The Vietnam-era poster that said, “War is not healthy for children and other living things,” had it right. Modern warfare can wreak environmental havoc like never before, according to the upcoming issue of World Watch magazine.
In the January/February 2008 issue, author Sarah DeWeerdt explores the unprecedented levels of environmental destruction caused by recent conflicts in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq. She also describes ecocide, which is the deliberate destruction of natural places as a war tactic. (The use of defoliants like Agent Orange by the U.S. military during the Vietnam war, for example, has been blamed for the destruction of half of southern Vietnam’s mangroves and 14 percent of its hardwood forests.)
Even the movement of refugees during wartime can inflict serious damage on the environment, DeWeerdt writes. Of the 2 million Hutus who fled the Rwandan genocide in 1994, nearly three-quarter of a million settled near a United Nations World Heritage site, Virunga National Park. To get the firewood and building materials they needed to survive, the refugees cut down about 35 square kilometers of the protected forests.
The full environmental impact of the ongoing Iraq war remains to be seen, according to DeWeerdt. However, scientists have already found that the first Gulf War damaged the protective layer of microorganisms that covers desert areas. The loss of that cover, which might takes thousands of years to bounce back, is being blamed for more sandstorms in the region.
When Iraqi forces retreated from Kuwait during the first Gulf War, they torched nearly 800 oil wells across the region. The fires burned for eight months, and any oil that didn’t burn pooled into lakes that have since hardened or sunk into the sands. The United Nations Environmental Program called the act “one of the worst engineered disasters of humanity.”
Then there are the environment and health threats posed by nuclear materials in today’s Iraq. Not the fabled weapons of mass destruction that were never found, but the depleted uranium the U.S. is using for armor and missiles and the radioactive materials that were looted early on in the conflict. The Sierra Club of Canada reports that barrels of uranium oxide stolen from the Tuwaith nuclear plant in Iraq in 2003 were dumped out then washed in rivers. The containers have subsequently been used to transport and store food.
Incidents like that could eventually cause more than 1,000 people to die of leukemia, according to Iraq’s national nuclear inspector.
“Warfare is likely to have the most severe, longest-lasting effects on protected areas that harbor endangered species, and slow-to-recover ecosystems such as deserts,” DeWeerdt writes in her article. “Even in the most fragile environments, sometimes nature — and people –can surprise us.”