Mon, 16 Jun 2003

War: Assessing its impact on the environment

Arne Jernelov, Project Syndicate

Concern about the environmental consequences of war probably started after the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at World War II's end, when no one knew how long lasting the radioactive contamination would be or what clean-up measures could be taken. During the Cold War, the environmental effects of an all-out nuclear confrontation became a matter of forecast and speculation, illustrated by the concept "nuclear winter."

Not only nuclear weapons incited these fears. The use of Agent Yellow and Agent Orange as defoliants during the Vietnam War gave rise to an intensive debate about -- and some investigations of -- such chemicals' toxicological and ecological effects. Before the first Gulf War in 1991, there was discussion of the possible effects on the global climate if Iraq set the Kuwaiti oilfields on fire -- which subsequently became the prime image of that war's environmental impact.

Attempts have been made ever since to systematically examine and document the environmental consequences of wars. Studies of the Balkan wars and the many wars that consumed Afghanistan during the 1990's have been launched through international organizations like the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Unfortunately, Africa's wars -- in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, Liberia, Sierre Leone, and the Ivory Coast -- have not yet received the attention they require.

What have we learned about the environmental consequences of wars? First of all the effects depend upon the type of war and the type of environment. A high-tech armed conflict has different -- and not necessarily more benign -- effects than one fought with machetes. A war in the jungles of Southeast Asia is different from one in the deserts of Kuwait or one in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Despite these vast differences, it is possible to draw some conclusions:

Effects following destruction of infrastructure. These include burning oil wells, along with chemical or radioactive spills from bombed factories or storage facilities, bacterial contamination of water when sewage treatment systems are destroyed, and flooded or dessicated lands following the destruction of dams and irrigation systems;

Effects of physical or chemical impact on land cover. This category includes erosion and lack of re-growth -- or significantly different growth -- following deforestation, sand drift caused by damage to the "desert crust," or beach erosion after destruction of coral reefs (e.g., by oil spills or bombs);

Effects of chemicals used by armed forces. Restrictions on civilian use are often not applied to the military. Thus, Soviet- built tanks and artillery use PCB's in their hydraulic systems, airplanes in combat mission add ozone destroying halons to their fuel, and marine units use organic-tin compounds in the paint used on their hulls;

Effects of the weapons themselves. Ordinary bullets often consist of lead, tank-buster missiles contain uranium, and explosives are organic nitrogen compounds, sometimes containing mercury. Moreover, mines, bombs, and grenades that failed to explode during combat often continue to render areas inaccessible both for humans and larger animals long after a war ends.

Among the environmental effects are also health effects following exposure to hazardous materials, such as inhalation of smoke from burning oil fields or uranium dust, resulting in asthma and possibly lung cancer. Other health problems, such as "Gulf War Syndrome," have proven more difficult to assign to any specific cause, despite much research. Among the explanations are the combinations of pesticide fogging military camps, the treatment with a bromide compound, the use of insect repellents, vaccinations and exposure to depleted uranium. Exposure to chemical warfare agents following the detonation of Iraq munitions in Khamisiyah has been discussed as a cause of the syndrome.

The massive scale of many wars and their impact is a special factor in their environmental impact. The amount of oil pumped into the Persian Gulf by the Iraqis in 1991, probably to prevent an American Normandy-style landing, was over a million barrels and most likely close to 1.5 million tons -- fifty times the amount released from the tanker "Prestige" off the Spanish coast last fall and forty times as much oil as ravaged the coast of Alaska in the 1980's, after the Exxon "Valdez" disaster.

Given the logistics involved in large-scale wars, there are also significant indirect or second-order effects, such as when a civilian oil tanker on route to Vietnam with fuel for America's forces there ran aground on the coral island of Kiltan in the Laccadives.

The environmental consequences measured in economic terms are also significant. The cost of environmental restoration from oil on 640 kilometers of Saudi beaches after the 1991 Gulf War was US$540 million. Removal of some 1.6 million landmines in Kuwait cost in more than $400 million. These are only two components of the environmental debt of that war.

Paradoxically, while wars are environmentally destructive, former military zones, both within and between countries, often become wildlife refuges where endangered plant and animal species thrive. In Europe, both the black stork and the European sturgeon have survived in such areas, and the former line of demarcation between East and West Germany is today a biodiversity sanctuary.

The writer is professor of environmental biochemistry, an honorary scholar and former director of the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, and a UN expert on environmental catastrophes.