Two decades after Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait and set fire to its oil wells, the emirate is finally coming to grips with cleaning up the toxic oil lakes left behind.
Kuwait Oil Company (KOC), the state oil and gas operator, has approached international consultants about master-managing a project to repair environmental damage from the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
It is the emirate's second serious shot at rehabilitating some 100 square kilometres of northern Kuwait that are dotted with more than 2,400 "lakes" filled with dirty oil and concentrated salt residues mixed with sand.
Kuwait National Focal Point (KNFP), a committee established four years ago to supervise the execution of environmental projects in the emirate, tendered a similar contract in 2007 but failed to award it.
The oil lakes formed when fire crews used seawater to douse hundreds of burning oil wells. The contents of the lakes have seeped into the ground, polluting freshwater aquifers and killing flora and fauna in the delicate desert ecosystem. Mines and other unexploded ordnance lurk beneath the toxic sludge as a peril to unwary clean-up crews.
Redha al Hasan, the programme manager of KNFP, has called the situation "a nightmare".
"The oil lakes that were formed ranged from a few centimetres to several metres in depth and represented over 60 million barrels of crude. In total, 660 million barrels of crude oil were released to the environment resulting in 40 million tonnes of contaminated soil. No other petroleum release in history came close to equalling the magnitude of this event," he and several other Kuwaiti and international scientists wrote in a 1995 environmental assessment.
After appearing to drag its feet for more than a decade, KOC has set a February 1 deadline for international consultants to submit prequalification documents. As of this week, the paperwork is available from the company's head office in Al Ahmadi industrial area south of Kuwait City.
KOC controls access to the contaminated land, which the government has designated as a restricted area.
One of the international companies in contention for Kuwaiti clean-up contracts is Canadian Oil Recovery & Remediation Enterprises. The Toronto-based environmental services firm, which has an office in Dubai, has teamed up with the National Cleaning Company of Kuwait, a waste-management contractor, to bid on an estimated US$3.65 billion (Dh13.4bn) of remediation projects it expects Kuwait to launch in the coming decade.
KOC's decision to seek a master contractor follows an oil lakes forum that KNFP organised in March after coming under renewed UN pressure to act. National Cleaning, which had completed a 2007 work order to clean up two small oil lakes, was a participant.
The company lost money on that contract but regards it as a valuable learning experience. "Now our name is established," said Mustafa Maarouf, the company's manager of industrial waste management.
Mr al Hasan told the forum the process of awarding major clean-up contracts had been prolonged because Kuwait was the first country to make a claim through the UN for environmental damages resulting from an invasion.
Kuwait had to prove scientifically that the damage had been caused by Iraq and monitor the situation for five years before the UN signed off on a $3bn environmental rehabilitation package, he said.