Middle East

Science

Collateral Damage

An abandoned Iraqi Soviet-made tank sits in the Kuwaiti desert in April 1991 as an oil well burns in the background. (Photo: AFP)

It’s a strong plea in favor of peace. As the sound of the soldier’s boot already echoes on Iraq’s arid plains, new warnings are coming in droves. Though this time they don’t come from world leaders or public opinion concerned about loss of life; instead they come from those who defend the environment. Beginning with Klaus Topfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), who recently issued a cry of alarm on the BBC’s Web site: “There are always endless debates, before and after a war, on the eco-nomic costs, including the cost of bombs and humanitarian aid. We must also take into account the cost of reversing environmental pollution.”

There is no shortage of examples, as two recent UNEP reports on Afghanistan and on the Palestinian occupied territories cruelly remind us.

Did the release of soot from the oil wells that were set on fire during the Gulf War not cause a 10-percent rise in mortality in Kuwait during the year after the war? When on April 15, 1999, missiles were shot at the petrochemical factory at Pancevo [Serbia] on the Danube, there was talk of ecological catastrophe. “In addition to the massive atmospheric pollution as well as soil and water table contamination, there is another problem with more immediate consequences. In destroying chlorine production capac-ity, widely used in Yugoslavia to make potable water, the treatment of water has become impossible,” notes the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP). And every day, the limbs of civilians are amputated after they step on anti-personnel land mines in Angola, Cambodia, and Bosnia. Not to mention all the refugees suffering from cholera in the camps of Rwanda or elsewhere.

Even the military can pay a high price. Soldiers who served in the Balkans know about that. Many of them have been affected by the “Bal-kans syndrome”—contamination by the depleted uranium used by the allies. In the past, repair of the damage caused by war began immediately after a conflict had ended. “The situation in Afghanistan is different,” note the GRIP report’s authors. “The most serious problem consists in the long-term degradation of the environment.”

Natural resources are inevitable victims of war. Water shortages, the destruction of vital cultivation, deforestation, erosion, and desertification are all part of the unavoidable collateral damage caused by conflicts; they have dramatic consequences for local populations. Witness the bombing of the pipelines by the Israel Defense Forces last spring during the attack on the Jenin refugee camp, which aggravated water shortages in the region. Half of the municipal wells in the Gaza Strip do not meet the World Health Organization’s criteria for potable water. This does not prevent Peeka Haavisto, coordinator of the two recent UNEP reports, from saying that “the Palestinians, for their part, could also do better to preserve the environment, for example by not letting their dirty water flow into the Mediterranean at Gaza without treating it first.”

Consequently, the prospect of a war in Iraq gives us much to be worried about. “Ecological security must no longer be considered a luxury but rather an inextricable element of a durable peace policy,” states Klaus Topfer. He calls for international guarantees for protecting the environment similar to the Geneva Conventions, which protect the rights of prisoners and civilian populations in war. For ecological damage poses a threat greater than bombs to populations distressed by hunger, thirst, and disease.

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