The environmental impact of human conflict
War. It has been a reality since the beginning of civilization (which could make one question the very definition of civilization, but that is topic for another story). Some say that people always have fought and always will; war never changes.
Yet, it has changed. Like so many areas of life, warfare has “advanced,” and that is not a good thing. Bombs are bigger, poisons are deadlier, missile range is longer, and weapons of all sorts can be mass-produced and delivered to war zones around the world at record speed. The casualties are not all human.
Images such as burning tires in Ukraine and open sewage in Gaza have become iconic of modern conflict zones. They also provide excellent examples of the massive toll that warfare has on the environment. When humans engage in combat, particularly with modern weaponry, the land, water, and air lose – meaning we all lose.
When we see cities reduced to rubble, we naturally think of the immediate human impact, which is nothing short of horrific. One of the many hazards facing survivors is toxins, not only in chemical/biological warfare, but also from the contents and construction materials of damaged buildings; smoke and dust from explosions and burning debris; and the materials used to manufacture the actual weapons.
Lack of infrastructure and public services also leaves countless people with little to no facilities for treating waste-water, pumping freshwater, recycling, and trash disposal – not to mention the countless toxins in the debris. For example, in the aftermath of the recent war in Gaza, approximately 50 percent of sewage is untreated[i], flowing into the ocean.
Of course, the direct targets of destruction are not always human populations and structures. Wild ecosystems often fall victim to weapons of destruction, to clear the path for militaries, target enemies in hiding, destroy resources, or other reasons. One third of Cambodia’s forests have been destroyed by civil conflicts, and it is reported that bombs destroyed millions of acres in Vietnam[ii].
Bombs are meant to kill, and they do not differentiate between an enemy soldier and a herd of wild animals. In addition to the direct threat of conflict, wildlife faces secondary dangers in the form of disrupted water and food supplies and loss of habitat. Animals, sometimes endangered species, also find themselves in the cross-hairs, when soldiers food supplies run short. [iii]
Can we win the war?
The question of who will win the war is yet to be answered. First, we need to reconsider our definition of “win.” When we engage in war, we bolster ourselves with the concept of the “enemy.” We justify our destruction because, if the enemy loses, then we win. Except, we don’t win. When lives are lost, ecosystems destroyed, towns leveled, and water supplies polluted, no one wins. We will win when we stop defining victory, success, and progress in terms of destruction.