War destroys the environment – ​​and not just on the front lines

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On the morning of December 6, 1917, a French cargo ship called the SS Mont Blanc collided with a Norwegian ship in the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She was scheduled to be sent to the battlefields of World War I when her SS Mont Blanc, which was carrying 3,000 tons of high explosives, caught fire and exploded.

The resulting explosion released an amount of energy equivalent to approximately 2.9 kilotons of TNT and destroyed much of the city. Although far from the front lines, the explosion left a lasting mark on Halifax, as many regions experience environmental changes due to war.

Media attention is often focused on destructive explosions caused by bombs, drones, missiles, etc. And the devastation we have witnessed in cities such as Aleppo, Mosul, Mariupol, and now Gaza certainly serves as a stark reminder of the horrific effects of military action.

But research is revealing the broader, long-term effects of war far beyond the battlefield. Armed conflicts leave lasting traces of environmental destruction, and recovery after conflict has eased is a challenge.

Interest in research on the impact of war on the environment

A diagram showing the increasing trend in publications regarding military soil contamination since the 1990s.
Interest in military soil contamination increased in the early 2000s.
Stadler et al. (2022)/Sustainability, CC BY-NC-SA

harmful legacy

Battles, and even wars, end relatively quickly, at least compared to the timescales over which environments change. But soils and sediments record their effects over decades and centuries.

In 2022, a study of soil chemistry in northern France found that levels of copper and lead (both toxic at concentrations above trace levels) were found more than 100 years after the site was part of the Battle of France. uplift, and other changes in soil structure and composition were shown. Somme.

Studies of recent conflicts have also documented the harmful legacies of intense fighting. A study conducted in 2016, 30 years after the Iran-Iraq war, found concentrations of toxic elements such as chromium, lead, and the metalloid antimony in battlefield soil. These concentrations were more than 10 times higher than those found in soil behind the front.

Deliberate destruction of infrastructure during war can also have lasting effects. One notable example is the first Gulf War in 1991, when Iraqi forces blew up more than 700 oil wells in Kuwait. The oil gushed into the surrounding environment, and fallout from the plume’s spray formed a thick deposit known as “talkreit” across his 1,000 square kilometers of Kuwait’s desert.

The impact of oil fires on air, soil, water, and habitats attracted global attention. In the 21st century, war is not only scrutinized for its human harm, but also for its environmental damage in near real time.

A plane flies over an oil well set on fire by Iraqi forces.
A military plane flies over an oil well set on fire by Iraqi forces.
NB/ROD / Alamy Stock Photo

Conflict is a systemic catastrophe

One result of this scrutiny is the recognition that conflict is a catastrophe that affects humans and entire ecosystems. The destruction of social and economic infrastructure, such as water and sanitation facilities, industrial systems, agricultural supply chains, and data networks, can cause subtle but devastating indirect environmental impacts.

Since 2011, conflict has scarred the northwestern region of Syria. As part of a research project led by Syrian colleagues at the University of Sham, we conducted soil surveys in the affected areas.

Our findings revealed widespread soil contamination in agricultural land. This land feeds a population of approximately 3 million people who already face severe food insecurity.

This pollution is likely caused by a combination of factors, all as a result of the collapse of the local economy caused by the conflict. In addition to a lack of fuel to pump wells, the destruction of sewage treatment infrastructure has increased reliance on rivers contaminated with untreated sewage to irrigate farmland.

Pollution can also be caused by the use of low-grade fertilizers, unregulated industrial emissions, and the prevalence of makeshift refineries.

More recently, agricultural economies around the world have been disrupted by the current Ukraine conflict, which has triggered international sanctions on Russian grain and fertilizer exports. This has particularly affected countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Nigeria, and Iran.

Many smallholder farmers in these countries may be forced to sell their livestock and abandon their land as they struggle to buy the inputs they need to feed their animals and grow their crops. there is. Land abandonment is an ecologically harmful practice because it can take decades for the vegetation density and species richness characteristic of natural ecosystems to recover.

War clearly becomes a complex and intertwined ‘linkage’ problem, with effects reaching far from the war-affected areas.

A field of rapeseed in Ukraine, modeled after the Ukrainian flag.
Rape field in Ukraine.
Dell Pixel/Shutterstock

conflict, cascades, climate

Recognizing the complex and cascading environmental impacts of war is the first step to addressing them. After the first Gulf War, the United Nations established a compensation commission and included the environment as one of six compensable damages to countries and their people.

Jordan has been awarded more than US$160m (£127m) over 10 years to restore rangelands in the Badia Desert. These grazing lands had been ecologically destroyed by one million refugees from Kuwait and Iraq and their livestock. Badia is now a case study for sustainable watershed management in arid regions.

In northwest Syria, work is underway to assess farmers’ understanding of soil contamination in conflict-affected areas. This is the first step in designing agricultural technologies aimed at minimizing threats to human health and restoring the environment.

Armed conflict is finally being brought into the spotlight on climate change. His COP28, the United Nations’ latest climate summit, includes its first thematic day dedicated to “relief, recovery and peace.” Discussions will focus on countries and communities whose ability to withstand climate change is hampered by economic or political fragility or conflict.

And as COP28 gets underway, the Conflict Environment Observatory, a British charity that monitors the environmental impact of armed conflict, called for research to explain carbon emissions in conflict-affected areas. .

The carbon impact of war is not yet counted in total global carbon emissions, which is an important reference for combating climate change. But far from the sound and intensity of explosions, the environmental effects of war are lasting, far-reaching, and just as deadly.


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