War and the Environment
March 19, 2009
Peace Pledge Union
Twentieth century weapons technology has ensured a lethal harvest. Landmines: planted in millions in war-torn countries, kill and maim long after wars are over, and deny agricultural use of the land in which they lurk. A Khmer Rouge general called them ‘the perfect soldier’: cheap, efficient, expendable, never hungry, never needing sleep. But eighty percent of landmine victims are civilians, not soldiers; and nearly a quarter of those are children.
LONDON — Images of devastated battlefields are all too familiar. A German officer in 1918 described ‘dumb, black stumps of shattered trees which still stick up where there used to be villages. Flayed by splinters of bursting shells, they stand like corpses upright. Not a blade of grass anywhere. Just miles of flat, empty, broken and tumbled stone.’ The ploughs in Flanders fields still turn up human bones every year.
But twentieth century technology, busily applied to the practice of war, has ensured a more lethal harvest. For example, landmines: planted in millions in war-torn countries across the world, killing and maiming long after wars are over, and denying agricultural use of the land in which they lurk. A Khmer Rouge general called them ‘the perfect soldier’: cheap, efficient, expendable, never hungry, never needing sleep. But eighty percent of landmine victims are civilians, not soldiers; and nearly a quarter of those are children.
Clearing mines is laborious, dangerous, and 30 times the cost of the weapon itself. So is clearing unexploded ordnance of all kinds (including worldwide munitions dumps which leak toxic wastes). The most severe UXO contamination in the world is in Laos. Bomb disposal teams have no records to work from. ‘It was America’s secret war and we can’t get the information,’ says a team leader. ‘All you can do is teach people to live with the bomb.’
But it’s the testing and manufacture of the nuclear bomb which has been responsible for some of the most profound and persistent environmental damage to life on earth. “The complex mixture of contaminants found on many military sites is dynamically moving through the environment,’ says a medical expert. Radiation problems affect people near nuclear plants in every country that has them. Repair and maintenance of many installations and equipment are dangerously inadequate. Nuclear waste is a global problem that won’t go away, threatening environmental disaster on a vast scale: its poison, and toxic chemicals which accompany all weapon production, have travelled round the globe in the atmosphere and ocean currents; as well as water and air, they harm earth, plants that grow in it, and subsistent livestock and wildlife. Human exposure to nuclear and chemical tests and factories, or via the food chain, results in miscarriages, malformed foetuses, high infant mortality and congenital disorders, leukaemia and other cancers, tumours, thyroid disorders, and complex debilitating and life-shortening syndromes. The number of reports of such harmful effects on health, habitat and culture – always at risk in war – continues to grow.
Because war disrupts social structures, ecostructures are neglected and abused, with lasting and costly consequences.
All along the coast of Somalia huge sand dunes, 20 miles across, have crept from the sea towards the main coastal highway. ‘When the dunes hit the road, a new road will need to be built,’ says a Red Cross agronomist. ‘There used to be government plans to stop them. Now there’s nothing. The communication breakdown will be a social disaster.’ The ICRC, encouraging self-sufficiency and seawater fish in the conservative Somali diet, provided boats, nets, hooks and training – only to discover another of war’s ecological chain effects: the coastal waters off Somalia had become a free-for-all, all protocols for international fishing rights ignored. Resources are being fished unsustainably – ‘almost a mining operation,’ says a UN observer. Illegal fishermen now go armed, to protect what they perceive as their property rights.
It’s widely agreed that Sudan’s 1988 famine was caused by its protracted civil war. Southern Sudan has some of the most productive land in Africa; its people are hardworking farmers and herdsmen. If fighting stopped, they’d manage to survive. Instead, thousands have been forced out of their homes, thousands have died, and their land is uncared-for.
‘Most disasters are like this: a mess of war, displacement, hunger and ignorance,’ says Africa specialist John Ryle. ‘To feed the hungry and treat the sick in such circumstances is to become part of the war economy. Part of what aid workers do involves clearing up the chaos left by the global arms trade. They say they are saving lives – but for what? To be lost in endless wars that feed on aid?’
Meanwhile the worst outbreak of sleeping sickness this century has been spreading through the south-west; disease follows war everywhere.
The earth’s environment is battered by war, its preparation, practice and aftermath. It is destroyed as an act of war; it is used as a weapon of war; and its destruction is expensive and sometimes irreversible. Its integral involvement with war is often secret, widely ignored, and easily forgotten – until now.
Now, some people are beginning to talk and listen. Some people are beginning to act. There is a treaty to ban landmines now. There are moves towards tackling the problems of nuclear waste and weapon stockpiles. There is a growing global awareness – with charters to prove it – that war has created consequences which cross boundaries and ignore territories. Natural disasters are costly enough; the cost of war damage is much higher. Even if politics don’t achieve change, economics might.
It’s the natural tendency of governments to suppress or talk down bad news. So it’s the duty of the rest of us – to uncover and publicise it wherever possible. Without the facts, there can’t be informed public opinion, nor a corporate will to deal with the disasters that war creates – dangerous not only for combatants but for civilians, not only for the duration of the war but far into the future, not for warring countries alone but for the whole world.
In one way or another, everyone is already affected. In one way or another, the still-quickening rush to even greater disasters must be stopped.
And the first thing to go must be war
DEATH BY WATER
Soldiers besieging Sarajevo cut off the electricity supply, and with it the water pumps; people lining up at wells and stand pipes were easily and routinely picked off by snipers or attacked with mortar fire. It’s been common practice in war zones for belligerents to fill wells with rocks, steal pipes and pumping systems, dynamite dams, and pollute what’s left. A revolt in Iraq was crushed by draining the marshes on which the rebels lived and depended. Millions have died in war zones and refugee camps from water-borne diseases.
And water looks increasingly likely to be a cause of war, because there is simply not enough of it to go round. In the mere 40 years up to 1990, global water-use tripled. Its use is inequitable and profligate where it’s relatively easy to get. A western family can use 2000 litres a day; in Africa a few litres of untreated water each have to be carried, often for long distances or in war conditions. The world population is still growing, while water tables fall, underground aquifers empty, lakes shrink and wetlands dry up.
There are fears for war over the Euphrates, the object of a vast damming operation in Turkey which will cut Syria’s water supply by a third – and Turkey threatened to cut Syria off altogether for supporting Turkish dissidents. There are fears for war over the river Jordan: Israel, bent on self-sufficiency, claims all the water it can; but Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians need supplies too. There are fears for war over the Nile: Egypt is diverting river water to irrigate the desert, to grow crops instead of importing them; eight more countries, including drought-devastated Sudan, are in the queue. President Sadat has said: ‘The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water’
The Devil’s Garden, 1942
Some 18 million landmines are buried in the sands of El Alamein, most of them laid by the British in their fight against Rommel; he gave the region its nickname. At first it was common for mines to wipe out whole herds of cattle and clans of camel-herders. Over the years the Bedouin have learned what to look out for – but sand shifts the mines, rains dislodge them, and rust in the detonators sparks off spontaneous explosions.
Omar Maazik, blinded when he picked up a detonator in 1984, has lost four relatives. ‘Maybe the ones who die are luckier. But whether we die or are blinded, it’s the same thing: our families have no-one left to support them.’ Bedouin men hold up their mutilated hands ironically to show to British visitors. ‘Ask the British why they don’t come to take the mines away. There are people who will die from the mines who are not yet born.’
Oil strike, 1991
A scientist from a Desert Laboratory toured Kuwait’s burnt-out oilfields. ‘I’ve never seen such devastation. Kuwait’s desert before the Gulf War was very healthy, despite centuries of nomadic grazing and decades of oil development. It supported substantial greenery and wildlife. But now it’s coated in oil residues that affect water permeability, seed germination and microbial life. Plants are dying because they can’t breathe through blackened leaves under dark skies.’
Capping the burning oil wells took ten months. Crude oil released into the sea killed tens of thousands of marine birds and mammals. Oil from extinguished wells formed huge petrochemical lakes, destroying the land surface. Toxic smoke and fumes killed migratory birds and aggravated human chest conditions. A veterinarian at the liberation of Kuwait said: ‘I saw birds just dropping out of the sky. Later I found a herd of dead camels covered with dead flies: whatever killed the camels killed the flies at the same time.’
Killing a Culture,1962-71
US military carried out a massive herbicidal programme in Vietnam for almost a decade. With 72 million litres of chemical spray, they defoliated the forests which provided cover for guerrillas.
‘All our coconut trees died,’ recalled a woman ten years later, in hospital with a third miscarriage, and also having chemotherapy; she asked not to be indentified. ‘Some of our animals died, and those that lived had deformed offspring. The seeds of the rice became very small, and we couldn’t use them for replanting.’
People exposed to the spray suffered headaches, vomiting, diarrhoea, weakness and chest complaints. Meanwhile, Agent Orange’s carcinogenic dioxin was sinking into the soil, washing into the sea, and entering the food chain, where it is still at work today. Children born since the war have consumed high levels of dioxin; and many fathered by men exposed to the spray (many of whom are now dead or suffering from cancers) have spina bifida and other congenital abnormalities.
Victim of Agent Orange, Vietnam
Military on the ground operated a scorched earth policy: ‘Huts and haystacks were set aflame; rice caches were soaked with aviation fuel and burned. The livestock couldn’t be left, lest it feed the communists, so we shot pigs and chickens and machine-gunned water buffalo.’
One soldier stopped to examine a bamboo waterwheel thoughtfully. ‘That waterwheel was as efficient as any device our engineers could produce. The knowledge that built it was being systematically destroyed.’
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