The Environmental Consequences of war
War is never an isolated act.”
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 armour, conventional munitions, and some missiles. Its ability to penetrate the armour 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.
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 travelling 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...
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