Sunday, 2 December 2018

Environmental Legacy of Conflict

In November Laurence Menhinick, of The Conflict and Environment Observatory, gave a talk on The Environmental Legacy of Conflicts - an overview of the past 100 years.

CEOBS- the Conflict and Environment Observatory was founded in 2018 and builds on the work of the Toxic Remnants of War Project. Its aim is to increase awareness and understanding of the environmental and derived humanitarian consequences of conflicts and military activities. Laurence has worked with the Toxic Remnants of War team and is now one of CEOBS trustees.

The War Damage Act of 1965 is an Act of United Kingdom Parliament which exempts the Crown from liability in respect of damage to, or destruction of, property caused by acts lawfully done by the Crown during, or in contemplation of the outbreak of, a war in which it is engaged. It abolishes the rights at common law to compensation for certain damage to, or destruction of, property.
There are many types of war including: invasion; civil war; and external engagement, such as the French in Mali. It is often difficult to establish responsibility for clear-up and remediation.

Laurence gave a long list of conflicts which have taken place over the last hundred years, but said that there are many we never hear about. The direct results are Toxic Remnants of War due to military weapons contamination, damage and loss of access. Indirectly there is often loss of governance; lack of property; trafficking, theft and dumping; and minimal health monitoring.

World War 1 left much ground contamination, a devastated landscape and piles of shells, exploded and unexploded. Shells were made of heavy metals lead, copper and bronze, fuses of copper and zinc.

Ammunition contained noxious chemicals. Other sources of contamination are: leaky unexploded ordnance, open-pit burning of waste, poor storage of chemical weapons and corpses.

The Post War clean up involved filling in the trenches, removing barbed wire, and rebuilding/repairing 293,000 dwellings.

To deal with soil contamination, areas were divided into zones, designated Red, Yellow and Blue. Red Zones were considered impossible to clean and were just fenced off. Most are still there as evidenced by a map shown to us by Laurence. In other areas there was de-mining; disposal and burial of the dead; clearing up of dead animals and a clean-up of chemical weapons. Clean-up was poor until the mid-1970s. Today 30 tons of explosives and ammunition remnants are recovered each year.

The Yellow and Blue zones are now mostly cleaned up and a limited range of activities is allowed in them e.g. woodland management, remembrance tourism, ghost villages and military activity. A Hundred Years on there is no end in sight for a total clean up.

Chemical Weapons were banned by the 1925 Geneva protocol, but many are still produced “in case the other side has them”. Many of these weapons were disposed of at sea (maybe up to 1.6 million tons). There is a possibility of leakage and a chance of them being caught by trawlers.

1972 brought The Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention and The London Convention on Prevention of Marine Pollution. In spite of these Conventions the Americans were able to use Agent Orange, a mass defoliant, and Napalm as both were said to have other primary uses. An estimated 73 million litres of chemical agents were deployed. 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange and 3,100,000 hectares of forest were defoliated, not to mention the water contamination and the effect on wildlife. 

Nuclear fallout and depleted Uranium (used in weapons and armour) affect large parts of the world not just Japan and Iraq.

Industrial contamination when factories are bombed, as in Syria, is characterised by release of toxins from pharmaceuticals, textiles and plastics.

Oil contamination is also widespread in the world. Some examples are the 1989 NATO bombing of Novi Sad, when refineries were targeted resulting in contamination by 73,000 tons of crude oil products. The Oil Well fires in Kuwait in 2007 left a black deposit a foot deep on the desert.

There are many indirect consequences. Loss of governance in The Yemen and the Civil War there pose a risk to the Red Sea Ecology. Floating Storage and Offloading terminals (FSOs) are a disaster waiting to happen. Large refugee camps e.g. in Jordan, make demands on water supplies, firewood etc. and produce pollution because of lack of suitable infrastructure. In many countries where war has resulted in lack of governance there is illegal exploitation of natural resources. Artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo results in DNA damage in children.

CEOBS, the Conflict and Environment Observatory, wants the United Nations Environment Program to be broadened beyond the post-conflict environment and to take the principles of International Law into wartime. They aim to gather data for better monitoring, push for recognition of the needs of civilians, and push for remediation action. 

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