11 Wars That Led to Natural Disasters

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1. Flooding of Babylon, 689 BCE

The Assyrians still rank as one of history’s meanest groups of people: skinning captives alive, throwing babies on spears -- all in a day’s work for these brutal empire-builders in the ancient Near East. So when the great city of Babylon rebelled against their rule in the 7th century BCE, there was only one way for it to end: with the total destruction of the city.

The Assyrian King Sennacherib, who stands out even among his peers for cruelty, first burned the city and then had his soldiers level anything that was left standing, including the city’s ancient temples. Finally, to finish the job the Assyrians dammed the Euphrates River and then diverted the water to cover the ruins, flooding the area and turning it into a marshland. Although Babylon was subsequently rebuilt, the flooding trick proved to be popular: in 612 BCE an alliance of Persian, Egyptian, and Babylonian forces destroyed the great city of Nineveh by diverting the Khosr River to flow over it.

2. Mongols vs. Irrigation, 13th century CE

While Genghis Khan may have instituted some enlightened ecological policies back home in Mongolia, the Mongol armies devastated the environment in conquered areas extending from China to Eastern Europe. In Persia, the Mongols destroyed the ancient qanat irrigation systems -- intricate, multi-shaft wells that stretched over many miles to reach hidden groundwater, and which had taken centuries, sometimes millennia, to create and perfect. This senseless destruction turned large area of Persia from green farmland into arid, uninhabitable desert. Combined with the wholesale slaughter of millions of city-dwellers, this permanently changed the pattern of habitation in some parts of the country, as continuous habitation gave way to populations concentrated around isolated oases.

3. Collapse of Khmer Empire, 15th century CE

The splendid ruins of Angkor Wat hint at the power of the Khmer Empire, which dominated Southeast Asia from the 9th century to the 15th century CE. But the real secret of the Khmer’s success lay hidden by the jungle until the last decade, when archaeologists discovered the remains of an elaborate water management system spanning thousands of square miles. In addition to providing fresh water for drinking, this network of canals and artificial ponds and lakes sustained an irrigation system for vast rice paddies surrounding the Khmer capital of Ankgor. But this fragile infrastructure was also vulnerable to attack by hostile forces, including armies from the neighboring Thai and Cham peoples.

After a long series of wars between the Khmer, the Thai, and the Cham, an allied Thai-Cham army finally sacked the Khmer capital in 1430 -- then returned in 1444 to destroy the irrigation systems, putting an end to Khmer power once and for all. Once-fertile rice paddies reverted to jungle, and the sophisticated stonework of the water management was slowly covered up and forgotten.

4. Dutch vs. Louis XIV, 1672

Natural disasters in warfare don’t always result from enemy action: in fact, sometimes they’re self-inflicted. This was the case in the 17th century, when the Dutch resorted to extreme measures to save the Netherlands from the invading forces of the French King Louis XIV.

The Netherlands (meaning “Low Country”) has always had an uncomfortably intimate relationship with the North Sea, as much of the country is in fact “reclaimed” land lying beneath sea level, protected only by dikes. In June and July 1672, Dutch leaders decided to make the final sacrifice to hold back vastly superior French forces, which outnumbered theirs six-to-one: they opened the dikes and flooded approximately 400 square miles of farmland and villages, often over the (entirely understandable) objections of Dutch farmers. According to a contemporary British observer, “The whole country was one great lake, from which the cities, with their ramparts and steeples, rose like islands.”

But the Dutch succeeded in forcing the French to retreat, saving Amsterdam from French occupation. And while this was undeniably a huge environmental disaster, engineers tried to limit the long-term damage to reclaimed land by flooding it with freshwater from rivers wherever possible.

5. Sherman’s March, 1864-1865

The infamous march of Union forces through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, led by General William Tecumseh Sherman from 1864-1865, brought wholesale environmental destruction to huge swathes of the United States. Under Sherman, 65,000 Union troops burned Atlanta in November 1864 and then spread out along a 60-mile-wide front that rolled over Georgia in apocalyptic fashion all the way to the sea. After pausing to enjoy the sights in Savannah (which he spared, presenting the city to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present), Sherman took the band north through the Carolinas, which received the same treatment.

Altogether Sherman’s army laid waste to a mind-boggling 15,000 square miles of territory, capturing 25,000 animals and inflicting (by Sherman’s estimate) about $100 million of damage in the state of Georgia alone -- equal to around $1.4 billion today.

6. Yellow River floods, 1938

Another example of a self-inflicted natural disaster during warfare, the Yellow River floods are also one of the deadliest events of the 20th century. During the 1930s, hyper-nationalist military officers in Japan stepped up their aggression against Japan’s neighbors -- principally China, where they occupied Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing in 1937. To stop the Japanese advance, in June 1938 the Nationalist government of China resorted to extreme -- and extremely brutal -- measures, dynamiting the levees that held the turbulent, unpredictable Yellow River in check near the city of Zhengzhou.

The resulting flood inundated thousands of square miles in the provinces of Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu and (because there was almost no warning) resulted in a horrific number of deaths, with some 800,000 Chinese civilians drowning by the Nationalist government’s own estimation—the actual death toll may have been much higher. After the Second World War the levees were repaired and the Yellow River was returned to its old course.

7. Dam-buster raids, 1943

Before the Allied invasion of France in Operation Overlord in June 1944, the British and French focused most of their efforts on an intensive “strategic” bombing campaign, aiming to weaken Germany’s war-making potential with massive raids on German cities and industrial complexes. Although all the targets supposedly had military value, the Allies were more than happy to accept “collateral damage,” including civilian deaths and the destruction of housing, which they argued helped undermine enemy morale. In this context, environmental destruction was just a bonus.

In one of the most spectacular raids, on May 16-17, 1943, the Royal Air Force employed special “bouncing” bombs, which skipped over protective barriers to destroy two major dams that produced hydroelectric power for German industry and also formed integral parts of the country’s canal system. Of course destroying the dams also had some side-benefits, namely the flooding of the Ruhr and Eder River valleys. In addition to killing about 1,700 people (many of whom were foreign prisoners working in forced labor), the dam-busting raids destroyed dozens of factories and washed away hundreds of square miles of farmland; in fact the area couldn’t be returned to agricultural production until a decade after the war.

8. Flooding of the Pontine Marshes, 1944

Not to be outdone in the massive flooding competition, the Germans resorted to similar tactics in Italy in 1944 -- but with even worse long-term effects. As the Americans and British battled their way north up the Italian peninsula, the Germans realized they had a chance to slow or even stop the Allied advance south of Rome, where a low-lying area, known as the Pontine Marshes, had been drained before the war. By re-flooding the marshes, the Germans would render an important stretch of the coast south of Rome unusable for amphibious landings.

In 1944 the Germans destroyed the pumping equipment that drained the marshes, resulting in the inundation of 40 square miles of land. This stratagem managed to delay the Allied occupation of Rome -- but also brought a biological curse down on the area, as a surge in mosquito populations led to increased rates of malaria among Italian civilians after the war was over.

9. Chemical weapons dumping, 1945-1947

The environmental effects of warfare don’t necessarily always occur during actual fighting: some of the worst impacts can come in the chaotic post-war period. That’s what happened following the Second World War, when the victorious Allies discovered they had a little problem to deal with, in the form of some 250,000 tons of chemical weapons and chemical weapon ingredients stockpiled (but never used) by Nazi Germany. The German high command had sensibly decided not to employ chemical weapons for fear of tit-for-tat retaliation, but this left the American, British, and Soviet occupiers with a veritable mountain of poisons to dispose of, including yperite, lewisite, adamsite, phosgene, diphosgene and chloracetophenol.

With large parts of post-war Europe bombed-out ruins, the overwhelmed Allies lacked the resources to properly dispose of Hitler’s toxic parting gift, so they settled on a strategy akin to hiding the dirty clothes under the bed: they loaded the chemical weapons on mothballed ships and then scuttled them, sending the whole lot to the bottom of the sea. From May-December 1947, the Soviets scuttled ships holding 35,000 tons of chemical weapons in the eastern Baltic Sea, while the British and Americans disposed of 215,000 tons of chemical weapons in the same fashion in the seas around Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

10. Agent Orange, 1961-1971

American use of toxic defoliants in Southeast Asia may be the most destructive act of ecological warfare in history. From 1961-1971, Operation Ranch Hand saw U.S. forces dump an amazing 20 million gallons of color-coded herbicides, the most popular of which was Agent Orange, on the jungles of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in an attempt to strip Communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong guerrilla forces of their protective cover; herbicides were also used against food crops to force peasants to leave the countryside for U.S.-controlled cities, depriving enemy guerrillas of their support base. Overall during this 10-year period U.S. forces carried out 6,542 herbicidal missions blanketing 12% of South Vietnam, which destroyed five million acres of forests and 10 million hectares of agricultural land.

Unsurprisingly, the widespread use of toxic chemicals also resulted in numerous cases of birth defects and cancer in Vietnamese civilians and U.S. personnel. By one estimate about 500,000 birth defects in Vietnam can be attributed to the use of Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants and herbicides.

11. Kuwait oil well fires

After invading Kuwait in August 1990, Saddam Hussein paid the price for his miscalculation when an international coalition led by the U.S. obliterated the Iraqi occupation force and sent the remnants reeling back into Iraq. But Hussein would have his revenge, in the form of a breathtaking act of environmental terrorism: before they withdrew, Iraqi forces opened the Kuwaiti oil wells and lit the high-pressure hydrocarbon geysers on fire. Some 700 Kuwaiti oil wells were set alight, with cordons of land mines arranged around them to prevent fire-fighting crews from responding. The fires burned for ten months from February-November 1991, consuming an incredible six million barrels of oil per day at peak volume; for comparison, world consumption at the time was about 67.3 million barrels per day, with U.S. consumption accounting for 16.8 million barrels. In addition to sending billions of dollars’ worth of oil up in smoke, the international effort to extinguish the oil fires cost the Kuwaiti government $1.5 billion.

See Also: 11 Natural Disasters That Led to Wars

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November 11, 2011 - 12:11pm
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