Sri Lanka knows about the aftermath of war.
It leaves behind many legacies – grieving families, shattered limbs, destroyed homes, disrupted education, lost livelihoods and psychological trauma. One of the lesser known legacies is land blanketed with landmines and Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) consisting of unexploded bombs, artillery shells and missiles, mortar bombs, anti-tank projectiles, rifle grenades and hand grenades.
According to the groundviews website, in Sri Lanka this translated into 1.6 million landmines and ERWs spread over an area of 2,000 square kilometres in the districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar, Batticaloa and Trincomalee where, from 1983 to 2009, one million people were displaced by the war.
Kill and maim
Not only do landmines and ERWs kill and maim civilians long after the wars are over but they prevent the displaced from returning home to rebuild their lives and earn a living. Many mines and ERWs appear in fields cultivated by farmers while others prevent fishermen from accessing beach areas. They have also been found in schools, technical colleges, hospitals and national parks. The explosives contained in mines and ERWs can lay dormant for many years but are just as lethal as the day the devices were laid.
Sri Lanka aims to be landmine free by 2025. But mines and ERWs still affect a quarter of all countries, including one which is still suffering the effects of war more than a century after the conflict ended.
In some parts of France, World War I has never ended. These are the Zones Rouges (Red Zones) – an archipelago of former battlegrounds so pockmarked and polluted by war that, more than a 100 years after the end of hostilities, they remain unfit to live or even farm on.
WWI was one of the first industrial wars, and a laboratory for all kinds of military innovations, including the first use of tanks and poison gas. Both the German and the Allied war machines belched out deadly explosives and lethal chemicals on a massive scale. It is estimated that around 60 million shells rained down near Verdun during the fierce battles over that city in 1916 – of which 15 million didn’t explode upon impact.
Bombardments were so thorough that even grass and trees disappeared. When the war ended in November 1918, about seven per cent of French territory was destroyed during the war, in a zone stretching over 4,000 municipalities.
The primary task was to clear the affected areas of ammunition and corpses. This involved the efforts of German PoWs, foreign workers from as far afield as China.
Today, the Red Zone archipelago has shrunk to about 40 square miles (100 km2), about the size of Paris. Yet it’s unlikely that these islands will disappear soon. They are the most tenacious residue of a long-lasting environmental problem.
Each year, farmers in former Red Zones plough up an ‘iron harvest’ of close to 900 tons of unexploded ordnance. Near Verdun, road signs point to dumping grounds where they can leave these shells for the authorities to collect.
France’s Sécurité Civile, which is responsible for removing the ordnance, estimates that at current rates, it could take up to 700 years to completely clear all remaining WWI shells and grenades from France’s soil.
And then there are the gases, acids, and other chemicals polluting the soil – in some parts, the ground still contains so much arsenic that nothing will grow. In less affected areas, biologists still note the lack of floral and faunal diversity related to the pollution, which some estimate may take about 10,000 years to clear.
Even in France itself, not much thought is given to the lingering effects of WWI, or to the remaining Zones rouges – perhaps because so much of the affected areas were left to the trees, becoming so-called forêts de guerre (war forests), notably in the Champagne region. Yet the invisible environmental legacy of the Great War has very real consequences.
One of the lessons not learned from that conflict is that modern wars have long- lasting impacts on health and the environment.
Across the world landmines and ERWs, used as weapons of war by both state and non-state actors, killed or injured 6,897 people in 2018 in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another hundred years to clear them all.
By Michael Gregson