What is the environmental cost of war?

The destructive impact of war on the environment is often left unspoken. But it affects greenhouse gases, wildlife and essential infrastructures – sometimes irreversibly damaged.

It goes without saying that the human cost of war is one of the cruellest realities people have had to contend with throughout history. Some of the earliest records of war span nearly 5,000 years back, and many more lives have been lost in violent conflicts since then. This fact hasn’t changed much in the present, as major conflicts are ongoing in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Yemen and Ethiopia.

Yet one often unspoken element of war is its destructive effect on the environment. From ancient empires destroying croplands to ensure the losses of their enemies, to unverified claims that the Russian army plans to cut down Ukrainian forests, the wrecking of natural environments isn’t only collateral damage, it can also make up a large part of the military strategy.

So, what is the effect of war on the environment?

Military activities produce vast amounts of greenhouse gases

It’s a no-brainer that modern military warfare is extremely polluting (even if not in action). Did you know that the US military’s carbon footprint is bigger than as many as 140 countries? All that machinery needs powering and much of the energy feeding military equipment comes from fossil fuels. Militaries are also in need of large areas of land for testing and training and it’s believed that these areas make up 1 – 6% of the global land surface.

But that’s not all. When looking at the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, military vehicles emitted hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide. Clearly, air pollution in these areas has gotten significantly worse due to war. While in countries like Iraq and Kuwait, military vehicles have stirred more dust particles than usual, which can cause respiratory diseases in local populations.

Warzones also tend to pollute water supplies, contaminating them not only with oil, but also a bunch of other harmful chemicals.

Natural environments are destroyed and wildlife suffers

Air missiles, land mines and other explosive weapons can destroy natural environments, wreaking havoc on the biodiversity of local habitats. Unfortunately, the development of chemical and nuclear warfare has increased stress on the environment.

Wars also restrict access to agricultural land, containing vital produce for local inhabitants. For example, chemical agents were used to destroy vegetation in the Vietnam War, with the American military using more than 20 million gallons of herbicides to poison forests and eliminate enemy crops. In other cases, abandoned military scrap also releases polluting chemicals to soil and groundwater, with damaged ships also causing marine pollution in the sea.

In conflict, protected natural habitats are also harder to access, meaning that conservation efforts may have to be put on pause, or worse, totally destroyed. The First Congo War of 1996 saw the disappearance of two-thirds of its buffalos and three-quarters of its hippos in the Garamba National Park, while war can also increase hunting and poaching.

The destruction of essential infrastructure

Basic infrastructure is vital for a functioning society. Short-term, targeting an enemy’s infrastructure is a common war tactic because it cuts off water or energy supplies or disrupts transport links, but it can also have unimaginable long-term effects on the environment and is costly to restore.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began last month, Ukraine has sustained $100 billion in infrastructure damage. Or looking back at the Iraq war, the destruction of the country’s infrastructure completely destroyed the systems supporting the environment.

Also, the large (mostly internal) displacement of people during violent conflict can also put a strain on local infrastructure or natural resources, which can become environmentally unsustainable. This can also spill out to adjacent issues like improper waste management as rates of waste dumping and burning increase.

Wars often start because of the natural environment

Some may argue that the environmental impact of war begins long before an actual military conflict is declared as the hunt for natural resources often drives conflict. And there is research to prove this, too. The United Nations Environment Programmes suggests that in the last 60 years, at least 40% of all intrastate conflicts have a link to natural resources. As competition for natural resources intensifies over the years, there are fears that more wars will break out as a result, causing even more environmental destruction in return.

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