Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Monday, February 17, 2003

War on Iraq Arouses Environmental Fears Among Chinese Scientists

As the United States intensifies its saber-rattling over Iraq, noted scientists in China fear a possible war might cause irreparable damage to the Persian Gulf environment, or even worse, a global environmental problem.


As the United States intensifies its saber-rattling over Iraq, noted scientists in China fear a possible war might cause irreparable damage to the Persian Gulf environment, or even worse, a global environmental problem.

The use of powerful shells could have a greater impact on the regional environment, which had been delicate and fragile since the Gulf War in 1991, said Shu Jianmin, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Environment Science.

The aftermath of the war would be not only chemical and radiation pollution, but also a severe damage to the overall eco-system, he said.

It was believed that if the war broke out, the United States would very likely launch "surgical" air strikes, destroying Iraq's key military and energy facilities, chemical plants and traffic equipment in a short period of time.

"That may bring about large-scale chemical leakages. If the assaults caused explosions and engulfing fires in oil tanks and refineries, a large amount of toxic chemical compounds released into the air would be highly hazardous," Shu said.

Such worries were not groundless, he said, citing similar cases during the Kosovo War in 1999. Leakages of fuel and oil products following the wanton bombing of the former Yugoslavia's chemical plants and refineries by NATO resulted in abnormally high readings of chemical materials in the water of Danube.

Those chemicals were not degradable in the natural environment and were often accountable for high incidences of cancers, birth defects and mutations, Shu said.

Chinese experts also worried that the ecological disaster of 1991 might be replayed if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein took extreme measures such as setting fire to a host of oilfields.

Iraqi troops ignited Kuwait's oilfields, causing dense smoke and fiery fires, some of which could last almost half a year, blanketing the skies while thousands of square kilometers of sea space was filled with oil, forming an environmental emergency.

Toxic organic pollutants such as dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) would even further worsen the situation because studies had confirmed their close link with cancer. They also produced estrogenic impacts on human and animal reproduction and growth, said Prof. Zheng Minghui at an ecological environment research center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Dioxins could be produced from fires in oilfields and refineries, chemical plants and buildings. PCBs in old-fashioned transformers and capacitors might be released if Iraq's electric power facilities were destroyed during air raids, Zheng said.

"Such pollutants would not only threaten the local environment and civilian health, but also disseminate globally as a result of the movement of air and water," he said.

Whether the US army would again use depleted uranium shells in the war against Iraq emerged as another top environmental concern of Chinese scientists.

During the Gulf and Kosovo wars, enormous shells containing depleted uranium (DU), a slightly radioactive heavy metal that is effective for piercing armor, were fired by US and NATO troops.

Such ordnance can contaminate the soil, plants and water sources, leading to anything up to a 3,000-fold increase in uranium levels in the local environment, warned Shu Jianmin.

"What was more serious," Shu said, "radiation hazards to human health and the environment could last for decades, if not centuries."

Prof. Chen Guangwei, of the CAS institute of geographic science, described the eco-system of arid Iraq as more vulnerable if its water supply and irrigation systems were destroyed during the war.

A former officer at the Nepal-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, Chen had personal understanding of how civilians in turmoil-torn Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Kashmirregion had suffered from war.

Decades of war in Afghanistan had left a large amount of lands denuded and millions of refugees who had experienced untold misery and hardships, he said.

"The pain of war is eventually borne by civilians, who have to pay enormously for the war," he said, "but I really doubt if the US government has ever considered this heavy price when it wages a war."

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