On a weekend trip to Kuwait, I made a memorable visit to the Burgan Field, the second largest oil field in the world. Situated in southeastern Kuwait, it is one of the world’s largest and richest oil fields — and the prime victim of the scorched earth policy adopted by retreating Iraqi soldiers in 1991. More than 300 of the more than 700 oil wells set alight by Saddam’s forces were in Burgan. The scars of that vicious environmental attack are still clearly evident two decades later — from space, photographs show that the field is still darkly shaded.
All across Burgan, there are patches of black sand where oil is mixed with sand and salt (sea water was pumped in to help put out the fires in 1991 and the area is still caked in salt). In some areas, the oil is clearly oil, in pitch black dirty pools of bubbling sludge.
In other areas, the oil is barely visible because of a thin layer of dust and sand, making it invisible to the naked eye. And yet in other areas, the oil is shallow or has soaked into the sand and looks like a dried river bed.
While I’m no biochemist, in the oil shallows, the oil appears to be slowly decomposing with gas bumbling to the surface and pushing up little volcanoes that ooze wet crude, which sparkled in the morning sun.
In one area, I walked across what looked to be dry, cracked sand — yet I found it to be alarmingly soft, and I sank a centimeter with every step I took across the landscape below. For a moment, instincts that I learned from growing up in the northeastern US kicked in, and I became terrified that I was going to fall through thin ice on a lake.
Reaching down, I pushed at the soft earth and peeled back a piece of sand that broke off in my hand, and the black tar below the dusty covering was revealed for what it was.
We’ve forgotten — or never heard properly in the West — of the absolute brutality of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which I saw much evidence of during other times of my trip. This is compounded by the fires of Kuwait, perhaps the worst environmental war crime in history. A visit to Burgan is all you need to appreciate the devastating lasting effects of that disgrace.