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Asia

Cleaning up Agent Orange

Half a century after first using the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam, the US is directly involved in clearing the damage. It's another sign of the two countries' strengthening relationship.

10 August was "Orange Day" in Vietnam - a day commemorating the biggest environmental disaster to befall the country. It was on this day, 51 years ago, at the start of the Vietnam War, that the United States first used the herbicidal spray that was its key weapon in "Operation Ranch Hand."

Throughout the 1960s the US Army sprayed the Vietnamese jungle from the air with the poisonous chemical Agent Orange. It stripped the leaves from the trees, robbing the Viet Cong, America's North Vietnamese enemies, of their cover. It also robbed the local people of their livelihood, and left a lasting legacy in the form of widespread dioxin poisoning, which has been blamed for deformities and cancers. Vietnam is still suffering from the effects today.

The war ended in 1975, after the US withdrawal, but the ongoing ideological conflict between East and West meant that relations between the two countries remained frozen. It was only after the end of the Cold War in 1995 that the US and Vietnam restored diplomatic relations. Since 1993, the US has contributed over $50 million in clearance, education, and victims' assistance programs. However, it took until 2011 to start a joint project in which the US was directly involved.

Authorities in the city of Danang began to clear the site of the former US air base of mines and unexploded bombs. Now, one year on, they are finally able to start the real clean-up operation. American companies are stripping away the soil and taking it away to subject it to extreme heat, which will render the dioxin harmless.

A wheelchair-bound child in Vietnam (AP Photo/Maika Elan)

Many Vietnamese blame Agent Orange for disabilities

A shared future?

US Ambassador David Shear gave a speech at the opening ceremony of the dioxin cleanup project: "As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked while visiting Vietnam last October, the dioxin in the ground here is 'a legacy of the painful past we share,' but the project we undertake here today, hand-in-hand with the Vietnamese, is 'a sign of the hopeful future we are building together.'"

But people who have been affected by dioxin poisoning, and those who support them, believe that while the gesture is an important one, it is insufficient. "Who benefits most from this are the American companies carrying out the cleanup," says Stefan Kühner of the German Vietnam Friendship Society. "But the people who've been affected, the victims who have been suffering for years now - and there are about four million of them - they themselves have no prospect of help right now."

Meanwhile, Shear has announced that the American development organization USAID will be initiating a new program at the end of September to support people with disabilities.

Careless handling of toxic chemicals

The dioxin contamination is especially high at the former air bases of the US Army, where the chemical was distributed for use. "These loading processes were carried out very sloppily," Kühner said. "Large amounts of this liquid were poured into the ground, and barrels fell off trucks and burst." In storage areas, barrels were rusted, and some were buried. The toxic concentration is up to 400 times the permissible value at these sites. "Some of it then flows into small ponds where people fishi and breed ducks." This was the case in Danang until five years ago, when the area was cordoned off.

Two children waling through a field (Les Stone/ZPress)

Vast areas are still polluted by Agent Orange

But the rest of the country is also broadly affected. If European standards were applied, vast regions that are used for agriculture would be no-go areas, Kühner said. But Vietnam lacks the methods and tools needed to measure this in sufficient detail. "Thousands of square kilometers were sprayed. But where should people go, where should they plant their rice?"

Despite the millions spent in Vietnam, the U.S. government does not accept full responsibility for the consequences of the use of the defoliant. "If the Americans admit that they were responsible, there would be no escaping claims for damages," Kühner said. "And then it would no longer be a matter of a few million, but completely different amounts."

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