Ten years after the Gulf War ended, Kuwait's deserts are still drenched in crude oil, most of it spilled as Iraqi invaders beat a hasty retreat. Now the country is about to embark on a belated $1 billion effort to tackle the ecological calamity in one of the biggest environmental remediation projects ever attempted. "It's a living laboratory of a type mankind has never seen before," says Paul Kostecki of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Despite its considerable wealth, Kuwait has made little headway in cleaning up its oil-contaminated deserts. An estimated 250 million gallons of oil--more than 20 times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989--despoiled one-third of the land. Kuwaiti researchers say only $13 million has been spent in the past decade to examine the true scope of the oil's harm.
Short on funds, the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) in Kuwait City so far has carried out only two pilot remediation projects. The first removed 94% of contaminants from a one-hectare site by washing the soil, then boosting the growth of oil-eating microbes. Used on all 70 million cubic meters of contaminated soil, this would cost $1.3 billion, says KISR's Nader Al-Awadi, the project's lead scientist. A more novel project used cement made from oily sand to build a road. If the technique proves safe, there's enough contaminated sand to pave a 5000-km stretch. In other words, when life gives you asphalt, make a highway.
Now KISR can really get rolling. In June, the United Nations Compensation Committee awarded Kuwait $108.9 million from U.N.-controlled Iraqi oil sales to address the environmental fallout from the Gulf War (ScienceNOW, 27 June 2001). First up is a 5-year project to catalog the environmental ills, followed by remediation estimated to cost more than $1 billion.
Outside experts say a change of heart among the country's leadership will help at least as much as the new funds. "They don't really care about the cost," insists Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University. "If they can find a way, they will clean it up."