War and the environment: war can wreck landscapes and ecosystems as well as people.

AuthorDeWeerdt, Sarah

In 1998, the environmental group Green Cross International sent a team of four scientists to Kuwait to investigate the environmental effects of the Gulf War seven years earlier. What the team found was very different from the surreal inferno of burning oil wells that had been the scene in 1991: a quiet desert, green with waving grasses. As the team wrote in its report, however, "other problems are literally below the surface and one needs only to scratch the desert to find the remains of the continuing environmental damage"--for example, spilled oil that continued to percolate through the porous soil and threaten Kuwait's meager freshwater aquifers.

Several recent wars in varied environments and different parts of the world reveal that the ecological consequences of war often remain written in the landscape for many years. But the story is not always straightforward or clear. Instead, the landscape is like a palimpsest--a parchment written on, scraped clean, and then written over again--on which the ecological effects of war may be overlain by postwar regeneration or development. Yet looking carefully and in the right places can allow the history of past human conflicts to be read in the landscape.

Of course, wars are not the only events that leave their signature on the land. "This is essentially true of all impacts on ecosystems," says John Hart, a conservation scientist based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo--floods and hurricanes, for example. "So it really puts conflict into the context of natural history."

Still, warfare is not the same as other disturbances that buffet natural ecosystems, and there are reasons to be concerned about the longterm ecological effects of war, particularly of the modern variety. For one thing, there is the sheer firepower of current weapons technology, especially its shock-and-awe deployment by modern superpowers: "Our capacity to destroy now is so much greater than it's ever been before," notes World Conservation Union chief scientist Jeffrey McNeely. The involvement of guerrilla groups in many recent wars draws that firepower toward the natural ecosystems--often already circumscribed and endangered ones--where those groups take cover. And the targeting of civilians can touch off mass migrations of refugees, which on an overcrowded planet can have a devastating environmental effect.


Widespread concern about the environmental effects of warfare began with the American war in Vietnam, during which the U.S. military sprayed 79 million liters of herbicides and defoliants over about one-seventh of the land area of southern Vietnam. A variety of chemical mixtures, code-named according to the colored bands painted on their storage drums, were used. The most widespread (and infamous) of these was Agent Orange. The primary targets of the program were the country's inland hardwood forests and the mangroves that fringed the Mekong Delta, and the primary goal was to deprive communist Viet Cong guerrillas of the cover that enabled them to move freely and launch ambushes against American forces.

U.S. actions in Vietnam gave rise to the concept of "ecocide"--the deliberate destruction of the environment as a military strategy. Yet as McNeely puts it, "Certainly the use of chemical weapons like Agent Orange in Vietnam was incredibly destructive, but not without precursors." In fact, the U.S. spraying program was inspired by an earlier British effort to quell an insurrection in Malaya by chemical spraying to destroy jungle crops planted by rebels.


And the environment has been war's victim, both deliberate and incidental, at least since the beginnings of recorded history. Five thousand years ago, warring Mesopotamian city-states breached dikes to flood the fields of their enemies (a tactic that resonates with recent events in that part of the world). The Hebrew Bible records in the Book of Judges that King Abimelech salted the fields of Shechem; the Romans did the same after they sacked Carthage.

Yet the scale and destructiveness of the U.S. program (code named Operation Trail Dust but better known as Operation Ranch Hand, which referred specifically to the Air Force component) was largely unprecedented. An estimated 35 percent of southern Vietnam's inland hardwood forest was sprayed at least once. Some areas--those bordering roads and rivers, around military bases, and along the forested transport route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail--were hit up to half a dozen times.

Two to three weeks after being sprayed with defoliants, the trees would drop their leaves, generally remaining bare for several months after. That was a boon to the U.S. military but a disaster for these tropical forests, where the canopy holds the great reservoir of biodiversity: plants growing on plants, thousands of kinds of insects, hundreds of birds. Forest ecologist Arthur Westing, who was instrumental in drawing public attention to the ecological consequences of the Vietnam War, wrote in 1971, "I suspect that the only satisfied animals, at least for a time, would be the termites."

That's because with each spraying some portion of the trees failed to recover. Estimates ranged from about 10 percent in some forests sprayed only once to 80 percent or even more in those sprayed repeatedly. Denuded areas sometimes became desert-like, with blowing sand dunes. Frequently the damaged forests were invaded by scrubby bamboos and exotic grasses, which crowded out canopy tree seedlings and prevented normal forest regeneration. About 14 percent of southern Vietnam's teeming hardwood forests were destroyed, converted in huge swaths to species-poor grasslands and bamboo brakes.


Vietnam's coastal mangrove forests fared even worse: by a quirk of physiology, a single spraying could wipe...

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