The Environmental Cost of War

When people think about the impacts of war, they usually think in terms of lives lost and dollar spent. While these are valuable considerations, what impact can human conflict have on the land, water, air and animals in the near vicinity?

The most obvious example of harmful warfare is nuclear weapons. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in World War II are the only known examples of atomic bombs actually being used. Besides the significant loss of civilian life and subsequent radiation sickness and birth defects, the environmental impact of the A-bombs was profound.

Radioactive dust particles floated and settled nearby on land and in water. Also, debris that was blasted into the atmosphere travelled untold miles. Plants and animals suffered similar burn deaths, or died shortly thereafter due to radioactive rainfall.

The surface water was contaminated, leaving local Japanese (and animals) without safe drinking water for months. The earth was similarly scorched, with dead rice stalks reportedly found up to a seven mile radius from the drop sight.

However, nuclear weapons do not have to be deployed for similar effects to happen during wartime. Probably the most infamous of chemical weapons, Agent Orange, had similar effects on Vietnam’s water supply and natural ecosystem. The defoliant was used extensively during the U.S. conflict in Vietnam. It was used to kill off hundreds of acres of dense rainforest and also found its way into rivers as well.

Although the use of Agent Orange is now illegal, defoliants continue to be deployed as a viable military tactic with devastating effects on the land and water. As recently as 2007, President Bush used defoliants in Colombia to kill coca farms. Unfortunately, cocaine production did not slow down as a result of the seven-year policy, so Colombia decided to revert to the less destructive use of manual removal.

Probably the most controversial of recent chemical war agents, depleted uranium, which is used on tank-busting munitions, has been found to have significant radiological impacts on human health and soil. The weapons were used extensively in Bosnia and Iraq where many birth defects and infant fatalities have been reported.

Chemicals don’t have to be contained in weapons to be used aggressively during war. Although the legality and morality behind the strategy is questionable, chemical production factories are targeted for bombing. In 1998, President Clinton thought a Sudanese factory contained dangerous chemicals and ordered it to be bombed. Luckily for locals, it did not, but the bombing still harmed the Sudanese economy.

Armed conflict in Rwanda took park rangers out of the protected habitats of gorillas, leaving them vulnerable to poachers. Also, the forced migration of refugees has had a detrimental effect on the habitats of endangered species throughout the African continent.

The Environmental Law Institute (ELI) is an organization “concerned with issues of the legality of bombing certain targets, such as chemical plants near populated areas; employing certain weapons, such as depleted uranium munitions and cluster bombs; and adopting certain tactics, such as high-altitude bombing.”

In 1998, following the widely condemned burning of Kuwaiti oil fields and dumping of oil into the Persian Gulf, ELI, the Smithsonian Institution and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences co-hosted the First International Conference on Addressing Environmental Consequences of War.

A book, The Environmental Consequences of War, was produced from that conference. According to a chapter by Christopher D. Stone, only one provision of all the laws regulating war behavior specifically addresses the environment. All other laws include it incidentally as a secondary factor after human impact. That provision, Article 35(3) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, prohibits methods of warfare: “expected…to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment” (page 21).

This is an excellent start, but has been demonstrated – who decides when the damage is too severe, and when will the consequences for violations be enforced?

Posted by Elizabeth Freed on Mar 05, 2012

Featured Webinar