The devastating impacts of human conflict on the natural world

Ways in which war and armed conflict can cause environmental disaster.

by Alex Arkilanian. Published on November 06, 2019.

War and armed conflicts are prevalent in the world, with hundreds of millions of people living in active military zones. The impact of these operations on human populations are devastating, but the effects that they have on the environment are often forgotten - yet still very important. For this reason, the United Nations recognized in 2001 November 6th as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.

Armed conflicts have historically damaged our environment through the use of scorched earth operations, nuclear weapons, and chemical warfare. An example of a scorched earth method that caused unprecedented environmental damage came towards the end of the Persian Gulf War in 2001. In an effort to slow down coalition forces, the Iraqi military set fire to over 700 oil wells and dumped up to 600 million liters of oil into the gulf. This led to soot fallout in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, large carbon dioxide emissions accounting for 2% of global emissions, and negative impacts on all types of natural habitat in and around the gulf.

Satellite image of the Persian Gulf oil fires (left, source: NASA) and figure of emission contents from the oil fires’ smoke (right, reworked from M. Sadiq et al. 1993). Subsequent bars increasing in colour intensity indicate distance from fire source: 50km, 450km, 1000km.

The trauma of war is intergenerational — not just for humans but also for the environment. The Israel-Lebanon conflict of 2006 is a more recent example of environmental damage following war, with impacts that lasted long after the conflict was over. Similar to the Persian Gulf war, one of the major disasters during this war was the bombing by Israeli forces of the Jiyeh oil refinery on the coast of Lebanon. This attack led to the release of 75 million liters of oil into the surrounding water and air. Due to the nature of the released oil, its effects were mostly physical: organisms on the shores and seabeds were covered with thick oil, requiring human intervention to clean up. This effort took several years to complete, and the ecosystems took a few more to bounce back.

When two or more groups of people engage in armed conflicts, the results can be disastrous for the environment. International groups have thus attempted to create legislation protecting the environment in times of war. The most recent example is a series of 28 draft principles adopted by the International Law Commission of the United Nations that outline steps to protect the environment before, during, and after armed conflicts.

The adopted principles offer guidelines for countries, but their participation is not mandatory, and, in times of conflict, political leaders are less likely to consider them. Nevertheless, there are still many anti-war organizations across the world that put pressure on governments to evaluate their impact on the natural world. These groups include Code Pink: an organization of women against war in the United States; Project Ploughshares: a Canadian organization; and the International Peace Bureau: an old, established, and international anti-war organization. While environmental guidelines are hard changes to put in place, the organizations - and countless others - are working hard to reduce our impact on the planet.