Magazine article UNESCO Courier

From Viet Nam to Rwanda: War's Chain Reaction

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

From Viet Nam to Rwanda: War's Chain Reaction

Article excerpt

Fred Pearce [*]

From destroyed vegetation to health hazards, the environment has been a systematic casualty of recent wars and pays the price long after peace returns

I Concern about the environmental impact of warfare began in earnest with Operation Ranch Hand, the U.S. campaign to defoliate Viet Nam's jungles and flush out guerrillas during the late 1960s. American military aircraft sprayed some 70 million litres of extra-strong herbicides, mostly a formulation known as Agent Orange, over the country between 1962 and 1971, dousing 1.7 million hectares, often several times over. By the end of the war, a fifth of South Vietnam's forests had been chemically annihilated, and more than a third of its mangrove forests were dead. Some forests have since recovered, but much of the land has turned, apparently permanently, to scrubby grassland.

An unwarranted experiment in chemical warfare

From the start there was concern that Agent Orange was toxic to humans as well as trees. In 1964, the Federation of American Scientists condemned Operation Ranch Hand as an unwarranted experiment in chemical warfare, But the operation continued until a spate of reports in 1970 and 1971 that Agent Orange was causing birth defects. Soon research showed that 2,4,5-T, one of its two main constituents, caused malformations and stillbirths in mice and contained dioxin, a byproduct that turned out to be one of the most poisonous substances known to science. It disrupts the body's hormonal, immune and reproductive systems, and causes fathers to produce damaged sperm.

Nature has cleansed Vietnamese soils and vegetation of most of the dioxin, but the chemical has lingered on in human blood, fat and breast milk. According to Le Gao Dai, director of the Agent Orange Victim Fund set up by the Viet Nam Red Gross, the breast milk of women in former South Vietnam who were exposed to Agent Orange in childhood contains about ten times more dioxin than that of women in former North Vietnam or industrialized nations such as the U.S.

Appalling birth defects among the children of veterans exposed during the war to Agent Orange and other pesticides are well documented. According to Professor Hoang Dinh Cau, the chairman of Viet Nam's 10-80 Committee, which investigates the consequences of the use of chemicals during the war, tens of thousands of children are affected. Common symptoms are limbs twisted in a characteristic way or missing altogether, and eyes without pupils. And now there is growing concern that a third generation of children may be affected.

Although less well documented, Iraqi attacks on civilian populations of Iraqi Kurdistan between April 1987 and August 1988 have had equally long-term effects. In the town of Halabja, bombed over three days in March 1988 with chemical and biological agents, about 5,000 to 7,000 people were immediately killed and tens of thousands injured. The first medical study of the attack's long-term effects was carried out by Dr Christine Gosden, a professor of medical genetics at the University of Liverpool. In a report to the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, she detailed serious medical problems, including rare cancers, congenital malformations in children, infertility, miscarriages, recurrent lung infections and severe neuropsychiatric disorders. She noted that delayed effects such as the development of cancers following exposure may occur five to ten years later.

All wars produce environmental damage. Some is deliberate and for direct military objectives. Clearly that category includes the defoliation of Indochina--as well as the accompanying physical clearance of some 300,000 hectares of forest using heavy tractors. Other destruction is equally deliberate, but has a less clearly military objective, such as Saddam Hussein's sabotaging of Kuwaiti oil wells at the height of the GulfWar in 1991. His forces attacked some 730 wells, setting some 630 alight. …

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