Wars Essay

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Many people think of peace as simply the absence of war. Peace scholars, however, recognize peace entails far more. “Positive peace” refers to the absence of war as well as conditions of social justice, including full human rights for all. The ability to live in a sustainable environment would clearly be a part of this positive peace.

Every war has impacted the physical, chemical, biological, and human or social environment in a variety of ways, both directly and indirectly. In recent years, environmental damages wrought by warfare have worsened significantly. This is due to the increased intensity of modern warfare as well as the use of new, more destructive, technologies. In addition, scarcity and unequal distribution of needed resources, such as clean water and arable land, have contributed to conflicts both between countries as well as within specific nations. Experts have warned that rapid depletion of these resources will only exaggerate the likelihood that environment will be a precursor for conflict. While all forms of warfare are environmentally damaging, civil war has been found to be more harmful than wars between nations. This is likely due to a number of factors, including the extended length of civil wars.

War and National Infrastructures

One way war wreaks havoc on the environment is by degrading a country’s infrastructure. Water supply systems and sanitation services, for instance, are often contaminated or rendered completely unusable by bombs or bullet damage to pipes. This then leads to contamination of drinking water, associated with a number of diseases, some of them fatal, to humans and animals. In the current war in Iraq, unreliable electricity due to warfare has led to sewage backups, and waste is being dumped into the Tigris River, Baghdad’s only source of water.

Countries experiencing depleted infrastructures from warfare must prioritize their reconstruction efforts, and environmental damages often end up near the bottom of the list. Many countries ravaged by war have limited, if any, hazardous waste treatment facilities or other means to take care of environmental problems. In Kuwait, Iraqi forces destroyed sewage treatment plants during the 1991 Gulf War, resulting in over 50,000 cubic meters of raw sewage discharged daily into Kuwait Bay.

Sometimes the destruction of parts of a country’s infrastructure is by design. In World War II, destruction of dams and dikes was common. In Sarajevo, soldiers cut off electricity and water pumps. Destruction of facilities designed for war production can lead to a host of other problems.

Impact on Plants and Animals

War also threatens biodiversity. Historically, examples of deliberate destruction of crops and forests can be found in the conflicts between Israelites and Philistines in the 12th century B.C.E. Genghis Khan also authorized the destruction of crops and forests in his conquering of China. Military machinery and explosives damage forests and habitats, which in turn disrupts the ecosystem, leading to erosion as well as concerns about safe water and food. For instance, approximately 35 percent of Cambodia’s forests were destroyed by warfare over two decades.

The destruction of oil wells, generally a feature of conflicts in the Middle East, has brought a number of forms of environmental damage. In the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq destroyed more than 700 oil wells, releasing approximately 10 million barrels of oil into gulf waters. The desert of Kuwait, said to be a healthy area prior to the war in 1991, is coated with oil residues that affect water permeability, seed germination, and microbial life. In addition, it took months to cap the oil wells, so crude oil released into the sea killed marine birds and mammals, while the oil itself formed petrochemical lakes. Toxic smoke and fumes from oil spills killed migratory birds. Veterinarians claimed to have seen birds literally dropping from the sky.

As already noted, civil war is perhaps even more devastating to plants and animals than is war between nations. In Angola, decades of civil war have left national parks and wildlife reserves with only 10 percent of their 1975 wildlife levels, a dramatic reduction in the region’s biodiversity.

Chemical and Biological Warfare

Chemical and biological warfare is especially damaging to the environment. The United States used the pesticide DDT in World War II, primarily in the Pacific. One naval officer reported that the first use of DDT in the Pacific completely destructed the animal and plant life there.

The U.S. military’s use of toxic defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 destroyed approximately 14 percent of the forests in South Vietnam, including up to 50 percent of the mangrove forests. Agent Orange also resulted in the loss of freshwater fish in Vietnam, as well as half of the commercial hardwood trees and many other rubber trees. Agent Orange contained dioxin, one of the worst carcinogens. Thus in addition to environmental destruction, use of Agent Orange has been linked with birth defects, spontaneous abortions, chloracne, skin and lung cancers, lower IQ, and emotional problems in children.

Biological warfare also poses tremendous environmental risks. Biological weapons were prohibited by the 1925 Geneva Protocol, as well as by the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972, which had been signed by 134 nations by the mid 1990s. Biological weapons are still a concern, however, as some nations have continued to develop and use them regardless of international law. Historically, aggressors have spread the bubonic plague, anthrax, typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and a host of others. In 1346, rats and fleas were released during war in what is now the Ukraine. Between 1754 and 1767, the U.S. military infected Native Americans with smallpox, both unintentionally through contact as well as intentionally through the distribution of infected blankets. During the 1937 Sino-Japanese war as well as during World War II, the Japanese experimented with a number of types of biological warfare. Most notably, the conducted experiments on the Chinese, giving them plagued food items as well as intentionally contaminated water sources. More recently, concerns that Iraq had developed, stockpiled, and even used biological weapons was a major impetus for the U.S. waging war.

Nuclear Warfare

Nuclear weapons and facilities are also devastating to the environment. The most notable example is the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which destroyed over ten square miles of land. In 2003, an estimated 200 plastic barrels containing uranium were stolen from the Tuwaitha nuclear plant in Iraq. Poverty-stricken residents dumped the contents into rivers, then used the barrels to store their water, cooking oil, and other basic amenities. These substances not only harm those who immediately ingest them, but seep into the ground, air, and water and food supplies. It is projected that thousands of hectares of Iraqi land is contaminated from depleted uranium used in the first Gulf War. Lake Karachai in the South Urals is considered the most contaminated body of water on earth due to nuclear testing and production.

Most of what is known about releases of radiation involves the United States. Several major production sites have been found associated with severe environmental contamination, including the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee, the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, and the Savannah River Plant in Georgia. All of these sites have been involved in accidental releases and continued emissions as part of their daily production.

War Preparation

Weapons production, testing, and maintenance are also destructive to the environment. Fuels, paints, solvents, heavy metals, pesticides, and PCBs, cyanides, phenols, acids, alkalies, and propellants are the waste products of the production, maintenance, and storage of conventional, chemical, and nuclear weapons and of military machinery. Producing semiconductors and other electronic components of weapons and equipment involves many highly toxic chemicals. Likewise, readying troops takes a tremendous toll on large pieces of land. It is estimated that NATO maneuvers in West Germany cost $100 million in damages to crops, forests, and private property per year in the 1980s.

The U.S. military is said to be the largest producer of hazardous materials in the United States and possibly even in the world. More than 7,000 former military properties in the U.S. are being investigated for toxic contamination, and almost 100 bases are already on the Superfund National Priorities List. Military testing in Alaska’s Eagle River Flats, near Anchorage, has released high levels of toxic chemicals and contaminants into the soil, air, and water.

War Remains

The remains of the technology of war are also destructive to the environment. Land mines remain in many countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, and in addition to the threat they pose to humans, they make agricultural production on the land impossible. It is estimated that some 70 to 100 million antipersonnel land mines are still active world-wide, and another 100 million exist in stockpiles.

Prior to the mid 1980s, there was little public attention to the potential for environmental damage of stockpiled chemical weapons in the United States. Until the late 1960s, surplus weapons were routinely dumped in oceans, burned in the open air, or buried. In 1986, Congress mandated the destruction of the U.S. stockpile of chemical weapons. While the Act stipulated that destruction of these weapons needed to involve environmental protections, it is unclear precisely how well this has been done.

Indirect Effects

There are also many indirect environmental effects of war. Since land, roads, and bridges are often destructed, many crops are spoiled. Since people are no longer able to safely live in some areas of warravaged countries, over-use of other land contributes to soil degradation, deforestation, desertification, and many other environmental problems.

In many nations, refugee camps are created after a war. It is estimated that there are some 17 million refugees and 25 million internally displaced persons in the world today. These camps are likely another source of environmental damage, causing deforestation, loss of endangered species, water pollution, air pollution, and depleting sanitation systems. Deforestation occurs when land is cut for campsites, housing, and for cooking and heating. Overgrazing can accelerate soil erosion and the silting of rivers and streams. Disposal of solid wastes is difficult, so refugee camps often become breeding grounds for flies, rodents and other pests.

New Wars and the Environment

Terrorism as a form of violent conflict also poses great threats to the environment. In 1995, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo planted the nerve agent sarin on subways in Tokyo. Raids of Aum’s labs showed they were developing the botulin toxin, anthrax, cholera, and Q fever as well. The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, released asbestos and other hazardous chemicals into the air and land that the EPA is still working on cleaning up.

Yet another form of warfare with effects on the environment is the war on drugs in Latin American. In Columbia, the U.S. began aerial spraying of herbicides in an effort to destroy coca and poppy crops in 2000. While it is still to be determined if this is an effective measure in the effort to reduce drug use and trafficking, no doubt the widespread use of herbicides will damage the soil, plants, and animals beyond the targeted crops.

Costs of Environmental Cleanup

The cost of repairing the environmental damage of warfare is tremendous. The United States estimates that the cost of nuclear waste management and decontamination from the cold war alone are between $200 an $350 billion, while estimates of the cleanup costs for toxic wastes at U.S. military bases range between $20 and $40 billion. Cleanup costs from the 1991 Gulf War are tremendous. Just to decontaminate 200 hectares of land (of the thousands) will cost four to five billion dollars. Cleanup of the oil released into the Gulf is projected to cost more than $700 million.

Unfortunately, the environmental damage wrought by warfare generally goes unpunished. Although the UNEP labeled Iraq’s lighting and dumping of oil in Kuwait in 1991, “one of the worst engineered disasters of humanity,” no one was ever tried or punished. The Bern Protocols I and II of the 1977 additions to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 could potentially be used to hold countries’ responsible for environmental damages wrought by warfare, but they only apply to half of the nations in the world. The Declaration of 1972 on the Human Environment established that nations have a responsibility to ensure their actions do not cause damage to the environment. It prohibits the targeting of dams, dikes, and nuclear power plants if doing so would release dangerous materials that would endanger civilians. It also prohibits the complete destruction of items required for human survival, including food, agricultural areas, livestock, and drinking water. Some have recommended a fifth Geneva Convention that would specifically address environmental damage in the course of war.

The situation may be changing, however. In 1992, the Rio declaration denounced environmental destruction during war and demanded states respect international law regarding the environment. 1996 marked the First International Conference on Addressing the Environmental Consequences of War. The Chemical Weapons Convention and the Treaty to Ban Landmines, both in 1997, are also tremendous steps toward greater consideration of war’s impact on the environment. Unfortunately, several major countries have refused to sign the landmine treaty, which required the destruction of stockpiled landmines within four years of signing and the complete cleanup of all landmines within ten years. Most notably, the world’s largest producer of landmines, the U.S., has refused to sign, although the U.S. has stopped production of new landmines.

The Environment as a Cause of War

Environmental problems can also be part of the cause of war. Thomas Homer-Dixon identifies six types of environmental change that impact violent conflict: water and land degradation; deforestation; decline in fisheries; global warming; and ozone depletion. Norman Myers maintains there are five types of environmental problems that determine or exacerbate conflict: access and availability of water; deforestation; desertification; species extinction and gene depletion; and greenhouse gases.

Some claim the 1967 Arab-Israeli war was, in large part, due to water scarcity. Some groups have greater access to needed and desired resources because of the way geographical boundaries were created by colonial powers, as is the case in much of Africa. Socioeconomic scarcity involves unequal distribution or purchasing power and property rights. Environmental scarcity, in contrast, refers to resources that are becoming scarce because of humans’ failure to use sustainable methods. Clearly, underdeveloped countries are at greater risk for both environmental problems and violent warfare. Scarcity undermines the states’ capacity to provide for its citizens, and it also leads to economic and political demands.

In the Nigerian Delta, pollution from oil production has caused environmental damage that has disproportionately impacted the native Ogoni peoples. Gas-flaring, pipe leakage, dumping, and spills have all impacted the Ogoni, harming the soil, water, vegetation, and wildlife. The primary oil company in the region, Shell, operates in more than one hundred countries, but forty percent of all their recorded oil spills are in Nigeria. Between 1982 and 1992, 1,626,000 gallons of oil were spilled in 27 different instances. While oil executives live in lavish surroundings from their profits, the Ogoni live in abject poverty. Some Ogonis have organized to protest the degradation of their lands for the profit of oil executives. Their efforts have met with much resistance, most notably when military dictator Sani Abacha had activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others hung in 1995. In 1999 alone, more than 200 people were killed in oil-related riots.

Not only does environmental scarcity lead to violent conflict, but the reverse is true as well. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, fighting destroyed forests. Rebel groups then exploited the scarce timber resources to further finance their warfare. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) say that civil strife is a tremendous threat to food security in Africa and other developing areas. Although war generally does terrific damage to the environment, it is possible that some positive can come from it as well. Some post-war or former war manufacturing areas are now beautiful nature preserves. Rocky Mountain Arsenal is now one of the nation’s premier wildlife refuges, home to some 300 species of wildlife and visited by some 50,000 people each year. Similarly, the U.S. military has turned over approximately 100,000 acres of land by 2000 in Illinois, Maine, California, and northern Virginia to various federal agencies. The demilitarized zone in Korea is home to endangered species and migratory birds and is considered one of the most plentiful in Asia.


  1. Ken Conca and Geoffrey Dabelko, , Environmental Peacemaking (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2002);
  2. Conteh-Morgan, Collective Political Violence (Routledge, 2004);
  3. Paul Diehl and Nils Petter Gleditsch, eds., Environmental Conflict (Westview Press, 2001);
  4. Barry Levy and Victor Sidel, , War and Public Health (American Public Health Association, 2000); Max Manwaring, ed., Environmental Security and Global Stability (Lexington Books, 2002);
  5. E. Russell, War and Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2001);
  6. Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2001);
  7. United States Department of State, “Hidden Killers: The Global Problem With Uncleared Landmines” (Department of State, 1993).

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