The Effects of War on the Environment

The most obvious effects of war in our world are those that personally affect our lives and those we learn about from media reports. We see the devastation from bombings, drone strikes, face-to-face combat, suicide bombers, and detonation of IEDs (improvised explosive devices.) These actions result in loss of life or limb and the destruction of infrastructure: houses, businesses, bridges and roads. While being aware of these direct actions of war and praying for those affected by these events, we may be oblivious to the environmental effects of war. There is little media coverage of the long term effects war has on God’s creation, for example, the effects of war on water, land, food safety, and air quality.

The environment has been a “victim of war” since the beginnings of recorded history. Five thousand years ago, warring Mesopotamian city-states breached dikes to flood the fields of their enemies. In the Book of Judges, it is recorded that King Abimelech salted the fields of Shechem, which destroyed the food crops. The Romans did the same after they overwhelmed Carthage in 149-148 B.C.

One of the most environmentally destructive wartime programs in recent years took place during the United States involvement in the war in Vietnam. The United States sprayed Agent Orange on an estimated 35 percent of the forests in South Vietnam in order to break the forest cover sheltering the Viet Cong. This defoliation also served to destroy the food crops for those living in the area. Forty years later, approximately 14% of southern Vietnam’s hardwood forests have failed to recover. Some of the denuded areas became desert-like with blowing sand dunes while scrubby bamboos and exotic grasses invaded other areas, crowding out tree seedlings and preventing normal forest regeneration.

Destruction of the environment affects all species of animals. Animal habitats that are severely altered during the war may take decades to return to normal. The number of birds and animal species in some areas will never be restored.   In a study reported in the journal Science in 1969, only 64 birds belonging to 12 species were spotted in the forests of Vietnam after the spraying with Agent Orange.   Prior to the defoliation of the forest, it was habitat to hundreds of birds representing 80 species. Fifteen years after the spraying with Agent Orange, only 24 species of birds and 5 species of mammals returned to the affected forest areas compared to 145-170 species of birds and 30-55 species of mammals found in forests that were not sprayed and were still intact.

In addition to the human lives lost or those who are permanently disabled by war, millions of people face the aftereffects of war after peace agreements are signed and military troops have gone home. Many people lose their farmland and their food source, due to the pollution of water and soil. This leads to the displacement of individuals and families who cannot return home. Furthermore, the resultant overcrowding in refugee camps destroys land.

Chemicals weapons cause changes in the bodies of all living creatures for generations. Chemical weapons also alter ground water, affecting future food production. Some of the more environmentally damaging military tactics have been banned, including the chemical defoliants used in Vietnam. Use of chemicals such as Agent Orange is now a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Conventional weapons also pose risks to the environment. During World War II, British forces destroyed dams in Germany inundating farms, factories and flooding coal mines. In 1977 the Geneva Conventions were amended to ban the intentional breeching of dams in wartime, but only if the attack would cause “severe losses among the civilian population.” It is significant that environmental impacts are not even mentioned in the Conventions.

There are also incidents in which a desperate leader uses environmental terrorism as a military tactic. The most famous example is Saddam Hussein, who set fire to hundreds of oil wells on his way out of Kuwait in the first Persian Gulf War. Saddam also deliberately dumped 11 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, the largest oil spill in history at the time. Oil lakes and thick deposits of tarcrete covered the area, and scientists found traces of oil in ants and sand lizards more than a decade later.

A thought to ponder: Armies used to defeat each other by killing huge numbers of enemies in direct battle. Today, military strategists try to undermine the enemy’s war machine with less bloodshed. This usually means occupying huge swaths of land and destroying the industrial infrastructure. In other words, as war becomes “safer” for humans, it may be increasingly dangerous for the planet.

How are we to deal with these realities? Accept them as the normal course of life? After reading and reflecting on the environmental effects of war what changes will you make in your life of prayer and action?

Sister Mary Leanne Hartmann, CSSF

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