"Massive assault"

Vo Quy is semi-retired, but still officially heads the Center for Natural Resources Management and Environmental Studies at the University of Hanoi in Vietnam. Vietnam's leading ecologist, he has played an instrumental role in restoring natural resources lost in the 1961-75 Vietnam war. On a visit to India recently, Vo Quy talked to T V Jayan

Published: Wednesday 30 April 2003

On the Vietnam war:
No war in the 20th century has seen as massive an assault on the environment. Some 70 million litres of Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant, and other toxic chemicals were rampantly used by us armed forces. It completely destroyed about 10 per cent of forests in South Vietnam, including a third of coastal mangroves -- the lifeline for fish stocks and crucial to sustaining coastal ecology.

The herbicides -- called by rainbow colours, orange, blue, white, pink and purple -- were used to destroy thick vegetation that gave good cover to North Vietnamese forces. In addition, the us expended over 14 million tonnes of bombs. The ammunitions used were twice the amount the us used in World War ii. In terms of energy released, it was equivalent to 328 Hiroshima atom bombs. Though the theatre of operations also encompassed portions of Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam, more than 70 per cent of the ammunitions were emptied in South Vietnam, nearly all in rural areas, where 90 per cent of its population lived.

Today, even 30 years later, we find that many natural ecosystems have still not recovered. In March last year, I showed photographs of many affected places -- taken in 1974, 1982 and recently -- at an international conference on health and environmental effects of Agent Orange/dioxin at Hanoi. Most scientists, including many from the us, were quite shocked to see them. The levels of dioxin, traces of a deadly toxic chemical contained in Agent Orange, in soils of those regions subjected to repeated spraying were as high as 800 parts per trillion (ppt). The maximum permissible limit is 50 ppt.

Studies have shown that dioxin is implicated in birth of deformed babies, many types of cancers and other serious debilitating ailments. Many thick forest areas, with a three-tier canopy, were replaced by persistent grasses of little value. Among the worst affected were areas surrounding the then us bases, such as Bien Hoa and A Luoi, where the us is suspected to have dumped huge quantities of unused herbicides.

On health and environmental impacts of the Vietnam war:
As many as one million children, out of a population of 80 million, are born either with serious deformities or develop crippling diseases as they grow. We do not know how many more generations will be affected. What we do know is that even the second generation born after the war has severe malformations. Offsprings of many American war veterans, too, are born with similar deformities. The us government conveniently conceals that. It is another matter that they regularly organise seminars and conferences on dioxins and Agent Orange. Interestingly, a us scientist recently told me that some 25,000 children of Vietnam war veterans, who were born with defects, are supported in a covert manner.

Did you know that A H Westing, one of the first us scientists to study the disastrous effects of Agent Orange way back in 1983, wasn't allowed to go back to the us ? He had to live in Sweden for a long time, before he was permitted to come back America.

My team's studies have shown that the conversion of rich forest ecosystems into exhausted remnants have also led to many animal species, especially the larger mammals and birds, becoming rare and endangered.

On Vietnam's programme to increase forest cover
Since the early 40s, Vietnam had a forest cover of about 43 per cent. This came down to 33.8 per cent in 1976 and then to less than 27 per cent in 1990, due to large-scale destruction during the war. We plan to increase it to 45 per cent in the next 10 to 15 years. In actual numbers, from 1976 to 1995 natural forests decreased from 11.08 million hectares to 8.25 million hectares. Since 1995, a major initiative has been on for forest rehabilitation through planting trees.

Similarly the mangroves, substantially destroyed due to spraying of dioxin and other toxic chemicals, are being regenerated. Some of these regenerated mangrove areas are being used for shrimp-farming. The coastal area under shrimp-farming by 2005 is expected to be 70,000 hectares.

A large number of craters created by bombs the Americans dropped have been converted into fish ponds by local people. In Vietnam alone there are about 15 million craters, and 3 million of them have been converted into fish ponds. In fact last year, while addressing us scientists, I thanked the Americans for digging such a large number of fish ponds without charging us a penny!

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