War and the environment

Canberra Airport’s 2014 Master Plan[1] states:

Canberra Airport is a recognised national leader in the area of environmental management. It has an environmental management regime, significantly more advanced than most businesses and landowners, and has developed some of Australia’s most sustainable buildings[2].

This is to be commended.  However, war and its preparation are one of the greatest destroyers of the built and natural environments.  Whether on land, at sea, or in the air, its environmental footprint is very heavy. 

In November 2014, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said, “The environment has long been a silent casualty of war and armed conflict.  From the contamination of land and the destruction of forests to the plunder of natural resources and the collapse of management systems, the environmental consequences of war are often widespread and devastating.”[3]

Here is a summary of some of warfare’s environmental impacts:

1. Fossil fuel use

Modern fighting machines use vast amounts of energy.  The movement of tens or hundreds of thousands of troops, especially to distant countries, with all their fighting equipment and means of survival, including medical and other essential infrastructure, is a very fuel-intensive undertaking.   That’s even before the fighting starts.

The US military is the largest single consumer of energy in the world.  It consumes as much as, for example, the whole of Nigeria with a population of more than 160 million people[4].  Abrams tank that were used in Iraq move less than 1 mile for every gallon of fuel used[5] - that means more than 235 litres per 100 kms.

Large quantities of many other finite resources are needed to build and maintain weapons systems, and to rebuild towns and cities destroyed by these weapons systems.

2. Landmines, cluster bombs and other UXO

Tens of millions of landmines and cluster bombs, left in the ground in dozens of countries after wars cease, go on killing and maiming for decades and render land unusable.  Most of the victims are civilians, and many of them are children.  The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions have both helped significantly to reduce the impact of these terrible weapons, but clearance remains a huge challenge, and production still occurs in some countries, adding to the global stockpile of approximately 50 million landmines[6].

3. Toxic chemicals left behind after military exercises and wars

Many polluting chemicals, such as heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), acids, alkalis and explosives pollute thousands of former military sites around the world.  

Dioxin from the approximately 80 million litres of Agent Orange that were sprayed over 10 – 15% of South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 still takes a very heavy toll, causing cancers and almost certainly large numbers of birth defects.

In addition, the movement of heavy equipment, and the bombing of terrain during warfare and military exercises, causes land degradation, soil compaction, crater-filled landscapes and destruction of wildlife habitats.

4. Depleted uranium munitions

Depleted uranium (DU) weapons have both chemical toxicity and low-level radioactivity, and a half life (time taken for half the radioactivity to decay) of 4.5 billion years.  Therefore, where DU is used low-level radioactivity will remain indefinitely.  Radioactivity, even at low levels, is known to increase cancer rates.  DU has been used extensively in Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia and almost certainly Afghanistan. 

5. Acts of environmental sabotage

As one example of this, in 1991 Saddam Hussein’s forces unleashed an ecological disaster by igniting 600 oil wells across Kuwait and spilling 4 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, causing massive damage to marine, bird and coastal species and very extensive air pollution[7].  There have been other examples of deliberate environmental destruction as acts of war, such as the poisoning of large parts of South Vietnam by Agent Orange (see above).

6. Nuclear weapons

Read about the particular problem of nuclear weapons, the most destructive weapons ever created, [here].



[1] Chapter 15. Environmental Management

[5] Nick Turse. The Military-Petroleum Complex.  Foreign Policy in Focus. 26 March, 2008

[7] J Lash.  Beware an ecological catastrophe in Iraq. International Herald Tribune. 13 Dec 2002