Murales contro la guerra

War is hell (Martin Gollman - Flickr)

Pekka Haavisto è a capo di una Task Force costituita dall'UNEP che si sta occupando della contaminzione da uranio impoverito nei Balcani. Pubblichiamo un suo intervento a CIVITAS 2001. Il testo è in inglese

10/05/2002 - 

That war is dangerous is no great revelation, but modern warfare has created modern dangers not known to history. From the Zeppelins and bi-planes of the First World War, to the cruise missiles and laser guided bombs of today, war has extended its reach. In modern warfare, the enemy's economy, his industry, his civilian transport and communication networks are all deemed valid targets. War is no longer contained on the battlefield; the weapons, targets and tactics of modernity have spread war into the global environment.

The world has recognized the new reach of warfare, there are international conventions forbidding weapons that change the environment as part of warfare (causing floods, earthquakes, climate change etc.). Secondly the accuracy of modern warfare gives new responsibilities to warriors that they have not had before; now for example storage tanks at one facility holding one chemical can be targeted whilst leaving the storage tanks of environmentally dangerous chemicals in tanks next door untouched. Finally war has always had repercussions on the health of the local population, but with the modern risks of chemical pollution this must become an acute issue of moral responsibility for warring parties.

War damage to the environment can occur in two ways, the first being incidental - such as the bombing of factories or refineries which are seen as vital to the enemies war effort, but the effects of which are damaging to the environment, or even just the movement of masses of troops, vehicles and camps will have direct effects on the environment. Secondly the damage can be deliberate, during the Gulf War oil was released into the Persian Gulf with the intention of increasing the cost of war to opposition through environmental terror. A third related source of environmental damage from war is from the mass movement of non-combatants; refugees are forced to move to places with no infrastructure for handling them. From the cutting of firewood to management of sewage, this will directly impact on the environment. In either case these actions will have both short and long term implications to the environment and the people who live within it.

War and the Environment: The Kosovo Conflict
The Kosovo Conflict in the spring of 1999, was seen in many quarters as a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations has long taken a lead in humanitarian crisis resolution, but at the same time voices were raised about a connected yet different crisis, that of the war's effect on the environment. It was on this issue that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) took the lead by conducting what has become the World's first comprehensive Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment.

The Kosovo campaign saw claims of environmental terrorism made against the other, by both sides. It was perhaps the first major conflict where claims related to the environment were made so ardently. The Yugoslavs warned of the dangers of trans-boundary air and water (referring to the Danube) pollution after air strikes against their industry, whilst NATO claimed that in their targeting procedures they could include environmental considerations, due to their pin-point accuracy. These claims gave added impetus to a post-conflict environmental assessment, only a non-biased international assessment could assess the validity of the various claims, and assess the dangers faced by the local populations.

The Balkans Task Force was initiated in May 1999 by Dr. Klaus Töpfer the Executive Director of UNEP. It has been funded by contributions from European governments; Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK. In-kind support was provided by the governments of Russia and Slovakia, and from various NGOs including Greenpeace, WWF, IUCN, Green Cross International and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

War damage to the environment can be caused by targets that are destroyed and secondly by the nature of the weapons used. UNEP's publications can be divided in a similar way. The first published report The Kosovo Conflict: Consequences for the Environment and Human Habitation was concluded in October 1999. It was primarily a study of damage to the environment caused by the targeting of various industrial and infrastructure facilities across the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). The overall study comprised of various missions, including one that studied the environment near bombed industrial facilities, particularly testing the effects on nearby agricultural land. Another mission focused on the wars effects on the Danube river, after fears were expressed that war damage could lead to pollution of this globally important river. A third mission studied the effect of the war on biodiversity, in particular visiting various national parks and other areas of recognized importance for regional biodiversity. The fourth mission looked at the impact on human habitation, and the final mission conducted preliminary research on depleted uranium.

In March 2001, UNEP published Depleted Uranium In Kosovo: Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment. This report reflects dangers to the environment that maybe inherent in the weapons of war themselves, rather than the damage they do to there targets.

Environmental War Damage in FRY
The mission to FRY identified four environmental "hotspots", Pancevo, Krgujevac, Novi Sad and Bor - all in Serbia. In Pancevo alone, over 60 chemicals were released into the Pancevo canal. Not all of the pollution was caused by the war, estimates vary that between 60% and 80% of the pollution was already there. UNEP is now running major cleanup operations in Pancevo and in Novi Sad, another town where major pollution problems existed before the war.
UNEP also produced post-conflict environmental studies of both Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, two states indirectly involved in the Kosovo conflict. The major part of the work here focused on pollution form industrial facilities that had no connection to the war, but the reports did consider the impact of the major refugee flows that these countries experienced as a result of the war in Kosovo. Whilst refugees must be seen primarily as an humanitarian issue, UNEP has shown that there are environmental implications from using tactics in war that force civilian populations to flee their homes.

In addition to these issues, the systematic destruction of housing in Kosovo has environmental implications. For the original report, The Kosovo Conflict: Consequences for the Environment and Human Habitation UNEP was joined by UNCHS (Habitat) who addressed this issue. UNCHS estimates put the number of damaged house in Kosovo to be 120 000, and 40 000 damaged beyond repair. Returning refugees have flooded into the bigger towns, in the case of Pristina more than doubling its population, with all the environmental problems that entails such as water and waste management.

The Depleted Uranium Issue
The US military has known about the military applications of depleted uranium (DU) since the 1940s. It was first used in battle by the US and UK forces in the Gulf War of 1991. DU is waste by product of enriching uranium ore for nuclear power station fuel or in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. It is less radioactive than natural uranium which has isotopic content of U-235 of 0.7%, DU only contains an isotopic content of U-235 of 0.2%, hence it is 'depleted' and less radioactive. It is of military use because of it great density, giving DU projectiles great penetration power. DU projectiles on contacting hard surfaces, such as tank armour, are 'self sharpening': instead of 'mushrooming' on impact the projectile actually becomes sharper as it passes through the armour. DU is not explosive, but the DU dust created on impact will burn due to the extreme temperatures produced, making the projectile even more effective. Due to it being a waste product DU is also relatively cheap.

A US Defence Department official appeared to confirm the use of DU ammunition by A-10 planes during the conflict on May 3 1999, but no other official statement was made, particularly confirming or denying that DU was used as a counter-balance in cruise missile, an important NATO weapon in the war. UNEP set up a Desk Assessment Group in the summer of 1999 to consider the DU issue. Preliminary radiation measurements were taken at various attacked locations in Kosovo, but nothing untoward was discovered. The Desk Assessment Group concluded that more study was needed but that it would not be feasible without more direct information from NATO.

The Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan made a formal request to Lord Robertson of NATO in October 1999. NATO formally confirmed the use of DU in February 2000 and provided information on the numbers of rounds fired and general areas where they were used. This was not considered sufficient to warrant a full scale scientific investigation, so a second request was made by Mr. Annan. In June 2000 NATO provided the UN with a map and coordinates for 112 attacks made with DU, and a break down of quantities fired in each mission. A meeting in Geneva in September 2000 of involved UN agencies and attended by NATO representatives, gave the go ahead for the DU mission. This was speedily organized and left for Kosovo on the 5th November.
Eleven sites struck with DU were visited by the team and they collected 355 samples for scientific analysis. The samples include 249 soil and concrete samples, 46 water samples, 37 botanical samples (grass, lichen, mushrooms etc), 3 milk samples, 13 smear test samples, 3 penetrators (the part of the DU round that is made entirely of DU) and 4 jackets (another part of the DU round that helps the penetrator fly straight).

The report concludes that there is no widespread radiological or toxicological contamination from DU. This was a very important finding for both the local population and for soldiers serving in KFOR. UNEP found that detectable ground surface contamination is very localized to within a few meters of found penetrators or impact holes made by penetrators. This meant that UNEP could say that villages near DU sites were safe to return to, and that field in the areas were safe to plow. The biggest risk of contamination is from contaminated soil entering the body via the mouth, such as child putting a dirty had in their mouth after playing, but even if this did happen, assuming the small amounts likely to be involved, the radiological risks are not significant, although from a toxicological view point the possible intake could be somewhat higher than recommended levels. There was no detected contamination of water.
Due to the small number of penetrators found at the sites in comparison to the numbers said to have been fired, it is safe to say that a large percentage of penetrators remain buried in the ground. Their future behavior is not known, it is expected that they will corrode and there is a possibility that where they exist in large concentrations there is possibilities that there corrosion could take the ground water in the area over the WHO guidelines for uranium concentration in drinking water.

The report made recommendations for future action on the DU issue, these included that all sites where DU was used should be visited, and all sites should be tested for ground contamination, cleared of penetrators or jackets left on the surface, and marked with warning signs. Where possible decontamination should take place. Water quality should also be monitored over a longer time frame to ensure that DU does not contaminate the water supply in areas effected.

Despite dismissing some of the wilder claims on the dangers of DU, the report accepts that there remain considerable scientific uncertainties over DU. The UNEP study was the first to scientifically study the behavior of DU away from the controlled environment of the test firing range. One of the reports recommendations is that the UNEP should conduct a similar mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina where DU was used in smaller quantities over 5 years ago when NATO attacked Bosnian-Serb positions. This would provide and interesting test case for the behavior of DU in the soil and its effect on ground water in the medium term.


There will never be such as thing as a clean war, but this post-conflict environmental assessment has shown that steps can be taken to minimize environmental damage during wartime. The international community must ensure that it is not innocent local civilians who suffer due to environmental damage from war, assessments such as UNEP has conducted in the Balkans point the way forward, and they must be rapidly followed by thorough and effective clean-up action.

It is perhaps also time to think again of the cost-benefit balance of targeting industrial facilities, where serious pollution of air or water, or commonly, both will be the result. The short term benefits to the soldier in this action might seem clear, but to see the long term costs requires much greater contemplation.

And finally, environmental degradation due to war and conflict, gives us yet another important reason for seeking other ways to resolve conflicts beside looking for military solutions.

Pekka Haavisto

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