The Scars of War: the Burgan Oil Field

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.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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6 Responses to The Scars of War: the Burgan Oil Field

  1. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    Without a doubt, the most heinous environmental crime to date. Something of the order of 1-2 billion gallons of oil were released onto the land to form vast oil lakes, another 450 million gallons of oil were deliberately released into the sea, and an additional 350 million gallons was likely deposited as fallout from the smoke plumes of the > 700 oil well fires. The Deepwater Horizon spill was less than half the amount the Iraqis deliberately released into the sea…

  2. Brent says:

    Saddam also sytematically destroyed the marshes in southern Iraq after the people living their rose up against him following the first Gulf War. He was quite like the Soviets in that he was more than willing to do something if it made him in any way more secure, regardless of the long term environmental damage.

  3. Curzon says:

    “Stalinesque” is indeed the word that came to mind as I learned of the horrors of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which was truly brutal. Check out the documentary “Fires of Kuwait” (which you can download) to see the true devastation caused by the oil well fires.

  4. Thomas says:

    Just FYI, crude oil does break down, mostly as the result of exposure to light.

    Depending on the exact composition of the oil, it can break down into harmless hydrocarbons or into highly toxic or dangerously explosive compounds. It also takes a pretty long time but it does happen.

  5. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    Thomas – while you are correct that oil will eventually ‘break down’, the only significant natural processes that genuinely remove oil from the environment are combustion and biodegradation. Light does oxidize the aromatic components, but only to polymeric material. Some components, those that a refinery would convert to road asphalt or roofing tiles, are not biodegraded at any significant rate. But fortunately the components that give oil its ‘oiliness’ are readily biodegraded, leaving dark ‘grit’… That’s a process that has been going on for millions of years….

  6. Chuck says:

    As part of the US Army 3rd Armored Division during Desert Storm, we traversed and lived in this area for a few months following the end of hostilities. The smoke from the fires made daytime seem like night, and nights had a glowing horizon. You could feel the heat from the fires from as far away as 100 meters or more. Black soot covered all exposed items. A serious and uncalled for environmental crime.