On November 6, 2020, the United Nations will recognize the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict as it has every year since its founding 19 years ago. The UN created this holiday as a way to bring awareness to the effects that war and conflict have on the environment and in recognition of the environmental action needed to prevent conflict and build peace. This holiday is also meant to expand people’s focus to more than just the effects that conflicts have on humans, which are reported on every day, but also to the lasting effects conflict can have on the environment, something that doesn’t get as much attention. Although this resolution was relatively recent, this issue spans from the first conception of war into modern-day warfare.
Disturbances to the environment during conflict come from both weaponry and consumption of natural resources to aid in war efforts. As with many environmental issues, the industrial revolution was a turning point in the amount of damage human conflict could inflict on natural ecosystems. However, before the industrial revolution began, wars dating all the way back to Roman conflicts in the first century B.C. were already making their mark on the planet. Romans would intentionally set fire to forests to eliminate cover for troops and poison or divert waterways. Although this type of environmental interference did not have a lasting impact on landscapes, a precedent was set that involved manipulating the natural environment as a strategy in combat.
Fast forward to the 1860s and the outbreak of the American Civil War, where environmental disturbance began to escalate towards what it is in the modern era. The size of conflicts grew exponentially during this time as the number of troops and the range and destruction capabilities of weaponry both increased. However, the majority of damage that the American Civil War inflicted on the environment was not through direct warfare itself, but rather through the immense amount of natural resources that were consumed for the war effort through actions such as the leveling of forests and the careless mining of coal and iron.
While the American Civil War was a turning point in the number of resources needed to sustain a new type of intensive warfare, the most significant escalation of environmental disturbance came with World War I. Trench warfare and massive craters created by bombings split populations and completely altered ecosystems, especially on the Western Front. With this increase in destruction came an increase in awareness from environmental scientists who began to study the effects of World War I on this piece of Europe. Studies estimated that 2.5 billion board feet of lumber were destroyed during World War I. Today, in some areas, there are too many craters for more than a sparse number of trees to grow and the soils in these areas have a completely different makeup than soils from areas that didn’t see battle.
World War II brought new technology and fighting techniques that incidentally decreased the damage done to the environment in comparison to the destruction of World War I. This war had a lot less continuous fighting in one concentrated location and focused more on urban areas than places like the Western Front. Though not as significant as World War I, World War II still saw 100 million acres of French forests destroyed on the Western Front and heavy bombardments to the Pacific Islands.
With the Vietnam War, the intentional, strategic destruction that hadn’t been used as frequently since Roman conflicts made its big comeback into the world of warfare. The lush rainforests of Vietnam where most of the fighting took place required a significant amount of deforestation to take away cover from opposing troops and to have areas big enough to land helicopters. Vegetation was destroyed with bombings, herbicides such as agent orange, and bulldozing, the effects of which can still be seen from above.
In recent wars, many of the damaging practices that have progressed through history still persist alongside new issues that have arisen. These new issues include things such as oil spills created when there are attacks on oil facilities and the heavy pollution created from military vehicles, troop transportation, and aerial support. Deforestation in Afghanistan has destroyed habitats while in Iraq pollution has raised concerns over environmental destruction leading to poor health conditions.
As seen with the United Nations creation of the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict and increased studies into the effects of war, the global system is paying more attention to this issue. In 2016 and 2017, the UN Environment Assembly passed resolutions to improve the protection of the environment during conflict and also added assessment and planning centered around this to their 1030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Additionally, the UN Environment’s Executive Director, Erik Solheim, has called for transparency in studying this issue and sharing results as well as the creation of Massive Open Online Courses to promote better access to this research. Much has been done to bring attention to the negative impacts that warfare has on the environment, but much more will need to be done in the future to get all international actors to consider the lasting impact that their conflicts have on the planet and make real change towards decreasing this impact.
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