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This World War I Battlefield Is a Haunting Reminder of the Environmental Costs of War

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The battlefield of Verdun is part of France's Zone Rouge, cordoned off since the end of WWI. Oeuvre personnelle / Wikimedia Commons

World War I ended 100 years ago on Sunday, but 42,000 acres in northeast France serve as a living memorial to the human and environmental costs of war.

The battle of Verdun was the longest continuous conflict in the Great War, and it so devastated the land it took place on that, after the war, the government cordoned it off-limits to human habitation. What was once farmland became the Zone Rouge, or Red Zone, as National Geographic reported.


An excellent Twitter thread by writer Paul Cooper, excerpted here, explains more:

100 years later, humans still don't live in the Zone Rouge, which is so thick with unexploded shells that a French government agency called the Department du Deminage is still at work clearing them. The Department handles shells from World War II as well, and from other areas, but the Zone Rouge is especially saturated.

"They reckon that they have 300 years work ahead of them before they have cleared the whole battlefield," British historian and author Christina Holstein told National Geographic. "And they never will."

Hugh Whitfeld produced a video for Australia's 7 News highlighting their Sisyphean task:

For much of the area, the years without human presence have had a restorative impact on the land, transforming the Zone Rouge into a forested green zone.

"To their surprise, they found the vegetation—trees, grasses, bushes and briars—all came back very quickly," Holstein told National Geographic. Verdun was also intentionally reforested with German pine sent from the Black Forest as part of reparations following the war, CNN reported.

The area is a now a favored spot for hunters of wild boar and deer and a source of timber for France, as well as de facto memorial to the villages whose ruins remain amid the trees.

"Because it has been abandoned and covered with trees, it is a microcosm of something that happened a hundred years ago," Holstein told National Geographic. "It is a bit like Sleeping Beauty. Things have just gotten frozen in time."

However, one part of the Zone Rouge has not recovered. This is the La place a Gaz (the gas place), a shack in a clearing surrounded by razor wire where companies burned unused gas shells after the war.

"They burned it for years, basically for the entire 1920s and we never thought about the consequences," area historian Guillaume Moizan told CNN.

It is still one of the most toxic sites in France. The arsenic levels in the soil are 35,000 times higher than normal and some parts of the soil are 17.5 percent arsenic, according to a 2007 study. Little grows there, even now.

Conflicts since World War I have continued to devastate the environments of the countries where they were fought, from Vietnam to Iraq. The U.S. Department of Defense is in fact the world's biggest polluter. Today, La place a Gaz serves as a chilling reminder that, when governments order their armies into battle, they are not just killing the enemy—they are killing the earth we will all share long after the guns have fallen silent.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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