The history of the world is shackled with the chain of wars. Currently the whole world is going through the grave consequences of Russia-Ukraine war, which eventually turned into a war between Russia and the West. Whenever a war or military attack takes place, we usually talk about the humanitarian crisis or lives lost or assets damaged. But a grave devastation remains out of calculation and that is environmental damage. This environmental damage results in crisis like; climate change, global warming, food and crops damage, severe pollution etc. Hence, those, who engage in war for self-benefits and even produce arms and ammunitions for wars must pay for the environmental damages.
The damaging impact of war on the environment is often left unsaid. But it affects greenhouse gases, wildlife and essential infrastructures. Unknown to most, the arms, defence and military industries worldwide are extremely polluting industries. They are the biggest consumers of fossil fuels and emit the most greenhouse gases (GHGs). Explosive weapons can devastate a landscape. They can contaminate the soil for decades and cause poisons to leach into once healthy rivers. They can annihilate ecosystems and disrupt the harmony of nature.
During the most recent COP26, a major focus was on phasing out coal energy use internationally. Other major topics at COP26 included stopping deforestation, a transition to zero-emissions vehicles and methane reduction. All creditable goals related to transportation, energy development and industry. What received little attention, however, was the environmental and climate impact of war, such as the one that is escalating in Ukraine at present.
Moreover, disposal of hazardous nuclear and chemical weapons along with conventional weapons creates environmental risks. Additionally, a high level of military spending diverts resources away from solving environmental problems and away from sustainable development. International tensions fuelled by high levels of military spending also reduce opportunities for international cooperation on global environmental threats, such as the climate emergency.
High intensity conflicts require and consume vast quantities of fuel, leading to massive CO2 emissions and contributing to climate change. Large scale vehicle movements can lead to widespread physical damage to sensitive landscapes and geo-diversity. The use of explosive weapons in urban areas creates vast quantities of debris and rubble, which can cause air and soil pollution.
Severe pollution incidents can be caused when industrial or energy facilities are deliberately attacked, carelessly damaged or disrupted. In some cases, deliberate attacks on oil or industrial facilities are used as a weapon of war, to pollute large areas and spread terror. Other techniques include the destruction of agricultural infrastructure like canals, wells and pumps and the burning of crops. Tactics like these threaten food security and livelihoods, increasing the vulnerability of rural communities. Large-scale pollution incidents can lead to trans-boundary impacts from air pollution or through the contamination of rivers, aquifers or the sea.
Weapons and military materiel used during conflicts also leave environmental legacies. Military scrap may contain a range of polluting materials. Wrecked ships, submarines and offshore oil infrastructure can cause marine pollution. Many conventional weapons have toxic constituents; For example; depleted uranium can be radioactive. Inflammable weapons such as toxic white phosphorous can damage habitats through fire. While now restricted, the widespread use of chemical defoliants damaged public and ecological health across large areas of Vietnam.
Human displacement is common to many conflicts. Camps for refugees and internally displaced peoples can have large environmental footprints due to unplanned or lack of essential services like water, sanitation and waste management. For example; the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are causing severe environmental damage as huge forests were cut down for making their homes and the environment was additionally polluted.
The United Nations recognizes November 6 as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. It is a day to acknowledge the devastation inflicted upon communities and ecosystems by endless war and the role that the climate crisis plays in fuelling conflict around the world. But only marking this day is not going to make anything easy for the world.
As the world’s single largest consumer of oil and a top greenhouse gas emitter, the US Department of Defense has a disproportionate impact on climate change. These military emissions are not included in US national emissions totals, thanks in large part to pressure from the US during the negotiation of the 1992 Kyoto Protocol. But they have created serious environmental damages and caused health risks. For example; cancer, birth defects and other conditions have been potentially linked to environmental pollution due to the Iraq war.
According to the recent Airpower Summary published by the Pentagon, the US and allied air forces have dropped more than 337,000 bombs and missiles on other countries over the past 20 years, an average of forty-six strikes per day. The US has dropped another 3,246 bombs and missiles on Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria since the end of February 2020. These bombs not only destroyed civilian lives but also devastated the nature severely. The recent Russia-Ukraine war is also witnessing one of the greatest destruction of the nature in two of the largest food producing countries, where the nature will take years to return to its previous pure productivity.
Further, uranium mining and nuclear weapons testing by the US have wreaked havoc on land and water. On the US mainland, mining and testing have disproportionately affected Native American communities, vandalizing sacred sites and contaminating the land, leading to epidemics of miscarriages, cancers and other diseases. Many parts of the Marshall Islands are uninhabitable due to US testing there and the Marshallese still suffers today from the health and environmental effects. Despite this history, the Senate Armed Services Committee is trying to fund preparations for renewed nuclear weapons testing.
After the end of Cold War at the beginning of 1990s, there have been several medium to large scale wars throughout the world. Like; Syrian Civil War, Second Congo War, Darfur Conflict, Iraq War, Afghanistan War, The War Against Boko Haram, Yemeni Civil War, Libya War, Ukraine Conflict etc. One common thing about all these wars is the suppliers of weapons. All these wars are being sponsored with very few number of weapon producers. But they are not paying anything for the environmental damages.
We often talk about civilian casualties of war. But the warlords are destroying the 8.7 million species with arms and bombs. We may talk about our misery but these other species cannot speak. We are destroying their habitats, destroying their food sources and even making many of them extinct. To become civilian, we must become civil and unfortunately, we failed to do so.
It is essential that states, armies, the defence and armaments industries must remain completely transparent about their greenhouse gas emissions as well as consumption of fossil fuels. They must realize that, it is better to invest in the future of humanity rather than death. Unfortunately, only the US has spent more than $6.4 trillion on war since 2001 while this money could have resulted in development of different areas of the world. The defence and armaments industries must be included in the global treaties same as other civilian industries. The military should refocus on research on ways to combat climate crisis. For the welfare of the world, weapons can no longer have priority.
If the world leaders do not realize the environmental threats due to war, invasion or attack, it is high time that, these warlords pay for their deeds. H.G. Wells once said: “if we don’t end war, war will end us.” Hence, we hope, one day peace will rule over the whole world.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Chief Patron, Bangabandhu Shishu Kishore Mela