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Understanding ecocide: from Vietnam to Gaza

Scorched earth” is the name given to tactics employed by militaries which involve the complete and utter destruction of the enemy’s environment and all resources available to them. From Vietnam to Gaza, scorched earth tactics have killed not just humans but flora and fauna, wreaking havoc on natural ecosystems and generating long-lasting ecological and socioeconomic effects. 

Officially, the Vietnam War ended on April 30th 1975. But nearly half a century later, Vietnamese citizens are still enduring the ramifications of a war described - in the first recorded usage of the term - as an “ecocide” by Yale professor Richard Galston during its final stages. 

Communism - represented politically in the opposition party Pathet Lao - was growing in popularity in Laos, and this, coupled with its location between China (then governed by Mao Zedong) and Vietnam, meant there was a threat of it being used as a channel for military supply, whilst Cambodia was accused of harbouring enemy soldiers. 

The response from the US was to carpet bomb all three countries. In total, 7.5 million tonnes of bombs were dropped by the US during the war, a figure twice as high as the total dropped across Europe and Asia during World War II. This made it the biggest aerial bombardment campaign in history, and Laos is now considered the most heavily bombed country ever.

Decades later, the bombs are still exploding. It is estimated that more than a third of the bombs dropped by the US are still live, and more than 40,000 Vietnamese citizens have been killed since the end of the war by shock explosions. 

Research suggests that bombing fundamentally changes soil structure, and subsequent vegetation growth, an effect known as “bombturbation.” Normal soil has layers to it: vegetation, organic matter, topsoil, subsoil, partly-weathered rock and bedrock. Bombing creates craters, blasting through each of these layers and exposing the bedrock. The crater will go on to accumulate a new ecology, left entirely up to chance - it could collect water, or leaf litter, or microbes, or any combination of these and others, and new plants will begin to take root. These craters now characterise the Vietnamese landscape. 

Scientists estimate that in southern Laos, anywhere between 17-70% of the forest cover has been obliterated by bombing. Trees take up water and release it into the atmosphere as water vapour, a process known as evapotranspiration. With little forest cover - and only sparse and patchy vegetation left behind, water runoff in Laos increased. 

But perhaps the main reason why the US military action in Vietnam between 1955 and 1975 is considered an act of ecocide is the widespread use of chemical weapons employed to defoliate vast swathes of land to prevent the Vietnamese National Liberation Front from using forest cover as a tactical advantage.  US troops sprayed 20 million gallons of ‘Rainbow’ herbicides, without dilution, at more than twice the commercially-recommended rates. 

The most infamous of these herbicides was Agent Orange, which has amongst its byproducts TCDD, a dioxin that is often considered one of the most toxic chemicals known to man. The half-life of TCDD ranges from between 1-3 years on soil surfaces and 50-100 years in river and sea sediments. Along with destroying jungle cover, it was also targeted at food crops, nearly all of which were intended for Vietnamese civilian consumption. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese people were left malnourished or starving during and after the war.

An estimated 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to the spray, and TCDD is still being found in the breast milk of women living in the areas which were sprayed. Careless handling of the chemicals led to thousands of gallons accidentally leaking into the soil. In the Buu Long canal, in the Bien Hoa region, the highest concentrations of TCDD found in 2019 reached 3370 parts per trillion (ppt), 20 times higher than the 150 ppt considered tolerable by the Vietnamese government. A soil sample from the same region in the same year had a TCDD concentration of 962569 ppt, 800 times higher than the suggested threshold. 

Nearly one third of Vietnam’s characteristic coastal mangrove trees were destroyed by the herbicides, eliminating an invaluable carbon sink and source of protection from rising tides. Mangroves also support a diverse range of fish species as their detritus and associated microbes provide food for young fish, who treat the mangrove forests as ‘nurseries.’ In dioxin-contaminated areas, fishing is banned completely, as smaller fish ingest TCDD, which accumulates in their tissues and then moves up the food chain when these fish are preyed upon. However, people desperate for money and food often illegally fish in these areas, and so people often unintentionally consume TCDD. 

TCDD is able to affect humans through its epigenetic influence: changing which genes are expressed and when. Epigenetic effects are transmitted through the generations, and today, more than 1 million Vietnamese civilians are thought to have disabilities resulting from the effects of Agent Orange. 

Although scorched earth tactics were outlawed in 1977 under the Geneva Convention, in reality they are still utilised in conflicts around the world to the present day.

In June 2023, the Kakhovka dam collapsed in Kherson Oblast, a Russian-occupied area of Ukraine. Although denied by Russian authorities, journalists have suggested that the dam collapse was caused by Russian explosives

The ensuing flooding from the collapse caused over 100 deaths, but has also been called “a slow-moving ecological catastrophe” for the ripple effects it will have on generations of Ukrainians. Plants and trees drowned, waterbirds lost their nests and food sources, and fish were swept out to land and suffocated without water. 

If local crops were not destroyed by the initial flooding, they suffered from the runoff or from a lack of irrigation caused by the subsequent lack of water. Both industrial chemicals and oil - an estimated 150 metric tons of it - leaked from the hydropower plant at the dam into the Dnipro river, on which the dam was based. 

The river flows into the ocean, and in doing so it brought toxicants from the dam collapse. It also carried mines and unexploded ordnance from the conflict, making the area even more dangerous for residents. The damage also jeopardised Ukrainian drinking water supplies, putting civilians at risk of waterborne diseases.

Ukrainian prosecutors considered what happened to the dam an act of ecocide. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg agreed, stating “ecocide and environmental destruction is a form of warfare as Ukrainians by this point know all too well, as does Russia.” Activists have been striving to make ecocide a recognised crime under the International Criminal Court (ICC), but so far, they have not acquiesced. 

Most recently, the term ecocide has been applied to Israel’s assault on Gaza. According to Abu Diab, a displaced resident of Gaza City, “there is pollution everywhere - in the air, in the water we drink, in the food we eat, in the area around us.” The former head of the Israeli national security council, Giora Eiland, has even stated “Creating a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a necessary means to achieve the goal…Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.”

The environmental destruction of Gaza by Israeli forces did not begin after Hamas’ attack on 7 October 2023, but since then, it has intensified. 

In previous years, occupation forces sprayed airborne herbicides and bulldozed crops along the Gazan perimeter, whilst limiting vital resources such as clean water and farming materials. Still, plants rooted. For Palestinians, olive trees in particular are seen as symbols of resilience and resistance, with many olive trees in the region being over thousands of years old and in conditions of sparse water, yet still able to fruit.

But now, most of these orchards are gone entirely. Nearly 40% of agricultural land in Gaza has been destroyed by the IDF. In Southern Lebanon, where the IDF has used white phosphorus - in contradiction of international law - 462 hectares of agricultural land have been rendered unusable, and soil and water systems have become contaminated. 

In Gaza, water contamination has been an issue for several years. The land of Gaza is enclosed - having been described as the world’s “largest open-air prison” -  and historic restrictions on water usage and water and waste treatment have made water and soil contamination recurring problems in the area. Waterborne diseases are especially prevalent, being the most common cause of illness amongst Gazan children. In recent months, water pollution has increased due to bombardment, the destruction of already-limited water and waste management facilities and the dumping of solid waste in areas leaching into aquifers. 

In 2022, the UN declared that everybody on the planet has the “right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.” Acts of ecocide across the globe demonstrate how war contradicts this fundamental right, and how civilians are those who pay the price. 

This hasn’t gone unrecognised. In 1960s America, the anti-Vietnam war movement grew in tandem with environmental consciousness. Democratic senator Gaylord Nelson, a passionate environmentalist and opponent of the war, helped to create the first Earth Day, which he envisioned as an environmental ‘teach-in’ inspired by the wave of student demonstrations against the Vietnam war.

It is no wonder then, that environmental activists from Greta Thunberg to Asad Rehman - previous head of international climate at Friends of the Earth - have demanded a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. To fight for environmental justice demands solidarity with the victims of conflicts from Vietnam to Ukraine and Gaza and necessitates an opposition to war and its humanitarian and ecological implications. The alternative, as we have seen, is leaving a legacy devastating to future generations.


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