The ecological consequences of the two-month-long North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing campaign in Kosovo are likely to reach catastrophic proportions, threatening to have long-lasting effects throughout the Balkans.
The NATO arsenal used in the Yugoslavian province contained some of the military’s most powerful weapons. According to researcher Alphonse MacDonald, a heavy bomb such as a 1,000-pound Tomahawk cruise missile can generate temperatures up to 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit. “This not only annihilates all flora and fauna, but also destroys the lower levels of the soil, which can take anywhere from 1,500 to 7,400 years to regenerate,” he says.
In addition to the destructive power of cruise missiles, A-10 Warthogs carried projectiles made from depleted uranium (DU), used for its ability to facilitate deeper penetration of targets. These shells are not only deadly on impact, but they continue to emit low levels of radioactivity after they explode. “DU has a very long half life, and will remain in Yugoslavia long after the bombing has stopped,” says Deirdre Sinnott, co-director of the International Action Center. “In the areas where DU was used in the Gulf War, we’ve seen an increase in lung, kidney and liver cancer, as well as birth defects and still births.”
In an attempt to drain the Yugoslavian Army of fuel and supplies, NATO specifically targeted oil refineries, chemical plants, fuel storage depots and industrial complexes. Many of these facilities housed highly toxic substances that were released into the air, water and soil. While accurate information is difficult to obtain and substantiate, Yugoslav sources, in conjunction with the Association of Greek Chemists, supplied the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Vienna with an initial list of toxic chemicals believed to have entered the river systems. The list included mercury, ethylene dichloride, vinyl chloride monomer, dioxins and PCB’s.
After a powerful NATO air strike on the Petrohemija petrochemical complex in Pancevo, concern about an impending environmental disaster began to grow. Pancevo is located approximately 12 miles northeast of Belgrade in the rich fertile region that produces over 90 percent of Yugoslavia’s agricultural products. When several missiles rained down on the facility, the entire area was set ablaze. Fires raged for days as thick black clouds hung in the sky from Pancevo to Belgrade. Authorities claimed that the toxic cloud drifted east to Romania and Bulgaria and north to Hungry and the Ukraine. According to the Earth Times News Service, Bulgarian authorities reported an oil slick five miles long and 1,300 feet wide in the northern region of Vidin. The Romanian Environmental ministry claims that the level of heavy metals in the Danube near the border with Yugoslavia has risen to alarming levels.
Yugoslav officials say the bombing at Pancevo released three tons of caustic soda, 1,400 tons of ethylene dichloride, 800 tons of hydrochloric acid and 1,200 tons of the toxic, explosive and carcinogenic substance vinyl chloride. In a desperate effort to avert additional explosions at the complex, authorities at the facility dumped large amounts of toxic chemicals directly into the Danube.
The bombing of the Pancevo complex was but one of several attacks on similar facilities, many of which were located along the banks of the 1,740-mile Danube. The World Wide Fund for Nature Danube-Carpathian Program (WWF-DCP) points out that the river is a vital life line connecting a myriad of ecosystems and natural areas. The area downstream from Yugoslavia forms a region known as the Lower Danube Green Corridor. Flood plains and wetlands create a unique natural system whose ecological and scientific value is of international importance, reflected in its designation as a World Heritage Site. The Danube is one of the last refuges in Europe for the white-tailed eagle, and hosts 70 percent of the global population of Dalmatian Pelicans.
A spokesperson for the WWF in Vienna notes that more than 20 million people on the lower Danube use the river as a source of drinking water as well as irrigation. The WWF-DCP is calling for the rehabilitation of damaged ecosystems as a result of the war, and for assurances that the environment will have a prominent place in post-war reconstruction plans. “Only immediate measures to stop the downstream flow of pollution will prevent an ecological catastrophe from following the humanitarian one,” says Program Director Philip Weller. “Now that the war appears to be over, urgent action has to be taken to protect the lower Danube.”
To gather information on the environmental impact of the war, the United Nations has established the Task Force on the Environment and Human Settlements in the Balkans. “We urgently need clear, detailed and credible information on the impacts of human settlements and infrastructure, and on the possible environmental repercussions of the Balkan conflict, including water and air pollution and the release of hazardous waste,” says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). This could prove to be difficult since, according to WWF-DCP, the majority of countries downstream don’t have the technical capacity to accurately evaluate the damage.
Scientists agree that the full environmental impact of the conflict will not become evident for several years. “It is very difficult to even hypothesize about the damage at this point, without knowing the full range of chemicals or the specific amounts that were released into the environment,” says Dr. John Bucher of the National Institute of Health Sciences.
But there’s little doubt that a serious environmental disruption has occurred. As Nathalie Gysi of the Swiss environmental agency Green Cross notes, “A war, particularly in an industrialized country, always leads to pollution and often for a long period of time.” While social and political casualties may recover from the hostilities, the ecological health of many war-torn regions may never be fully restored.