Clean-up after a storm

Sustaining the Soil - Restoration and Rehabilitation of the Desert Environment
March 7, 1997

In August 1990 Iraq invaded and annexed its oil-rich neighbour, Kuwait. In response, in January and February 1991 some 500,000 allied troops confronted about 540,000 Iraqis. Troops and transport fought their duel over a relatively small area of desert terrain. Inevitably, the local environmental effects of the Gulf war were profound and included the destabilisation of desert surfaces, the reactivation of dunes, the generation of dust storms, the destruction of steppe vegetation, and, above all, oil pollution of the land and the coast. More than 600 of Kuwait's oil wells were damaged by Iraqi-planted explosives during the occupation and withdrawal. Sixty million barrels of oil spewed from these wells forming more than 300 "oil lakes" with a combined area approaching 50 square kilometres and a depth of up to two metres, though some oil also penetrated the underlying soil to depths as great as 2.5 metres. The total volume of soil contaminated by crude oil is said to have reached 40 million square metres.

After the cessation of hostilities a joint Japanese and Kuwaiti programme of scientific collaboration and technology transfer was undertaken to find ways of restoring and rehabilitating the desert environment. Results were presented at a symposium in Kuwait in March 1996. Restoration and Rehabilitation is composed of the papers presented and thus has a rather more limited content and appeal than the title might lead one to expect.

The 19 substantive papers deal with three main interrelated themes: remediation of oil-polluted ground, landscape enhancement by vegetation planting, and improved utilisation to enable increased greening of the environment. The most interesting material is that on the remediation of contaminated land. Various papers investigate the possibility of employing bioremediation - using living organisms to break down the molecular structure of contaminants into less complex substances that are less hazardous. The success of such bioremediation is greatly enhanced by providing the contaminated ground with a cocktail of nutrients, moisture and oxygen. Preliminary results suggest that bioremediation can be effective. Other techniques include the use of solvents and heat treatment methods, but their costs (economic and environmental) can be higher. The cost of moving and incinerating large quantities of polluted materials, for example, is at least ten times that of in situ bioremediation.

Kuwait has ambitious plans to mimic some of its neighbours such as Abu Dhabi by carrying out an extensive programme of planting to "green the desert". The National Greenery Plan, developed at the personal behest of the emir, will require the planting, over 20 years, of more than four million trees, .6 million cubic metres of ground cover and 11 million cubic metres of grass. The downside is that it will require rather lavish quantities of a scarce resource, water, at the rate of 124 million gallons per day. Various papers explore the potential ways in which plant growth may be stimulated and water use minimised. Examples include the use of symbiotic micro-organisms in plant cultivation, the role of tissue culture propagation of plants, the use of a synthetic plant growth promoter called 5-aminolevulinic acid, reverse osmosis for waste - water treatment, the recycling of waste - water using membrane treatments, and, wonderful to relate, the attempt to use sea water for irrigation.

This book is of uneven quality. There are some overview papers that are of general use, but the prime interest arises from those papers concerning the uniquely serious issue of how one deals with the large areas of land that have been contaminated by crude oil and soot from the numerous oil fires. Natural degradation processes and the extensive pumping of oil from the oil lakes have done much to improve the environment but the use of remediation techniques has been crucial. One hopes the lessons learned will never need to be applied on this scale again.

The same cannot be said of Sustaining the Soil, which deals with an all-too-widespread and persistent issue - the need to conserve soil and water resources. The lessons learnt by indigenous peoples in Africa and elsewhere have been and will continue to be fundamental for dealing with land degradation. Indeed, one can argue that many outwardly imposed "modern" schemes of soil and water conservation have been less than successful in comparison with traditional methods. Traditional methods can and have made a significant contribution to sustainable rural development, and some have had spectacular results with the rehabilitation of badly developed land, especially in arid and semi-arid areas. This extremely impressive book contains case studies of indigenous soil and water conservation techniques from 14 African countries. It stresses the fact that a new style of natural resource management intervention has emerged that is based on an holistic, village-based management of resources involving local, rather than imposed participation. Most of the participants in this volume are themselves local.

Techniques described in the case studies deal with low-tech methods with a limited capital requirement: pits, mounds, bunds, terraces, mulches, silt-traps, grass strips, mats, fallow, hedges, embankments and the like.

Given the great diversity of authors this book has been carefully and effectively edited with a good index, a good bibliography, excellent colour plates, simple but effective line-drawings and consistently useful maps. It represents tremendous value for money and will be of inestimable use to students of development studies, agricultural ecology and land management, and for those directly concerned with improving the agricultural base of some of the world's poorest countries.

Andrew Goudie is professor of geography, University of Oxford.

Sustaining the Soil: Indigenous Soil and Water Conservation in Africa

Editor - Chris Reij, Ian Scoones, Camilla Toulmin
ISBN - 1 85383 372 X
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £12.50
Pages - 260

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