Oil Fires (Kuwait)

Part of Petition – in the House of Commons at 10:14 pm on 14th May 1991.

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Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow 10:14 pm, 14th May 1991

Richard North commenced his striking Sunday Times colour supplement report: Man's assault on the air he breathes was never so blatant, wilful or ugly, as it is in the oil fields of Kuwait. Up to 5 million barrels a day of excellent light crude, among the easiest to refine in the world, is burning filthily—enough to match Britain's daily consumption every eight hours. The Secretary of State, whose presence I very much welcome as a courtesy, will recognise from his recent visit the description by one of my service constituents that the midday sun was like the midnight moon.

That leads me to the first of a number of questions of which I have given notice to the Minister. The first is to ask for an objective report from Sir Donald Acheson, the chief medical officer, on his view of the dangers of hydrogen sulphide and the number of parts per million which could cause serious respiratory disease. When sheep have been slaughtered and their lungs examined, black spots have been found on the lungs. Are black spots also, one wonders, found on the lungs of human beings?

My greatest concern, after talking to world authorities in Edinburgh, Cambridge and Oxford whose names are known to the Minister, is about polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. I do not think that there would be much dispute that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are carcinogenic—they cause cancer. If, as we are told, these have been identified, I hope that the Department of Health report will give its view. I hope that it will also say what happens when temperatures go up to 120 deg F. concentrating the smoke into a thicker, low-lying cap over the desert sands.

Perhaps the problem can be encapsulated in the sad and ironic tale of the 17 scientists who were going round Kuwait with their clipboards, asking residents about their symptoms, about the water they drank and about the silent killer, water-borne disease. They found at the end of the first day that the forms were splattered with oil and, in a sense, the medium was the message.

Normally I do not submit to the House anonymous letters, but I know that this is genuine: I wrote to you a few days ago regarding our troops in Ahmadi and Kuwait City.The news continues to make very grim reading. Day becomes night—sitting with only the light from candles in oil-smoke filled corridors. What is achieved other than a deterioration in health?Letters are taking up to 22 days to reach home. THREE WEEKS is a dreadful length of time to wait for news.They are our forgotten Army—no proper back-up now; after all, the War is over, isn't it?Someone must do something about getting our Service Personnel out of that Hell hole before permanent damage is done to their health. They would be better employed in northern Iraq.I am sorry not to be able to give my name but you are not supposed to interfere when your loved one is serving in the Forces. I welcome the presence of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. I hope that inquiries will be made of our servicemen as to what they are now going through.

Secondly, I refer to the Secretary of State's helpful letter of 7 May, in which he outlines the need for massive logistical support. Who will organise this massive logistical support? It is not my business to try to abuse the Kuwaitis, who have been through terrible things. But is it not the case that Kuwait is paralysed and cannot undertake this task? As the fires rage, the situation gets worse. I ask specifically why for so long, it was left to Bechtel and, for example, Robbie Middleton, who accompanied the Secretary of State on a journey that I am told by several people was very successful. I have to be candid and say that I gather that the Secretary of State led that mission very satisfactorily. On that score, there is no criticism at all from me, but I must ask why the matter was left to the Americans for so long.

Where will the transport come from? Where will the water supplies come from? Where will the specialised equipment come from? What attention is being paid to the inventions of people like Professor Harper of Heriot-Watt, whose case I brought to the attention of the Department? I hope that the Minister will say something about what "help" and "encouragement"—to use words in the letter of the Secretary of State—can be given to the Kuwaiti British Fire Group.

Thirdly, in the presence of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces—indeed, in the presence of any Minister—I should say that I quite sure that the service men who have to deal with the mines and the unexploded shells have a most thankless and dangerous task. Of course, the booby traps have to be removed. I should like to pay tribute to the two Financial Times journalists who lost their lives in the course of their reporting duty. The Financial Times has reported these events with great distinction. The truth is that in that area one cannot walk off tarmacadam—indeed, even off fresh tyre tracks. We should all like to see detectors of non-metallic mines invented.

I want to ask about tunnelling, about the construction of culverts. Is the operation still short of bulldozers? In a written reply of 13 May, the Minister of State said: Face masks are available to these personnel and they are advised to avoid strenuous activity when in areas suffering heavy air pollution. Are face masks available to people other than key personnel? My understanding is that more ought to be available.

I want to ask also about world weather, about the climatic effect. Areas from Turkey to China are affected. What is the Government's view on what Dr. Houghton and Dr. Browning, those distinguished scientists of the Meteorological Office, are now saying? I do not think that I break Chatham house rules—the gentleman has said this elsewhere—when I say that Professor Akbar Ahmed, professor of arabic studies at Cambridge, said that his relations in Quetta, in Baluchistan, were now affected by what was happening in Kuwait.

I also ask, is there not a reasonable chain of cause and effect which we should investigate and which may link Kuwaiti oil fires to the cyclone in Bangladesh? That link will be difficult to prove or disprove, but if the Kuwaiti oil fires have caused or are causing the unusual weather in the Bay of Bengal, they must be quenched as soon as possible and for the additional reason of the sake of humanity.

The argument is, briefly, that, due to the rotation of the earth, the general wind pattern is a westerly air stream from Kuwait towards India and Bengal. There is already evidence that the Himalayan snows have been darkened by Kuwaiti oil smoke. About 100 million tonnes of oil a year is burnt in Kuwait, but it is burnt inefficiently and probably 1 per cent. appears as soot. Kuwaiti crude typically contains 4 per cent. sulphur. The sulphur oxide—SO2—is an absorber of sunlight. It changes to SO3 and then to SO4, which is sulphuric acid. That mechanism is believed to have caused the type of cold that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The concept of a nuclear winter suggests that dust clouds from atomic bombs rising to the upper atmosphere could produce permanent climatic change. The oil fires in Kuwait are producing soot on the scale of an atomic war. Carbon dioxide—CO2—and the direct heat are unlikely to be so important. However, cyclones are instabilities between bodies of air at differing temperatures. Warm air trapped below cold air can rise and rotate to produce high winds, rain and high tides. In Bangladesh, the coastal cyclones are usually most devastating in the autumn, but this is an early cyclone and one has to ask whether it will be followed by others. Those people who opted for war have an obligation to put as much effort into the ecological battle as they did into Desert Storm. It is up to the Government to persuade us that that is being done.

I suppose that it is tempting for people to attribute the unprecedented disaster merely to the wickedness of Saddam Hussein. Neither I nor my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who is present, is under any misapprehension about Saddam Hussein, but we and 32 others thought that the war option was the wrong way to tackle the problem. To prevent the answer that the disaster is merely the fault of Saddam Hussein, I report what I heard at a Kingston Labour party meeting last week. An Iraqi from Basra—a Shia whose family had suffered terribly from the Sunnis—said that if, every day, for 36 days as much explosive as was used on Hiroshima is used against one's country, vengeance and irrationality take over and people detonate oil wells.

The purpose of the debate is to ask the constructive question, "What on earth can be done about it now?"