Into the apocalypse: Kuwaitis recall the desperate struggle to control the 1991 oil fires

Co-founder of Kuwait Energy Sara Akbar was on the frontline of the disaster-response effort following Saddam Hussein's invasion

Smoke fills the air from oil wells that were set on fire by Iraqi forces during the Gulf War. Getty 
Smoke fills the air from oil wells that were set on fire by Iraqi forces during the Gulf War. Getty 

For many Kuwaitis, February 28, 1991, was the day a nightmare ended.

Occupying Iraqi forces were retreating from the country, 208 days after Saddam Hussein’s invasion.

The maximum you could see in front of you was two metres. It was really tough

Sara Akbar

But for Sara Akbar, there was no relief. The 33-year-old chemical engineer in the Kuwaiti Oil Company watched the sky turn black as night with smoke as her entire industry burned, and with it, all hopes for Kuwait’s oil-dependent economy, not to mention the environment.

“Personally, we didn’t participate in the celebrations of the liberation,” she says.

“In the last days of the occupation, we ventured out to see our offices burning. So we went to work in our colleague’s home and started to put the plans together.”

An ecological crime

In the history of scorched earth tactics, the destruction of almost 700 oil wells in Kuwait by Saddam’s retreating forces is one of the most notorious.

The disaster began in the run-up to the Coalition ground attack in Kuwait: anticipating a beach landing, Iraqi forces released oil from tankers into the sea and pumped it from storage on land, in order to create a sea of fire.

As much as 11 million barrels would soon wash up on hundreds of kilometres of coastline in the Gulf.

On land, trenches were filled with oil which was then set on fire, a possible attempt to hide Iraqi forces from Coalition air strikes.

In the country’s largest oil field, Greater Burgan, 684 oil wells were blown up with dynamite.

While estimates vary, at least 5 million barrels of oil per day were lost at the peak of the fires, wiping out years of oil revenue worth tens of billions of dollars. Pressure within underground oil reservoirs kept the oil flowing into towering fires that blazed day and night.

"At the time of the Iraqi invasion, I was assigned to the US Navy to assist in certain operations," says Zafer Al Ajami, now a Kuwaiti politics analyst.

"During the time of the oil fires, there were days when the sky would be pitch black at 10am. There would be brief instances where the skies would clear up and the birds would start flying around and chirping, only to be engulfed in darkens shortly after,” he says. For Mr Al Ajami, the liberation of his country was accompanied by terrible sights.

"When entered from the south close to Al Ahmedi oil fields, we saw misery, nothing short of an apocalyptic scene."

Firefighters from across the world rushed to Kuwait to deal with the inferno - 16,000 from US company Bechtel alone.

Kuwait’s own firefighters also played a leading role, but faced huge obstacles from the start. A major problem was having no place to plan crisis response.

“All the government buildings and hotels and big institutions were on fire. They set all of these on fire and left,” says Ms Akbar.

“The other problem was that the airport was completely damaged, the ports were damaged and the sea was full of sea mines, so no help could come into Kuwait.”

Having worked for a decade across the country’s oil fields, Ms Akbar would later say she knew the energy infrastructure “like the back of her hand”.

“In the oil sector, what we focused on immediately was two things: putting out the fires and putting back production because we needed oil for cars and power plants, which were damaged. Without power and water there is no life, so we needed to do two things in parallel: the fire fighting and at the same time, getting oil production going”.

Planning focused on getting enough data about the blazing oil fields to foreign firefighting specialists, before the Kuwaitis formed their own teams to tackle the fires. Ms Akbar headed a survey team for North Kuwait, where, she says, they assessed that 85 per cent of oil infrastructure had been destroyed.

“We started the fire-fighting operations with the wells on the roads, and close to the city. We went deeper and deeper into the oil fields.”

Venturing further into the inferno, Ms Akbar describes a nightmarish journey.

“For seven months, we had a huge dark cloud that covered Kuwait. But when you went into the fields themselves, it was a different story. It was filled with black smoke and carbon suspended in the air, so the maximum you could see in front of you was two metres. It was really tough, and we were not good at wearing masks to breathe in that air.”

As Iraqi forces withdrew from Kuwait, they set fire to more 650 oil wells and damaged roughly 75 more, which then spewed crude oil across the desert and into the Persian Gulf. Courtesy Matt Radcliffe via NASA
As Iraqi forces withdrew from Kuwait, they set fire to more 650 oil wells and damaged roughly 75 more, which then spewed crude oil across the desert and into the Persian Gulf. Courtesy Matt Radcliffe via NASA

“It was horrible, and after we finished the tasks, the government sent us for a medical check-up to make sure we were OK.”

Many Kuwaitis paid a terrible price.

“In my case, the doctor told me that 87 per cent of my lungs were clear but the rest of it was blocked. He said that my lungs seemed like those of a heavy smoker who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for three years. It took me a few years to clear my lungs,” Ms Akbar says.

“However, for the heavy smokers in our team it took a big toll on their health. One of them died two years ago and the other one had to retire because he couldn’t work again because of his breathing problems.”

Salvation

One by one, the wellhead fires were extinguished, with great effort. One technique involved a Russian contraption nicknamed “Big Wind”, which comprised two MiG-15 jet engines mounted on a tank which blasted the well fires with steam.

“By the 30th of June 1991 we managed to operate two facilities, with 120 wells intact,” Ms Akbar says, referring to Kuwait’s remaining oil infrastructure out of nearly 1,000 oil wells.

“We could go back to something like 265 thousand barrels a day.”

That amount was a fraction of Kuwait’s pre-war production capacity of two million barrels a day.

The last of the well fires was capped on November 6, but parts of Kuwait are still blackened with oil pollution and the clean-up effort continues.

“After the war, we were still worried about emptying out the oil in those lakes, for fear of land mines," says Mr AlAjami, referring to slicks of oil that blotted the landscape. "To this day, when you fly over Kuwait you could see dark spots, the remnants of those oil lakes."

Iraq is paying reparations to Kuwait to this day.

Thirty years later, Ms Akbar is still horrified by the cruelty of the destruction left behind in her country.

“What is sad about this is that it was the largest environmental catastrophe created by mankind, it was a man-induced catastrophe,” she says.

“I hope that the world has learnt its lesson that no one should ever use the environment as a tool for war or destruction.”

The UN later declared the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.

“Many people still suffer the results of this environmental crime,” Ms Akbar says.

“But the 6th of November 1991 was definitely a really beautiful day.”

For her efforts during the Kuwait oil fires crisis, Ms Akbar was honoured by the UN Environment Programme in 1993, and went on to become the director of the International Society of Petroleum Engineers. She later became the chief executive of Kuwait Energy, which she co-founded.

Updated: February 28, 2021 04:25 PM

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