It was the worst oil spill ever. And it happened in our part of the world, fewer than 20 years ago. What clues does the 1991 Gulf War oil spill hold for the recovery from the continuing blowout of BP's Macondo well? On January 22 1991, Iraqi soldiers occupying Kuwait began opening valves at the Sea Island oil terminal. Up to 11 million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf, compared with between 2.8 million and 4.8 million barrels from Macondo.
The aim was apparently to hamper the expected landings by US marines, but this ecological crime was entirely in keeping with the scorched earth policy of Saddam Hussein's regime, including draining the southern Iraqi marshes and later burning the Kuwaiti oil wells. In this apocalyptic scene, the oil spill was not the only assault on the Gulf's environment. Oil droplets and acid rain soon began to pour out of the cloud drifting from the well fires. Elsewhere, military vehicles and the construction of defences damaged beaches, and sunken ships, carrying oil and weapons, littered the seabed. Raw sewage flowed into the Gulf after the destruction of the Kuwaiti treatment facilities.
And the area had been struck by earlier oil spills, including one of the largest in history when in 1983 Iran's Nowruz platform was repeatedly attacked by Iraqi forces. Clean-up operations were impossible at first due to continuing fighting and the risk of mines. But eventually about half of the oil evaporated at sea and 1.5 million barrels of it were skimmed up by Saudi ships. Winds drove the rest southwards until it beached along 700km of Kuwaiti and Saudi coast.
Much of the oil washed up around Abu Ali Island, just north of the industrial city of Jubail, an accident of geography that saved the port and desalination facilities. The affected coast was sparsely populated: between Kuwait and Jubail lies just the small town of Al Khafji. The initial impact was devastating . About 30,000 marine birds were killed. A number of dugongs, dolphins and porpoises were also found dead. Shrimp stocks declined to about a quarter of their pre-war levels, while crabs, snails and oysters showed higher levels of toxic heavy metals.
The worst impact was felt where the oil came ashore. Nearly all marine life died, including crabs, worms and salt grasses. In the extensive mangrove swamps, a third of the trees were killed. Booms were laid to protect the most sensitive areas. And when clean-up efforts were finally able to start, they concentrated on spraying the affected shores with water and disturbing sediments to allow oxygen to get in and begin breaking down the oil.
From this disaster, though, recovery was in places encouraging. In the warm Gulf waters bathed in harsh sunlight, the oil broke down quickly. Within three years, bird and fish populations had recovered entirely. In fact, catches in some places were higher after the spill than before it, as the halt to fishing allowed stocks to recover. Ironically, Bahrain, which the spill did not reach, suffered from over-fishing. Generally, it seems that contaminants accumulating in fish did not reach dangerous levels.
The quiet salt marshes suffered the most. The oil was quickly covered by mats of bacteria, blocking out the oxygen. Even 10 years later, liquid oil remained below the surface and a quarter of the marshes were still devoid of life. But wherever waves and tides agitated the sediment and brought in oxygen, the oil largely broke down. Rocky and sandy beaches had recovered entirely within a decade, and mangrove swamps were also mostly back to normal.
Overall, the experience is moderately encouraging for recovery of the Gulf of Mexico from Macondo. It is a much larger body of water, fed by a major river and rains, frequently stirred up by hurricanes and not isolated by a narrow channel.Its ecosystem is more diverse and less stressed by other environmental problems, and the Gulf of Mexico has not suffered all the other side-effects of the 1991 war.
Some sensitive environments will remain damaged for many years. The most worrying issue for BP, though, is that Macondo is affecting, not uninhabited desert shores, but a rich, heavily populated area of fishing, tourism and property. The region's largest industry, oil and gas extraction, is now threatened by the US government's drilling moratorium. The lesson from the 1991 Gulf War oil spill seems to be that life is surprisingly resilient. While paying fully for the clean-up and its apparent failings, BP's biggest headache will be the enormous claims for consequential economic losses. The company will do well to ride out the immediate storm and wait for memories to fade and nature to do its work.
Robin Mills is an energy economist based in Dubai and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis email@example.com