The Gulf (Ecology)

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 11:56 am on 15th March 1991.

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Photo of Mr Jacques Arnold Mr Jacques Arnold , Gravesham 11:56 am, 15th March 1991

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for initiating the debate. I describe the hon. Gentleman as such advisedly. He has many obsessions, most of which I do not share, but I share his obsession for the tropical rain forests of Latin America and with the ecological consequences of the Gulf war. However, sometimes the hon. Gentleman seems to be an outrider for the Apocalypse. We must put the problems of the Gulf in context and then we must tackle them.

The World Conservation Monitoring Centre has undertaken a useful assessment of the situation in the Gulf. In its briefing paper, prepared a few days ago, it states: The smoke cloud is relatively low with a ceiling of 10–15,000 ft. This is not high enough to affect stratospheric climate circulation, so predictions of widescale disruptions of rainfall and monsoon patterns are exaggerated … Many of the wells in the Saudi/Kuwait Neutral Zone require pumping to bring the oil to the surface". It says that the fires that are now disfiguring the middle east will soon die out through lack of fuel. It also states that the soot that has been thrown up by those massive fires is harmless, but "black rain frightens people."

We must assess the problems that we face and we can and must tackle them. It is worth recalling the cause of the ecological disaster in the Gulf. It can be summed up in two words, Saddam Hussein. That brutal and callous President of Iraq is still at large. He caused the ecological disaster because of the way in which he went about his business. We should have known that man for what he was, as he showed no compassion for human life when he gassed the Kurdish people. However, he understands international media and opinion and he knows that we care about the environment. He let loose his dreadful action because he knows that we care about the birds, turtles, dugongs and fish to be found in the Gulf region and he hit us where it hurts.

We must consider, first, the problem of the oil slick caused by Saddam Hussein on Friday 26 January when Iraqi troops deliberately released 300,000 tonnes of oil into the Arabian Gulf in an attempt to contaminate Saudi Arabia's desalination plants and hinder the allied war effort. The damage has been extensive. His action created an oil slick 80 miles long and 14 miles wide—one of the largest ever known. The oil came from the Iraqi shelling of Khafji oil tanks, the deliberate release of oil from tankers and sea terminals at Al Ahmadi and Mina al Bakr, and from the offshore platforms in Iraq and Kuwait, both under his control at that time. Secondly, in the final week of Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait, he set alight the Kuwaiti oil fields and caused 650 separate fires.

Clearly, we must understand the problem and tackle it. In the case of the oil slick, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre boiled the matter down to facing and coping with the scale of the problem. It tells us: The slick along the Saudi coast has shown virtually no movement for the last two weeks. It is now packed into Musallamiyah Bay, held by booms and sand barriers to the south of Abu 'Ali—it is present as 'hundreds of acres of solid oil, 5–6 inches deep.". We must tackle that problem and the problem of the other oil slicks and patches, although those are on a much smaller scale.

The centre's brief on the ecological problems and the oil clean-up is specific about the scale of the problem and what must be done. Its report that very little co-ordinated action is being taken to clean up the area is worrying. It says: Every effort is being made by MEPA and volunteers to rescue and clean birds of oil and to clean oil from shores. However lack of available funds, shortage of staff and lack of equipment is limiting the progress. Meanwhile, little is being done other than putting out booms around key industrial sites and desalination plants. Only some 40–50,000 barrels have been recovered. The problem is lack of equipment and lack of cash. Time and again, it returns to lack of resources. I welcome the International Maritime Organisation's newly established international trust fund to clean up the Gulf.

The House can take pride from the fact that Britain made the first donation of £1 million. We still need instant donations from the undamaged Gulf states—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the Emirates—which are most concerned with the current problems. Britain has not been backward in coming forward, not only with cash but with technical support. The Department of the Environment has sent pollution control and ecological experts to help in the Gulf. The Government have ordered three oil recovery skimmers, worth £300,000, to be sent to Bahrain, and 90 tonnes of anti-pollution equipment—mostly booms—from industrial stocks held in Britain were flown out at the end of January when the scale of the problem was identified.

We can also take pride from the work of our Meteorological Office, which has adapted its computer models to give the best possible predictions of the likely behaviour of the oil slick. It is also analysing the impact of the oil fires' smoke clouds. Will my hon. Friend the Minister and the Department find ways of assisting the Meterological Office with the practicalities to enable it to observe those filthy clouds? It needs to take measurements on this unprecedented phenomenon.

The Department of Trade and Industry should also be commended for the work that it has done. It has got its act together and produced an admirable publication "Restructuring Kuwait", which is subtitled: Proposed United Kingdom contribution to the reconstruction of Kuwait. I was glad that one section of the publication is devoted to environmental protection and United Kingdom companies' experience and involvement in Kuwait and the Gulf.

The document states: UK companies have experience in toxic/flammable gases, clean-up of oil and chemical spills, assessing the stability of sites and structures, determination and monitoring of ecological damage, effluent and groundwater pollution problems, water system sterilisation and requirements for the general decontamination of the site and those parts of the installations that can be salvaged or retained. Effective product management and control are essential factors in the successful execution of these tasks. UK companies with specialists in these fields are ready to respond to Kuwait's needs. The report gives details of the companies that can help, including the British Oil Spill Control Association, a trade organisation which represents a number of United Kingdom companies and deals with all aspects of marine and industrial pollution. Such organisations should be given every opportunity to get cracking with the job that needs to be done.

Another major problem involves the fires, too many of which still rage out of control. The oil industry is already getting to work on that problem. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology has produced a useful briefing note on the subject, which states: the oil industry has had much experience in extinguishing fires at well heads using explosives to blow out the fire, after which the well head can be sealed. It describes how, in more complex cases, the technology in the oil industry exists—through drilling, blocking and other means—to control those dreadful fires.

The Gulf crisis produced some benefits. Out of that tragedy may well have come a new world order. For the first time ever, the five permanent members of the Security Council stood together, despite the stresses and strains of the crisis. No fewer than 30 nations sent armed forces contingents. They were sent from the United States, the old Commonwealth, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, west and east Europe, including Czechoslovakia and Hungary. They were sent from 11 Muslim countries and even from Latin America and black Africa. There were small but significant contingents from Argentina and Niger.

The United Nations has come into its own. It won the war and now it must win the peace—but with that peace, we must link the world environment. Signs are emerging that the same co-ordinated effort towards achieving that peace is not being achieved in coping with environmental tasks. I urge the Government to push for a co-ordinated initiative to be taken, perhaps through the United Nations, rather than to leave this serious problem to individual Gulf states, individual oil companies and individual under-resourced environmental organisations.