Monday, 6 October 2008: 10:25 AM
George R. Brown Convention Center, 330B
Although the destruction of oil fields in the Persian Gulf War of 1991 riveted public attention on war and the environment, that was neither the first nor the largest act of environmental warfare in history. In terms of loss of life and geographic area affected, probably the largest act of environmental warfare in history was the breaching of the Huang He (Yellow River) levees by the Nationalist Chinese in June, 1938. The Huang He is particularly vulnerable to diversion where it exits the highlands and enters its vast alluvial fan, and previous military breaches of the levee occurred in this region in 1129 and 1642. The flood waters poured down tributaries of the Huai River into the Grand Canal, thence to the sea, temporarily returning the Huang He to one of its southerly channels. The river was not restored to its prewar (and present) course until 1947. The breach was an attempt to slow down the westward advance of the Japanese army south of the Huang He. It was marginally successful from a military standpoint but caused enormous loss of life from direct flooding, disease and famine. Official Chinese figures place the death toll at over 800,000. Mortality rates are compatible with those predicted by published flood hazard models even though they were not designed for events of this magnitude and indicate that the huge death toll was a consequence of the enormous population at risk.
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