Dolphins, War and the Environment

SARID, May 2003

by Vinod Moonesinghe
SARID project Coordinator for Sri Lanka


Soon after the forces of the United States of America captured a foothold at Umm Qasr, two especially trained bottle-nosed Atlantic dolphins were flown in to help seek mines in the approaches to the Iraqi deep-sea port (1).

These are not, of course, the first animals that have been used in war. The horse and the elephant have been used in combat for millennia, and donkeys, mules and bullocks have transported the soldiers’ food and supplies and the heavier weapons. Nor is it the first time that animals have been used to locate or destroy mines. In Sri Lanka, during the course of the Eelam Conflict, herds of goats and of cattle were driven over mined areas to clear them for the passage of troops.

It is not even the first time that marine mammals have been used. The US Navy had began experimenting with them, hoping to use their natural acoustic sensing devices for warlike purposes, in the 1960s. It used dolphins in the 1970s in Vietnamese waters and in the 1980s in Bahrain to defend its ships from mines and swimmers (2).

However, the use of dolphins in the Iraq war highlights the dangers to the environment that are likely to proceed from the conflict. Dolphins, like many other mammals, are territorial creatures. It is not impossible that conflicts may erupt between the species indigenous to the Persian Gulf and the alien interlopers, mirroring the war between their human counterparts (3).

The 1991 Gulf War left in its wake a major ecological disaster. About 8 million barrels of crude oil were dumped into the Persian Gulf, polluting 560 km of coast and the many burning oil wells released nearly 500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (4).

Now environmentalists warn that the current war may lead to "massive and possibly irreversible" environmental damage to the region, qualitatively different from that sustained in the previous conflict. It might compound the problems that remain from the 1991 war while further harming the ecology of the area and contributing to Global Warming (5).

BirdLife International, an environmental organisation, has listed seven threats to the environment and to bio-diversity posed by the war:

1. Physical destruction and disturbance of natural habitats of international importance and wildlife resulting from weapons use
2. Toxic pollution of natural habitats and wildlife resulting from oil spills or oil well fires caused by fighting or deliberate damage
3. Radiological, chemical or bio-toxic contamination of natural habitats and wildlife resulting from the use of weapons of mass destruction and conventional bombing of military or industrial facilities
4. Physical destruction of natural habitats and wildlife resulting from increased human pressure caused by mass movements of refugees
5. Burning of wetland and forest vegetation as a result of fighting or deliberate damage
6. Desertification exacerbated by military vehicles and weapons use
7. Extinction of endemic species or subspecies (6)

Since the beginning of the war, some of these fears seem to have been justified. Smoke from fires caused by the thousands of bombs and missiles which have inundated Iraq, from oil-filled trenches lit to deter aerial attack and from burning oil fields has spread over the region. Thick smoke, which the Iranian Islamic Republic News Agency says were caused by bombs dropped by the US and its allies, has crossed into the Iranian province of Ilam (7).

According to Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the black smoke seen on television and in satellite pictures contains dangerous chemicals that can harm to human and pollute the region's natural ecosystems. It may contain contaminants like sulphur, mercury and dioxins (8).

Apart from the highly visible smoke, there are other, not so apparent indicators of environmental stress. For example, observers from UNEP have reported a plankton ‘bloom’ in the Shatt-al-Arab estuary, where the Euphrates and Tigris debouch into the Persian Gulf. This increase in phytoplankton productivity may be due to larger quantities of nutrients draining into the Gulf as raw sewage and to waste matter from the unusual number of ships in the area. UNEP warns that this might lead to the depletion of local fisheries (9).

A longer-term threat to the environment may be caused by depleted uranium (DU). Naturally occurring uranium is ‘enriched’ - that is, the concentration of the isotope U235 is increased - for use in nuclear power plant. What is left after enrichment is what is known as DU. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that it has about 60% of the radioactivity of purified natural uranium. It is used by the US and its allies in penetrators in armour-piercing ammunition for their tank guns, artillery and aircraft. DU has been found to be behind many illnesses among US service veterans of the 1991 war (the ‘Gulf War Syndrome’).

An international research team from UNEP has discovered that DU used in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1994-95 has contaminated local groundwater and the atmosphere. Used DU penetrators, left near the ground surface have corroded, and the radioactive substance has leached into the groundwater. Wind and human actions have caused particles of DU to be re-suspended in the air as dust. UNEP says the latest findings are consistent with its previous studies in Kossovo in 2001 and in Serbia-Montenegro in 2002 (10).

UNEP found that the penetrators used in Bosnia-Herzegovina have corroded about 25% over the past seven years, and they are expected to corrode completely over the next 18-28 years (11). Therefore, the DU munitions being used by the US and its allies in Iraq can be expected to continue contaminating the environment for the next 25-35 years. The long-term effects of this low-grade radiation cannot yet be measured.

One area where there is a significant threat to bio-diversity due to the Iraqi conflict is the Mesopotamian marshland of southern Iraq, which once covered about 15,000 square kilometres. These marshes have been the subject of a study by UNEP which reports that, by 2001, this area had shrunk to 10% of its former size, mainly as a result of damming in the upper Euphrates-Tigris basin. By 2003, a further 325 square kilometres of wetland had disappeared (12).

According to the UNEP report, the depletion of the marshlands has severely affected bio-diversity. Fish, which lived only in these wetlands are thought to be extinct, while others, from the northern Gulf region which spawn in the marshlands, have gone into decline. A sub-species of Otter and the Bandicoot Rat are two mammals believed to be extinct (13).

The wetlands are being severely affected by the present conflict. They are being traversed by and disturbed by the thousands of vehicles of US forces on their way. They are also receiving contaminants such as DU munitions from the fighting and toxic waste from the besieged cities. According to Phil Hockey, a migration specialist with the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, the war in Iraq could turn out to be a major disaster for bio-diversity, from Southern Africa to Europe and Siberia, especially as it is taking place at this time of year. The marshlands provided a shelter and feeding stop for migratory birds. During March and April, millions of birds, such as pelicans, storks and shorebirds, usually stop over on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers on their way north from Africa to their breeding grounds in Europe and Siberia. They "could abort their migration or even starve to death”, he says (14).

From what can be observed, tremendous damage may already have been done to the environment in the course of this war. It remains to be seen if post-war efforts can reverse some of these depredations on thedelicate balance of the ecology, both of Iraq and of the World as a whole.


1. Dolphins Help Spot Mines in Iraq War, Associated Press, 25 Mar 2003
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. War poses threat to Iraq’s environment, Canadian Nature Federation, 27 Mar 2003, and The Spoils of War, Eric Pianin, Washington Post, 20 Mar 2003
5. Eric Pianin, op cit.
6. Threats to the environment posed by war in Iraq, Birdlife International, 17 Feb 2003
7. Air Pollution, Hunger Stress Embattled Iraq, Environment News Service, 31 March 2003
8. Ibid
9. Ibid
10. Depleted Uranium Contaminates Bosnia-Herzegovina, Environment News Service, 25 Mar 2003.
11. Ibid
12. Drying Mesopotamian Marshes Now Struck by Iraq War, Alexandru R. Savulescu, Environment News Service, 22 March 2003.
13. BirdLife International, op cit
14. No Fly Zone, Reuters, 13 Mar 2003


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