Kyrgyz Ecologists Raise Iraq War Alarm

The Gulf conflict may pose a long-term threat to the environment in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia in general.

Kyrgyz Ecologists Raise Iraq War Alarm

The Gulf conflict may pose a long-term threat to the environment in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia in general.

Kyrgyz scientists are warning that oil well fires in Iraq may exacerbate the already poor ecological situation in Central Asia.

According to Professor Emil Shukurov, scientific consultant to the Central Asian Trans-border Project on Saving Bio-diversity, Kyrgyzstan's most important natural resource - its glaciers - are especially endangered.

These glaciers supply water to the whole region, shielding it from drought.

Shukurov says global warming over the past few decades has already led to the rapid shrinking of the glaciers. He and fellow scientists fear the fall-out from the conflict in Iraq, even though it is several thousand miles away, is about to make a bad situation worse.

Ecologists calculate that Baghdad's policy of setting fire to oil wells as US-led forces advance will result in huge amounts of fine-particle soot and carbon dioxide rising into the atmosphere, with a consequent increase in a warming of the climate in region.

"Kyrgyzstan's glaciers will be under threat," the professor said. "A rise in temperature will lead to them shrinking in size, which, in turn, will lower rainfall."

An additional by-product from the burning of Iraqi oil will be an increase in the area of so-called "grey cloud".

Already observable in parts of southern Asia, the atmospheric phenomenon prevents the normal flow of sunrays to the earth's surface, resulting, among other things, in poorer harvests.

Shukurov says part of Kyrgyzstan is already covered by "grey cloud", most probably formed from the emission of fine particles into the atmosphere over many years by the burning of mineral fuels and other products.

The burning of Iraqi oil stands to increase its size.

An additional area of concern is wildlife. Shukurov recalls that after the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, when many oil wells were set on fire, large numbers of migrating birds were spotted in Central Asia covered in soot.

That campaign was conducted during the winter, before birds sheltering in eastern and southern Africa started migrating back to Central Asia, via the Middle East. This time round, the fighting directly coincides with the migration period, with possibly disastrous consequences.

"Most of the birds will not be able to fly back to us here because the war will disrupt their flight pattern," Shukurov said. "They will not be able to make stopovers for food and rest. Many will die on the way."

Apart from their intrinsic value, birds play a valuable part in the ecological cycle, eradicating harmful insects among other things. So, a fall in their number will have a harmful impact on agriculture.

The environmental pollution generated by the Iraq war may also endanger people in Central Asia.

Bolot Moldobekov, of the Central Asian Institute of Applied Land Research in Bishkek, believes the increased diffusion of soot may cause a rise in allergies.

Kyrgyzstan has no means of fighting the potentially large-scale contamination of the region's atmosphere and water supplies. "We can't even fight the pollution caused by our own enterprises," Moldobekov said.

Scientists here are also worried that the war will trigger earthquakes. Kyrgyzstan lies in a seismically unstable zone. According to Moldobekov, tremors from exploding bombs in Iraq could quite conceivably amplify seismic tension in Central Asia, which could lead to tremors and landslides.

Government officials prefer to take a more relaxed view of the possible dangers to Kyrgyzstan from a war in Iraq, partly because they do not want to spread panic among the public.

Omor Rustembekov, director of the government's ecology and nature department, maintains that the country will only face a serious environmental threat if many large Iraqi oil terminals are set on fire for long periods and if the conflict in general lasts drags on.

But as the war shows signs of lasting for far longer than was predicted, Kyrgyzstan's ecologists fear their more alarmist predictions may come true.

Elena Buldakova is an independent journalist in Bishkek

Africa, Middle East
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