CyTerra in Waltham, Mass., recently released the first handheld land-mine detector that combines a metal detector with ground-penetrating radar, which uses radio waves to "listen" for buried nonmetallic objects. The product, which resembles a regular treasure-hunting device, offers nearly 100% detection of metal and plastic anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.

That's a big step up from the 60% or so success rate for the old technology, says Dan O'Donnell, CyTerra's vice-president for business development. It also has a much lower false-alarm rate, he adds, though he won't say how much lower. CyTerra manufactured the first batch of 210 devices for the Army in December (some are likely already being used in Iraq) and plans to go into full production in 2004, but it declines to say how large its output will be.

ROBOT PATROLS. Many private companies and labs are also attempting to use robots for detecting mines and unexploded bombs, which usually burrow deeper into the ground and thus are harder to find. The robots, which are remote-controlled, replace bomb-sniffing dogs and humans with metal detectors.

A 70-pound model, called Talon, built by engineering company Foster-Miller in Boston, has been an Army favorite. With a starting price of $30,000, Talon has an arm with a gripper that can lift objects up to 55 pounds or drag anything weighing as much as 200 pounds, says Sergeant Santiago Tordillos, a robotics expert for the Army at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. It also can carry a detector to help the operator locate, from a safe distance, heavier bombs, which could later be destroyed using other methods.

While Foster-Miller's earlier models were radio-controlled, and gave off signals that could set off bombs sensitive to electromagnetic radiation, the latest Talon receives commands via fiber-optic cable. That significantly reduces the chance of an unintentional detonation, says Tordillos.

TIRELESS WORKERS. Some Talon robots also likely carry special computers that use fuzzy logic, which is designed to emulate the capabilities of the human brain. Instead of leaving it up to operators to interpret signals from metal detectors, the computer analyzes the data and tells the operator if it senses a bomb or not. That can come in handy, since most operators aren't highly trained -- and mistakes can cost lives, says Van Romero, director of the Energetic Materials Research & Testing Center at the New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology.

The technology is still being developed by private companies such as Geo-Centers, based in Arlington, Va., and universities. The early models have many drawbacks: On flat terrain, such as a paved road, the robots can move at normal walking speed. But on farmland, they slow to a crawl, says Romero. And with a robot, it costs $3,000 to $4,000 to find one land mine, he calculates. That's opposed to the $300 or so it costs to use a dog. Of course, dogs get tired sooner or later, while the robots just keep on searching.

Some of Iraq's environmental damage will take longer to repair. New technologies for ridding soil of oil and chemicals are still being evaluated, including a method developed by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley that was used recently in Serbia. It applies steam and heat to toxins on the surface, where vacuum pumps suck them up.

EASIER FIXES. Many other environmental problems, can be resolved without fancy gear. One example is desert erosion resulting from soldiers digging trenches and moving heavy machinery around. That can be fixed by simply leveling off the deformations, says Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University and a well-known desert expert. If that isn't done, he adds, the desert's sands will destabilize and start invading farmland.

Similarly, the Mesopotamian marshes, drained by Saddam to drive out rebels who hid there, can be reconstructed in part by routing water to the area again. Today, only about 10% of some 12,000 square miles of marshes remain, and many species of animal and plant life have disappeared, according to the World Resources Institute, an environmental think-tank based in Washington, D.C.

Rusting war machinery left over from the last two wars simply needs to be removed, since some of the decaying material could be toxic. Some experts believe that depleted uranium, which the U.S. uses in both weapons and tanks, causes birth defects. And hundreds of millions of tons of depleted uranium are now spread throughout Iraq. According to the U.S. Army, the problem can be solved by paving over locations with high uranium concentrations -- which can have a half-life of 4.5 billion years.

INTERNATIONAL AID. Even though such low-tech solutions seem simple, they require lots of money. That might not be forthcoming, since most of the aid Washington has earmarked so far will go toward solving immediate problems, such as water contamination, says El-Baz. The U.S. military is most likely to help out only initially, mostly by cleaning up water and unexploded ordinance.

The international community will no doubt assist with some projects as well. On Apr. 21, the United Arab Emirates announced that it will build a new water-treatment plant at Basra, a city of 1.3 million in southern Iraq. Though the country has the world's second-largest oil reserves, after Saudi Arabia, it needs such help because half of its population is currently unemployed or underemployed, according to UNEP. Thanks mainly to the U.N. sanctions, Iraq's gross domestic product fell 75% from 1991 to 1999. Plus, it has a massive debt, as much as $350 billion, though some of that may be forgiven.

Many effects of the latest war will start showing up as health problems only several years from now, says Richard Garfield, a professor at Columbia University's nursing school in New York City, who'll be a consultant to the new Iraq government on health-care issues. Birth defects in Iraq rose sharply around 1994, three years after the first Gulf War, Garfield notes. Experts blame that mostly on pollution.

LONG-TERM COMMITMENT. Although Saddam may be responsible for many of these environmental problems, "there's a strong perception in Iraq that the U.S. has contaminated the country in a way that will last for thousands of years," Garfield says. Ironically, it's also possible that U.S. soldiers who fought in this invasion could also experience health problems similar to Gulf War I syndrome, which some scientists think was caused by depleted uranium.

Though the shooting is nearly over, the big battle for the well being of the Iraqi people and their environment has just begun. And the effort to eliminate the scars of conflict will require much more time than the few weeks it took to complete the invasion itself. By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.


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