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War and the Environment

Concern about the environmental consequences of war probably started after the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at World War Two'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 organisations like the United Nations Environment Progam (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.