Environmental Impacts of War

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A well-known but sometimes overlooked fact about war is its impact on the environment.  War’s denigration of the earth comes not only from the battle itself, but also from military training; arms production, testing, and storage; misallocation of government funds; and the displacement of peoples.  As the technologies, strategies, and expediencies of war progress, so do the ecological repercussions of war – attacks on humans increasingly become assaults on nature.

Military training not only fragments vast areas of ecologically valuable land, but also eradicates any fauna seen as being in the way of operations.  Military exercises, such as tank maneuvers, tactile missile and bombing exercises, and artillery practice, cause irreversible environmental damage.  Chemical, biological, and nuclear weapon testing pose huge threats to human and ecosystem health.  It is estimated, for example, that the 4 percent of East Germany territory occupied by former Soviet military facilities prior to 1992 are severely and permanently polluted (Island Press, 2002). All over the world, training and preparation areas are created, used for a relatively short period, and abandoned, leaving behind a military legacy of barren earth.

Wartime preparation also tends to generate large amounts of hazardous wastes via military supply production (Environmental Literacy Council, 2005).  Of large concern is the depleted uranium (DU) used for increased penetration in munitions and increased protection in armored vehicles (United Nations, 2003).  Whether DU is actually used in battle or sits abandoned (slowly decomposing), remnants of this toxic and radioactive heavy metal readily enter the food chain through contaminated soil and water, or through direct contact with particulates in the air (Environmental Media Services, 2002).   Depleted uranium was first used in 1991 during the Gulf War and is still being used today in Iraq (United Nations, 2003).  In the aftermath of the Gulf War, in which nearly one million rounds of DU bullets and shells left 300 tons of depleted uranium in southern Iraq, cancer and leukemia rates in the area increased six-fold (Environmentalists Against War, 2005).  With a half-life of 4.5 billion years and a direct correlation with cancer and kidney damage, concern over the use of DU has risen profoundly in recent years (Environmental Media Services, 2002).

In addition, the military tends to overproduce weaponry in times of war, which leads to storage and surplus material problems.  Stored munitions, whether chemical or conventional, slowly break down and release toxins into the environment.  As for abundant unused munitions, they’re simply destroyed.  “When Soviet troops withdrew from former East Germany in 1992, 1.5 million tons of ammunition was destroyed” (Island Press, 2002).  Because a majority of this was burned in the open air without filters, toxic chemical dioxides, nitrogen oxide, and heavy metals were released directly into the atmosphere; a clear-cut example of the blight of munitions destruction.  What’s more, biological weapon storage and destruction releases new organisms into the environment, potentially wreaking havoc on ecosystem functions. To this day, millions of tons of obsolete chemical, biological, nuclear, and conventional weapons await destruction, which will eventually contaminate millions of acres of land (Island Press, 2002).

During actual battle, the planet becomes as much, if not more, a casualty of war as do humans.  In reality, most environmental damage brought about by war is not caused directly by weapons (Environmental Literacy Council, 2005).  Although temperatures of about 3,000 degrees Celsius are created when a bomb explodes (killing flora and fauna and permanently destroying soil structure), the targets bombs destroy actually contribute more significantly to environmental devastation than bombs themselves (Island Press, 2002).  During World War I, for instance, Germany sank an Allied ship with a million pounds of mustard gas, which is expected to slowly leak and pollute waters for 400 years.  Important fishing grounds in the Pacific Ocean were devastated when World War II left approximately 1,080 wrecked ships on the ocean floor.  Because many of these were oil tankers, there will remain a constant source of contamination for years to come (Environmental Literacy Council, 2005).  The destruction of petrol-chemical plants throughout our current war in the Balkans releases chlorine, ethylene dichloride, and vinyl chloride monomer into the atmosphere (Island Press, 2002).  During the Gulf War, Iraqi troops set fire to six-hundred oil wells in Kuwait (Krupa, 1997), burning five to six million barrels per day (Island Press, 2002).  Particulates and fumes released in the smoke caused local Kuwait temperatures to drop and deposited carbon and sulfur dioxides into the air, creating serious acid rain problems (Krupa, 1997).  “Black, greasy rains [fell] in Saudi Arabia and Iran and black snow in Kashmir (1,500+ miles away)” (Island Press, 2002).  During the same war, approximately 11 million barrels of oil were purposefully released into the Arabian Gulf (Krupa, 1997).  Marine wildlife was demolished by this intentional contamination, which was more than 20 times larger that the Exxon Valdez spill and two times larger than the world record at the time (Krupa, 1997).

Other indirect ecological consequences of war come largely from the concentration of vehicles and people on landscapes.  The transportation of heavy artillery and troops has the effect of uprooting, trampling, and destroying vegetation.  Solid waste build-up at temporary military posts and in areas not suited for dense human populations creates potential groundwater contamination zones (Krupa, 1997).  Also, air force jets account for a large percentage of air pollution: “in under one hour of flight, an F-16 fighter plane burns up almost twice as much fuel as the average American motorist during one year” (Island Press, 2002).  Additionally, 100 million devastating land mines lie in wait around the world for the next unlucky animal to be killed or maimed (Island Press, 2002).

Yet another consequence of war is the displacement of refugees into ecologically sensitive areas.  Previously protected or undeveloped land may be depleted when settlements are destroyed by battle and people obliged to evacuate (Environmental Literacy Council, 2005).  When political structures and physical infrastructures of a society deteriorate, human populations are forced into day-to-day survival, including scavenging for food, water, and fire wood on marginal lands (Roberge, 2004).  Starving and homeless refugees understandably place far more importance on survival than on ecologically sensitive landscapes that may encompass endangered species or unique structures.

To compound this problem, often in times of war increased military spending drains social, educational, and environmental funds (Environmentalists Against War, 2005).  Thus, in already poor countries, where battles tend to be fought, resources for ecosystem services, for remedying environmental damages to land, air, and water are null and void (Environmental Literacy Council, 2005).  Wealthy nations subsidizing wars also sacrifice funding for environmental stewardship to increase military spending (Environmentalists Against War, 2005).  The statistics below represent the gross inadequacies of military spending (Island Press, 2002).

• According to the UNESCO, in 1971 the world spent 7.2% of its gross national product on arms, compared to 5% on education and 2.5% on health.

• Two days of global military spending (approx. $4.8 billion) is equal to the annual cost of the UN Action Plan to halt Third World desertification over 20 years.

• West German spending on military procurement and R&D was $10.75 billion in 1985, the same as the estimated cost of cleaning up the West German sector of the North Sea.

• In the 1980s, the Ethiopian government spent an annual average of $275 million on waging war in Eritrea & Tigre. An annual expenditure of $50 million a year on tree planting and soil conservation would have reversed desertification in the country and thereby helped to prevent the million plus deaths in the 1985 famine.

Because war is intrinsically destructive to the environment, as its scope, technology, and devastative power increase, so does the potential for ecosystem destruction.  Preparations for war –weapon testing, military training, and misdirected government funds – increase the amount of irreversible environmental damage on the planet.  Nature is made ever more hostile to fundamental ecological functions by conventional ammunition; chemical, biological, and nuclear contamination; tank, truck, and foot traffic; and paved military training sites.  And the aftermaths of war – military debris, displaced peoples, long-term contaminated water, air, and land, minefields, and burning oil fields – add to the overall assault on nature.

Works Cited

Environmental Literacy Council, The, 8 Mar. 2005, Environmental impacts.  <http://www.enviroliteracy.org/article.php/588.html>.  Accessed 23 Mar. 2005.

Environmental Media Services, 7 Oct. 2002, Environmental impacts of war.  <http://www.  ems.org/cgi-bin/GPrint2002.pl?file=war/risks.rx>. Accessed 23 Mar. 2005.

Environmentalists Against War, 2005, 10 reasons environmentalists oppose an attack on Iraq.  About.com, <http://environment.about.com/cs/warandconflict/a/10_Reasons_p.htm>.  Accessed 23 Mar. 2005.

Island Press, 2002, The environmental impacts of war.  Eco-Compass, <http://www.islandPress.org/eco-compass/war/>.  Accessed 23 Mar. 2005.

Krupa, M., May 1997, Environmental and economic repercussions of the Persian Gulf War on Kuwait.  ICE Case Studies, <http://www.american.edu/projects/mandala/TED/ice/ kuwait.htm>.  Accessed 23 Mar. 2005.

Roberge, M., 24 May 2004, The environmental impacts of war. < http://pages.towson.edu /mroberge/410/War2004.pdf >.  Accessed 23 Mar. 2005. 

United Nations Environment Program, Sep. 2003, Depleted uranium fact sheet.  About.com, <http://environment.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsit.htm?site= http://postconflict. unep.ch/dufact.html>.  Accessed 26 Mar. 2005.



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