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The International Law Commission (ILC) is on the verge of finalising the principles on the “protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts,” on which it has been working since 2013. The Ukraine conflict has brought international concerns about the devastating environmental impacts of war.

Though the discussion on the costs of wars has been primarily over the number of death and displacement of human beings and, to some extent, the economic losses, there is no doubt that the armed conflicts cause severe damage to land, air, water, forest, and wildlife in the country.

Ukraine might have put the global spotlight on environmental harm, but the war damaging the environment is not limited to that place only.

The age-old codes of martial conduct worldwide were aimed at keeping the war limited and controlled. However, armed conflicts in the recent decades have become universally gripping, affecting the civilian populations and the natural resource supply of the warring countries and groups. Particularly, since World War II, it has become almost impossible to ignore modern war machinery’s large-scale environmentally destructive acts.

Massive carbon emissions

Wars consume a vast amount of fuel and contribute to massive carbon emissions. The use of explosives produces significant quantities of debris, causing severe air and soil pollution.

Attacks on industrial complexes or oil facilities are hazardous to air and water quality. The leftover weapons of the war, like landmines, limit the use of agricultural land and pollute soil and water resources.

The conflict in Yemen has, directly and indirectly, destroyed many farming infrastructures, leading to a massive decline in the country’s food production. The farmers in Lao are still suffering from the land contamination of the US bombings of 2 million tons of explosives in the 1960s and 1970s.

Besides the direct adverse effects of armed conflicts on the environment, in some cases, environmental damages also get carried out as the deliberate objective by warring parties rather than an unwanted by-product. Attack on water and energy facilities leads to severe environmental challenges.

Even in the absence of armed conflict, the preparedness for war heavily contributes to environmental destruction. The production, testing, and storage of conventional, chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons create toxic and radioactive substances, contaminating soil, air, and water.

Large expanses of fragile land, marine resources, and air space are being bombed or polluted to prepare the armed forces for the war. Military training areas cover 5-6% of the global land surface.

Land used for war games invariably suffers severe degradation, and war maneuvers destroy natural vegetation and disturb the wildlife habitat. Bombing ranges transform the land into wasteland.

Flying fighter jets at low levels is detrimental to human health and ecology. War preparations can also make large tracts of land dangerous for human use by littering them with unexploded bombs. The US Department of Defence is one of the world’s major greenhouse gas emitters.

Disposal of radioactive waste

Military toxins contaminate water, deplete fish resources, pollute the air, and destroy agricultural productivity. Among all the military preparedness acts, the adverse effects of nuclear weapon production and testing are the most severe and enduring.

While the direct effects of military toxins on the environment are limited and localised in nature, radiation from nuclear waste is a much more significant and severe problem. Though nearly eight decades have passed, scientists have yet to find a permanent and safe way to dispose of radioactive waste.

War leads to massive deforestation. Japan lost most of its forests in World War II. The Indochina conflict of the 1960s and 70s also destroyed large forest areas. Nearly 2 million hectares of Vietnamese forest were destroyed due to bombing and herbicide spraying.

Armed conflict in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s directly resulted in considerable forest destruction. Recently the wars in Afghanistan and Syria have led to deforestation. The ongoing war in Ukraine has reportedly destroyed large areas of forests as well. Loss of tree cover has a long-term adverse effect on biodiversity and ecosystems.

Wars between countries and even internal civil wars are also significant contributors to global environmental damage. The violence and population displacement during civil wars make it almost impossible to develop sustainable agriculture, leading to massive deforestation and the destruction of wildlife.

Significant environmental footprint

Conflict-induced human displacement can have significant environmental footprints. The mass movement of people leads to widespread loss of green cover, soil erosion, and hunting of wild animals.

The number of wars and civil wars is increasing, becoming more deadly. Countries are also spending more resources on their militaries as the global military expenditure crossed the $2 trillion mark in 2021. After a gap of almost four decades, the nuclear weapon race is starting again in Europe. There is no doubt that armed conflicts, directly and indirectly, contribute to increased global environmental footprints.

Last week, on June 2-3, 2022, an important international environmental meeting was held in Stockholm to commemorate the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment and celebrate 50 years of global environmental action.

Despite increasing understanding about its environmental footprints in recent decades, armed conflict continues to inflict severe environmental degradation and destroy the ecosystem.

While there are some attempts, like by the ILC and the Red Cross, to strengthen and implement the laws protecting the environment concerning armed conflicts, as the environmental damages in the ongoing wars show, the international community still has a long way to go.