by Jessica Adley and Andrea Grant – The Sierra Club of Canada
“War is never an isolated act.” ”
— Clausewitz, 1831 
Although ecological disturbances brought on by war have been occurring for thousands of years, modern day warfare has made its impact increasingly severe. Recognizing the long-term and wide-spread impacts caused by such degradation, experts have coined the term ecocide, literally meaning the killing of the environment.
From the Romans in 146 BC salting fields around Carthage to impair food production to the looting of Iraqi nuclear facilities in recent months, the environmental destruction resulting from war has had an enduring legacy.  While the spraying of Agent Orange to defoliate jungles in Vietnam and burning of oil wells in Iraq have become icons of environmental warfare, many lesser-known but no less significant acts of ecocide have been perpetrated by warring states. Among them is the extensive toll of water contamination on environmental and health security and the impact of combat on endangered species. Although by no means comprehensive, the following examples illustrate some of the different forms of environmental degradation caused by war.
Since the 1991 Gulf War, concern over the health and environmental effects of depleted uranium (DU) weapons has continued to grow. An extremely dense metal made from low-level radioactive waste, DU is principally used by the United States, but also by other countries such as Britain, in defensive military armor, conventional munitions, and some missiles.  Its ability to penetrate the armor of enemy tanks and other targets more readily than similar weapons made of other materials has made DU extremely valuable to the US military. Perhaps not surprisingly, the US military has downplayed potential health risks posed by exposure to Depleted Uranium.
In many cases, current scientific studies have yet to substantiate links between reported health problems and the intensive use of DU weapons.  However, other studies suggest DU is not as harmless as the United States and other “coalition forces” would like the public to believe.
“I think the evidence is piling up that DU is not benign at all,” said Malcolm Hooper, an emeritus professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Sunderland and chief scientific adviser to the UK Gulf Veterans Association. “The inhalation of these fine dust particles represents a health hazard that was known to the military as long ago as 1974,” he said in an interview with BBC news. 
The Royal Society, the UK’s national science academy, predicts that soldiers and civilians exposed to high DU levels may be at increased risk for kidney damage and lung cancer. Unfortunately, a DU clean-up and monitoring program, necessary to confirm suspected health threats, is on hold until coalition forces agree to reveal where and how much DU was used in Iraq. 
For additional information see Sierra Club of Canada‚s DU Resource page
The degradation of infrastructure and basic services brought on by war can wreak havoc on the local environment and public health. Countries‚ water supply systems, for example, can be contaminated or shut down by bomb blasts or bullet damage to pipes.  In Afghanistan, destruction to water infrastructure combined with weakened public service during the war resulted in bacterial contamination, water loss through leaks and illegal use.  The consequence was an overall decline in safe drinking water throughout the country.
Water shortages can also lead to inadequate irrigation of cropland. Agricultural production may also be impaired by intensive bombing and heavy military vehicles traveling over farm soil.  The presence of landmines can also render vast areas of productive land unusable. 
Additional war-related problems which compound degradation of the natural and human environment include shortages in cooking fuel and waste mismanagement during and after military conflicts.
During the most recent warfare in Iraq, individuals were forced to cut down city trees to use as cooking fuel.  In Afghanistan, the creation of poorly located, leaky landfill sites resulted in contaminated rivers and groundwater. 
Throughout history, war has invariably resulted in environmental destruction. However, advancements in military technology used by combatants have resulted in increasingly severe environmental impacts. This is well illustrated by the devastation to forests and biodiversity caused by modern warfare.
Military machinery and explosives have caused unprecedented levels of deforestation and habitat destruction. This has resulted in a serious disruption of ecosystem services, including erosion control, water quality, and food production. A telling example is the destruction of 35″ of Cambodia‚s intact forests due to two decades of civil conflict. In Vietnam, bombs alone destroyed over 2 million acres of land.  These environmental catastrophes are aggravated by the fact that ecological protection and restoration become a low priority during and after war.
The threat to biodiversity from combat can also be illustrated by the Rwanda genocide of 1994. The risk to the already endangered population of mountain gorillas from the violence was of minimal concern to combatants and victims during the 90-day massacre.  The threat to the gorillas increased after the war as thousands of refugees, some displaced for decades, returned to the already overpopulated country. Faced with no space to live, they had little option but to inhabit the forest reserves, home to the gorilla population.
As a result of this human crisis, conservation attempts were impeded. Currently, the International Gorilla Programme Group is working with authorities to protect the gorillas and their habitats. This has proven to be a challenging task, given the complexities Rwandan leaders face, including security, education, disease, epidemics, and famine. 
Chemical and Biological Warfare
One of the most striking examples of military disregard for environmental and human health is the use of chemical and biological agents in warfare. The American military‚s use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War is one of the most widely known examples of using environmental destruction as a military tactic.
Agent Orange is a herbicide that was sprayed in millions of liters over approximately 10″ of Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. It was used to defoliate tropical forests to expose combatants, and destroy crops to deprive peasants of their food supply.   The environmental and health effects were devastating. The spraying destroyed 14″ of South Vietnam’s forests, including 50″ of the mangrove forests. Few, if any, have recovered to their natural state. 
A key ingredient of Agent Orange is dioxin, the most potent carcinogen ever tested.  It is therefore not surprising that Agent Orange has been linked to an array of health problems in Vietnam including birth defects, spontaneous abortions, chloracne, skin and lung cancers, lower IQ and emotional problems for children (Forgotten Victims). 
Similar to toxic chemical spills, Agent Orange continues to threaten the health of Vietnamese. In 2001, scientists documented extremely high levels of dioxin in blood samples taken from residents born years after the end of the Vietnam War. Studies attribute such high levels to food chain contamination: Soil contaminated with dioxin becomes river sediment, which is then passed to fish, a staple of the Vietnamese diet.  This is a clear reminder that poisoning our environments is akin to poisoning ourselves.
(also see section on Depleted Uranium)
The looting of Iraqi nuclear facilities in 2003, which occurred after US-led forces entered the country, has offered another blow to social and environmental security in the region. The most troubling of cases concerns the Tuwaitha nuclear plant, located 48 kilometers south of Baghdad, where an estimated two hundred blue plastic barrels containing uranium oxide were stolen. After dumping the radioactive contents and rinsing out the barrels in the rivers, poverty-stricken residents used the containers for storing basic amenities like water, cooking oil and tomatoes. Extra barrels were sold to other villages or used to transport milk to distanced regions, thus making the critical problem increasingly widespread. 
The mishandling of the radioactive material has profound effects on the environment and on the people and animals that depend on it. Toxic substances seep into the ground (rendering the soil unsafe), disperse through the air (spreading wide-scale pollution), and taint water and food supplies. Iraq‚s national nuclear inspector has forecasted that over a thousand people could die of leukemia. 
In addition to stolen radiological materials, computers and important documents have also gone missing.  Given the right mix of technology and materials, radiological weapons such as “dirty bombs” and possibly even weapons of mass destruction (WMD) could be produced. It is worth noting that uranium oxide can be refined with the proper machinery and expertise in order to produce enriched uranium, a key ingredient in a nuclear bomb.  There is concern that such materials could end up in the hands of the very terrorist groups the US and UK military are trying to disable.  Unfortunately the coalition forces inability to effectively secure nuclear sites in Iraq may well have exacerbated the situation the war was supposed to avoid: the unlawful proliferation and use of WMD weapons.
Reform Is Needed
Despite the long legacy of environmental destruction caused by warfare, the standards set by most conventions and protocols have proven inadequate in preventing and redressing environmental degradation brought on by war.  Some experts maintain that the two principle international laws that could hold wartime aggressors accountable for ecological crimes are weak and outdated. Although the Iraqi military’s lighting and dumping of oil in Kuwait during the 1991Gulf War was labeled by UNEP as “one of the worst engineered disasters of humanity,” the government was never tried for their “scorched earth policy.”  Some observers have called for a “Fifth Geneva Convention” to replace existing international norms.
Additional concerns focus on the geographical and temporal constraints placed by such agreements. While only a fraction of the armed conflicts in the world are international in scope, there is a lack of domestic regulations pre-empting war’s ecological harm.  To make matters worse, international laws protecting the environment are mostly peacetime laws that are limited during conflict by the application of the Law of War, which focuses primarily on human needs.  
Enforcement has also been an issue of serious debate. Some experts maintain that mitigating environmental atrocities from warfare requires clearer standards of conduct enforced by credible authorities able to impose penalties on those guilty of violations.  Such a precedent would change the way military operations perceive and use their physical environment. Rather than identifying their surroundings as providing “either logistical problems to be overcome and defeated or opportunities to be exploited,” preservation of the earth’s ecology would be valued for its intrinsic worth.  In effect, environmental security would be treated as a desirable end in itself rather than just a means of obtaining a competitive edge.
The Silver Lining
The good news is that recent international environmental declarations, such as that put forward in 1992 in Rio, have denounced wartime environmental destruction.  Principle 24 of the 1992 Rio Declaration states, “warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, as necessary.” 
The growing realization that national security and ecological conservation are inextricably linked has made environmental security an issue worthy of consideration and protection. “The lesson of the Kosovo conflict and the Gulf War before is that environmental consequences of war are now a legitimate topic,” said Senior Attorney Jay Austin of the Environmental Law Institute. “It is one that is being criticized by journalists and NGOs as the consequences of those decisions unfold.”  (Jay Austin’s speech)
Given the combination of international support and stringent mechanisms, international laws mitigating war’s environmental destruction have the potential to change the face of combat and possibly discourage it from ever starting. The prospect of greater international environmental accountability when coupled with international enforcement of war crimes and human rights violations could make war less appetizing to those who would consider waging it. The times, let’s hope, are a changing.
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Kirby, Alex. “UK to aid Iraq DU removal,” April 23, 2003. BBC News .June 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/science/nature/2970503.stm
Office of International Security Operations. Hidden Killers, The Global Problem with Uncleared Landmines: a Report on International Demining, Washington, D.C.: Department of State, 1993.
Pesticide Action Network North America. “Agent Orange and Dioxin in Vietnam: New Findings.” Global Pesticide Campaigner 8:4, December 1998. 10 June 2003 http://www.panna.org/resources/gpc/gpc_199812.08.4.10.dv.html.
Pesticide Action Network UK. “Forgotten Victims of Agent Orange.” Pesticides News 32, p. 17, June 1996. 7 July 2003 http://www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/Pn32/pn32p17d.htm.
Rice, Susan E.. “Iraq’s nuclear facilities looted.” The Globe and Mail. Wed. May 21, 2003.
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Sheehan, Norman. “The Aftermath of an Invasion: A field report from Nasiriyah,” Warchild. May 1, 2003. 29 May, 2003 http://www.envirosagainstwar.org/edit/index.php?op=view&itemid=80.
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United Nations Environment Programme. A Strategy for Protecting the People and the Environment in Post-War Iraq. 10 June 2003 http://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/iraq_ds.pdf.
Wall, Roland. “War and the environment: some of the ways that military actions can affect the ecosystem.” Know Your Environment. The Environmental Associates of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. 9 June 2003 http://www.acnatsci.org/research/kye/KYE22001.html#f3.
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