On August 2 1990 Iraqi president Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, provoking instant condemnation from the international community.
The UN immediately imposed economic sanctions, while President George Bush Senior organized a 32-nation military coalition and dispatched US troops to Saudi Arabia.
The coalition’s assault began with bombing raids on January 17 1991 and, just one week later, Iraq deliberately dumped millions of gallons of crude oil from Kuwait’s Sea Island terminal into the Persian Gulf, apparently to prevent US Marines from landing. This wanton sabotage produced the worst oil spill in history, and it was exacerbated by other sources of leaking oil – several damaged tankers, a Kuwaiti oil refinery and an Iraqi oil terminal. Some 770 km (478 mi) of coastline, from southern Kuwait to Saudi Arabia’s Abu Ali Island, was smothered in oil and tar, wiping out almost all plant and animal species living there and destroying an already fragile ecosystem.
Coalition forces successfully accomplished their mission of ejecting the Iraqis from Kuwait and the war was over by February 28. But during the fighting it had of course been impossible to deal with the disaster, which covered 1,550 sq km (600 sq mi) of the sea’s surface, and was about 13 cm (5 in) thick.
The Persian Gulf contains superb coral colonies and beds of sea grass and algae that are home to dugongs and sea turtles as well as fish and birds, all of which were severely affected, as were the coastline’s many beaches, mangrove swamps and salt marshes. There is uncertainty regarding the exact amount of oil that was spilled, but it was more than twice the size of the previous record-breaker, the Ixtoc 1 oil well blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico.
When: January 21 1991
Where: Persian Gulf
Toll: No loss of human life was directly attributable to the oil spill, but thousands upon thousands of fish, birds, animals and plants were destroyed.
You should know: After the Gulf War was over, a massive clean-up was embarked on. Some of the oil was recovered, some was washed ashore, mainly in Saudi Arabia, and some evaporated. A long-term study monitored 22 separate locations in a Saudi Marine Wildlife Sanctuary: by 2007 six locations had returned to their previous state, two had not improved at all, and the remainder were still affected by various degrees of pollution. So, 16 years after the war, the area was far from fully recovered.