War and nature

War is not glorious. As we see this year in Ukraine, Ethiopia and almost 50 other continuing wars and armed conflicts, people are killed and, some of us, ordered to kill. People are maimed, terrified, forced into hiding and flight, and traumatised. Even without what are known as war crimes – such as torture, kidnapping, killing civilians whether close up or from long range – war is, as a US Civil War General said, hell.

And after the war? The effects of destruction are lasting because the natural environment is all too often another casualty of armed conflicts.

The environment as casualty

Weapons and other military equipment generate a war-legacy of environmental damage. Landmines, cluster munitions and other, as they are known, explosive remnants of war restrict access to agricultural land. Even after they have been cleared, which is long and dangerous work, their pollution of the soil and groundwater persists. That means that when food that is grown there is consumed, the poison is consumed too. And some weapons have particularly toxic components, such as depleted uranium, used in some shells and armour plating, with effects that continue in countries such as Iraq and Kosovo long after their use in combat.

The environmental impact of violent conflict varies greatly, depending on the kind of combat (whether cities are attacked, for example) and its scale including how long it lasts. 

When urban areas are bombed or hit by missile strikes or artillery, as is happening this year in Ukraine, and as we have seen in recent years in Syria and Yemen, buildings are pulverised and large volumes of dust are generated. The dust contains a variety of materials such as cement, metals and industrial compounds. This dust is easily ingested and its contents are a severe health risk. Attacks on oil facilities and chemical plant throw up lethal additions to air pollution and often pollute nearby water, whether in rivers and lakes, or groundwater, or the sea. both freshwater and marine resources. Naval wreckage meanwhile causes marine pollution. It is not just actual destruction that is the problem but also the abandonment of military scrap of all kinds and sizes, from used shell cases to armoured vehicles, temporary buildings that have been abandoned and crashed aircraft.

In the rural setting, deforestation is a frequent consequence of armed conflict. There have been three main reasons for this over the past six or seven decades. One is increased use of wood as fuel; more trees are felled than in normal times, because fighting groups need the wood, and because local communities need have greater need for wood as fuel as the supply of other kinds of fuel dries up. In addition, armed groups often exploit timber for profit, a widespread habit that has been seen in wars in, among other places, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Yemen

But probably the best known and, for very good (or bad) reasons, the most notorious example of deforestation in war is the American use of the Agent Orange chemical defoliant to remove forest cover during the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.* 

Using chemical herbicide in this way is now illegal under International Humanitarian Law (what used to be called the Laws of War). This is one of a range of rules that limit military impact on the natural environment in wartime that are part of customary international law, which means it applies to you whether you signed on for it or not (unlike a treaty that only applies to you if you signed and ratified it).

The Dublin Declaration, signed this month by 82 governments, is an undertaking not to use explosive weapons (such as bombs, missile warheads, artillery, landmines) in civilian, urban areas. It is a political declaration, not a treaty, and a long way short of customary law. It makes only passing reference to the environmental harm caused by wartime urban destruction. But protection of the environment as well as of people would be a consequence if its moral strength can take on the force of law.

Environmental law as casualty

However, the regulation of actions that have a damaging effect on the natural environment – environmental governance – is another casualty of armed conflict. The implementation of the key agreements on limiting damage to the environment depends on the ability of states to ensure that implementation is effective.  Insecurity, instability and open armed conflict disrupt the capacity of states to respond to environmental challenges and the flouting of environmental regulations and tempt them too often to use environmental destruction against their adversaries.

Unfortunately, if understandably, the erosion of both the capacity and the commitment to protect the natural environment may linger on after the fighting is over. Reconstruction and recovery after armed conflict has many priorities and the natural environment is routinely low down the list.

Greening the military?

There is a further dimension of environmental impact in routine, non-war military activities, especially in the use of large tracts of land for bases and for training purposes, as well as in the consumption of raw materials and the use of a great deal of energy.

Limited data suggest there is a major environmental impact in the form of emissions from fossil fuel. One calculation is that the USA’s military consumption of fuel produces enough greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that, if it were a country, it would rank as the 47th biggest emitter. Adding other major powers such as China and Russia into the equation and including all GHG-emitting activities of the military would presumably produce a yet more striking statistic.

But it should be added that the US military is a leading investor in clean energy and has been since 2007. The USA’s NATO allies are moving in the same direction because renewable energy is cheaper, safer (since it reduces the need for long, vulnerable supply lines) and, therefore, more effective.

The future as casualty

Testing nuclear weapons has had a lasting impact on health, with an increase in the incidence and risk of many kinds of cancer as a result, especially from the 504 atmospheric (above ground) test explosions from 1945 (the first test, by the USA) until 1980 (the last in the atmosphere, by China). The damaging effects of nuclear testing on health are local, regional and global and have persisted for well over half a century. Recognition of the health hazards took nuclear testing literally underground, so that radioactivity released in the explosion would not get into the atmosphere. Leaks from underground tests have occurred, however, including two known incidents in 1969 and 1987 at the Soviet Union’s Novaya Zemlya sites in the Arctic Ocean and a US test in Nevada in 1970.

Serious environmental risk persists as a result of testing long ago. From 1948 to 1956 there were 67 atmospheric nuclear tests over two atolls – Bikini and Eniwetok – in the US Marshall Islands. Radioactive debris from these explosions – 111,000 cubic yards (almost 85,000 cubic metres) – has been collected and is stored in the Runit Dome. Though an official US assessment in 2020 found no immediate likelihood that the dome would collapse, and saw no measurable adverse effect on the environment from, for example, contaminated groundwater, others are not so sanguine. One major concern is that sea level surges or extreme weather, such as may ensue from climate change, could damage the dome with catastrophic effects.

* The best source on this remains the SIPRI volume by Arthur Westing: Ecological Consequences of the Second Indochina War, (Almqvist & Wiksell International: Stockholm, 1976)

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