Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's visit today to Goma, a city in the heart of the war ravaging the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is meant to draw attention to renewed U.S. support for U.N. peacekeeping and to press thinly stretched troops deployed there to do more to protect innocent civilians.

But how much more can overburdened peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere be expected to do? Increasingly -- and controversially -- they find themselves busy doing environmental cleanups, climate change mitigation projects and providing relief from natural disasters on top of their security duties.

For example, troops with MONUC -- the French acronym assigned to the U.N. Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- have spent time planting trees in their area of operation, a scene repeated at other peacekeeping operations in Africa, East Timor, Lebanon and elsewhere.

"MONUC was one of the biggest missions involved in planting the trees, but we have this 1 billion tree campaign, and most of the missions were involved in this reforestation effort," explained Edmond Mulet, assistant secretary general for peacekeeping operations at U.N. headquarters. "On the issue of environment, we are also very much involved in that."

Most famously, troops flying the blue flag spearheaded a mission last year to help Haiti recover after devastating hurricanes swept that country. The effort is largely ongoing as forces work to protect flood-prone areas and put in place stronger infrastructure.

U.N. forces have helped dig water wells to supply communities and refugee camps in Darfur, Sudan, partly to make up for their own use of water. Peacekeepers have also organized agricultural projects. And the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has recently designated full-time staff at headquarters and in the field to look at ways to lighten the environmental burden inherent to hosting large military bases.

"This is an emerging trend, but one that is still at an early stage," said Richard Gowan, an associate director at the Center on International Cooperation, a think tank at New York University that often advises U.N. officials on peacekeeping. "It's combining hearts and minds and humanitarian outreach with, shall we say, the new vogue of environmental priorities."

Critics out to discredit the U.N. system often point to instances in which peacekeepers seemed incapable of defending civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur, the Central African Republic and elsewhere from marauding rebels or lawless government forces.

The recent tree-planting endeavor, which the U.N. Environment Programme touted as part of the fight against global warming, only fueled criticism, and some worry that the growing trend toward using peacekeepers to do things other than keeping the peace could lead to real problems down the road.

But U.N. officials insist that such activities, much of it done by off-duty troops in their free time and sometimes on their own initiative, are critical to the U.N. mission and a key part of a peacekeeping force's exit strategy.

By enhancing water supplies and water quality and protecting farmland from storms, officials say they are trying to leave behind a population that is less disaster-prone or poverty-stricken, so that DPKO won't find itself having to return to squelch another resource-related conflict later on.

Debate on peacekeeping

The United Nations does not keep hard statistics on how frequently peacekeepers are used for disaster relief, water engineering, ecological rehabilitation and other projects. But officials at DPKO acknowledge that such work is becoming very common, and in some cases, nations are even pulling their own committed forces aside temporarily for community-outreach programs that include environmental and health components.

Anecdotal evidence attests to this growing trend.

For instance, recently, former President Bill Clinton visited a recycling center in Haitian capital Port-au-Prince built by the Brazilian engineering unit of the peacekeeping force there. India, Brazil and South Africa are jointly coordinating the development of waste-management systems in Haiti, an effort that routinely employs active-duty troops.

Agricultural projects large and small have been launched in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Darfur. Liberia has seen peacekeeper-led disaster relief operations similar to those witnessed on a grand scale in Haiti. And South Korea recently pulled its small troop contribution in Lebanon from regular peacekeeping duties to have them help drill water wells and build roads. U.N. forces have also organized vaccination drives, expanded access to potable water and even installed solar panels to power some public buildings.

The world has seen a dramatic spike in peacekeeping in recent years, and the growing scarcity of troops, equipment and proper training has officials worried that operations are nearing a crisis.

Last week, the Security Council held a debate on the state of peacekeeping since it was first conceived some 60 years ago. At the center of the talks lay a 56-page document prepared by DPKO outlining the problems and possible remedies, a "non-paper" dubbed internally as "New Horizons." The diplomats engaged in the all-day discussions covered the litany of grim statistics and bad news but failed to come up with an ultimate solution to the problem.

"There's clearly a consensus on the points which have to be strengthened in peacekeeping operations, broadening the base of troop-contributing countries, and consensus on how to have better guidance on protection of civilians and robust peacekeeping," DPKO chief Alain Le Roy told reporters.

DPKO says it has more than 115,000 people deployed to 20 operations it leads globally, including 100,000 uniformed personnel, far above the 65,000 troops that NATO has deployed around the world. According to the Center on International Cooperation's most recent "Annual Review of Global Peace Operations," the United Nations today manages the second-largest overseas force in the world, after the United States. Factoring in normal troop rotations, DPKO manages an estimated 200,000 men and women under arms.

By contrast, in 2003, the United Nations' total peacekeeping troop strength was about 40,000 personnel. Global peacekeeping was about a tenth the size it is today just 10 years ago, when just 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers were deployed.

Serving troops' entertainment, recreation needs

Delays caused by equipment scarcity, lack of training or a simple lack of troops available have DPKO constantly scrambling to fill the missions the Security Council orders it to do.

The Darfur operation, more than two years old, is still not fully deployed, though DPKO estimates it should be at about 90 percent of its authorized strength by the end of the year. An additional 3,000 personnel authorized last year to bolster MONUC will only begin deploying to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the next few weeks.

Though some criticize peacekeepers for planting trees or growing vegetable gardens as this reality hangs over them, DPKO officials reply that community-outreach projects, including those involving environmental support and rehabilitation, are some of the most critical functions its troops can perform as they build relations and trust with communities and further bolster local support for peacekeeping missions.

The fact that other non-U.N. operations devote significant resources to similar schemes strengthens this argument.

Experts point to what is arguably the largest such military-led environmental project to date: the restoration of a huge swath of marshlands in central Iraq by U.S. forces there.

And, as Gowan notes, reconstruction and community-outreach efforts give peacekeepers not on patrol something to keep them busy during down time.

"The fact that there isn't proper entertainment and recreation for U.N. soldiers is a contributing factor to the frequency of sexual abuse and the frequency of petty crime by peacekeepers," Gowan said. "So launching these community projects, launching these environmental projects, is actually a way of keeping peacekeepers busy."

To further build goodwill with local governments and populations, the United Nations is also exploring ways to reduce the waste and pollution generated by its military operations, many of which are found in ecologically sensitive areas.

Earlier this year, headquarters issued policies to regional command centers on lessening the environmental impact of peacekeeping operations, and an official at DPKO in New York said it hopes to have a detailed set of guidelines written by the end of the year.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500