Agent Orange War Legacy Attracts Aid

Da NangFrom 1962 to 1971, the United States sprayed millions of liters of chemical defoliants, including the herbicide Agent Orange, across the southern jungles and farmlands of Vietnam during its conflict with the Viet Cong. Although generations of Vietnamese have endured health and environmental consequences for more than 30 years, international financial support to address their problems has only recently increased.

Donor contributions have surged to more than US$10 million each year since 2007, funding both health assistance and environmental remediation programs. Nevertheless, international aid needs to increase even more to address the full scope of work, environmental and public health advocates have said.

"This issue is increasingly possible to work on, and solutions are beginning to emerge as to the dioxin cleanup and disabilities," said Charles Bailey, director of the Ford Foundation's Agent Orange initiative. "This is a ‘government sized' problem, which requires a long-term legislated commitment from the U.S. government."

The funds support initiatives such as health education and prosthetics and wheelchairs for those disabled by dioxin, the debilitating contaminant found in Agent Orange and several other herbicides used during the war. Environmental initiatives in Vietnam include tree planting on deforested lands, soil remediation, and soil testing.

Re-opening Agent Orange

In an effort to deprive Viet Cong fighters of cover and to reduce their food supply during the war, U.S. armed forces sprayed more than 80 million liters of herbicides across southern Vietnam, mostly Agent Orange but also several other dioxin-containing "Rainbow Herbicides."

Thousands of liters of the herbicides also spilled from storage facilities at U.S. airbases, resulting in several "hot spots" laced with high levels of the dioxin compound 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-ρ-dioxin (TCDD), which has been linked to health effects including cancers, reproductive illnesses, and developmental problems.

Studies have shown that dioxin contamination increased the incidence of disease, disability, and birth defects in military handlers. Arnold Schecter, a leading Agent Orange expert and professor of environmental and occupational health services at the University of Texas School of Public Health, observes that that the "scientific uncertainty" frequently cited by those who oppose increased dioxin-related aid exists only because no wide-scale epidemiological studies have been conducted in Vietnam to confirm or disprove the expected link between dioxin and illness in civilians.

After the United States and Vietnam began to restore political relations in 1995, the Ford Foundation sought to re-open the contentious issue of Agent Orange. In the early 2000s, the Vietnamese government and the Ford Foundation were the sole providers of support for dioxin-related projects, spending some $1 million total each year.

In the absence of bilateral government discussions about Agent Orange, the Ford Foundation helped to establish a non-governmental dialogue group in 2007 that brought together U.S. and Vietnamese policymakers, scientists, and business and non-profit leaders. Through the group's efforts, the donor circle has since expanded to 12 organizations [PDF], with nonprofits and non-U.S. governments providing most of the funds.

Searching for a Multi-Year Commitment

To provide support for the estimated 2-5 million Vietnamese disabled from dioxin exposure and to remediate the remaining contaminated hot spots, advocates have called for a multiyear legislative commitment from the U.S. government.

The Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign, a grassroots organization, helped thousands of Vietnamese civilians file an unsuccessful class-action lawsuit against the manufacturers of Agent Orange in the early 1980s. This fall, the campaign will push Congress for a bill that recognizes the chemical's widespread impacts on Vietnamese war victims, U.S. veterans, and their descendants.

Schecter expressed doubt that the U.S. government would acknowledge liability to the extent sought by the campaign, which is requesting billions of dollars in compensation funding.

"The U.S. government as a matter of policy does not compensate for damage done during wartime," Schecter said. "What we can do is help rebuild their communities. We need to improve the health of those exposed to it, we definitely need to get rid of it and keep it away."

A U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program known as the Leahy War Victims Fund provides $6.3 million to Vietnamese charities for disability work through 2011, although the funding is not designated specifically for dioxin-related work.

The U.S. government first contributed funding for the clean up of dioxin-laden soils surrounding former U.S. airbases in Vietnam with a $3 million appropriation in 2007. In 2009, Congress and President Barack Obama provided an additional $6 million. According to sources on Capitol Hill, Congress is expected to provide an additional $3 million this year to address lingering Agent Orange contamination.

The U.S. funds will be spent mostly on environmental remediation of contaminated soils at hot spots at Da Nang, Bien Hoa, and Phu Cat Airbases. Full restoration of those lands would require $60 million, according to studies commissioned by the Ford Foundation and the Vietnamese government.

U.S. Congressman Eni Faleomavaega (Democrat-American Samoa) said the U.S. government has a moral duty to provide greater funding for Agent Orange victims in Vietnam, as well as to expand current benefits to U.S. veterans and their families.

"The State Department and USAID are only providing technical assistance and financial support for containment and remediation efforts in and around the Da Nang airport, and support is minimal," said Faleomavaega, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee's subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment, at a hearing last month. "My question is, why can't we do more for our U.S. veterans and the people of Vietnam? I believe we could and should."

U.S. lawmakers recently challenged the feasibility of increasing foreign aid during the recession amidst record deficits. Meanwhile, other long-time opponents of increased dioxin-related funding continue to cite scientific uncertainty.

Ngo Quang Xuan, vice chair of the foreign relations committee of the Vietnamese national assembly, said at the June hearing that Vietnam's needs greatly exceed what is being offered currently. To illustrate the need, he said that expanding his government's Agent Orange disability stipend to all victims in the country would cost between $360 million and $820 million per year.

"It's appreciated that the U.S. Congress has twice agreed to allocate [money] for the work," Xuan said in a written testimony [PDF]. "However, in reality, this budget does not reach those who need it. To make this move not just a symbolic one, the speed of imbursement should be soon pushed up."

Jane Zhou is an intern with the Worldwatch Institute. She can be reached at

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