How Conflict Exploits The Environment: The Other Casualties of War

Photo courtesy of 7th Army Joint Multinational Training Command via Flickr

Casualties of war are counted in bodies. But beyond human carnage is environmental carnage — what the UN calls the “unpublicized victim of war.”

By the United Nations’ declaration in 2001, November 6 was named International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.

The importance of understanding the impact of war on the earth and preventing further damage is enormous, as humanity and our environment are intimately connected.

There are no funeral marches for poisoned land, burnt lumber, or devastated habitats;  their silent suffering, however, doesn’t negate it. Which aspects of warfare are hurting our planet, and at what cost?

Standing armies and weapons

Armies take money and fuel to maintain and prepare. The United States Department of Defense (DOD) is the country’s largest consumer of fossil fuels — and that’s just consumption in preparation for war. 

aha75pxIconOnce deployed, fuel usage is even greater: It’s suggested that over 1.7m barrels of oil was used every month during the US’ invasion of Iraq, and that two thirds of this fuel was used to deliver more fuel to battlefront vehicles.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”i1U2RLDwYox7s0GUlZg2UrkoWfBk5YPs”]As for the impact of weapons and radiation, the damage of WWII’s nuclear warfare was fully destructive to impacted land, with the areas surrounding nuclear testing left irreversibly toxic. Most of the land on which government built nuclear bombs will never be safe or habitable.

It’s suggested that missiles dropped during the Gulf War on Iraq poisoned the nation’s water and soil, contributing to higher rates rated of cancer and infant mortality, though others dispute this claim. 

Landmines also remain around the world, contributing to land degradation.


With civil war often comes displacement of entire communities. These refugees leave their homes and are forced to build new communities in previously untouched areas, where they must use resources available at all costs.

Shelters built by refugees deplete forests, evaporate protection of habitats, resulting in drought, desertification, and wildlife loss, the Guardian says.

aha75pxIconAccording to the UN Refugee Agency, mass amounts of displaced people are associated with forest degradation, soil pollution, the depletion and pollution of water sources, and competition for resources.

Rebels and terror groups 

As we’ve discussed previously, criminal, militia, and terrorist groups are on an increasing level exploiting the environment for financial gain. This includes illegal logging, extraction of minerals, trade and dumping of hazardous waste, and poaching wildlife.

The slaughtering of protected species for both food and for profit during times of war is especially damaging to entire ecosystems and communities.

aha75pxIconSuch wildlife destruction includes the slaughtering of snow leopards for their skin, elephants for their ivory, and hippopotamuses for meat.

Terrorist groups like ISIS have taken advantaged of the war-torn region in Iraq and Syria to exploit and control oil refineries, which, if targeted by airstrikes, could damage the environment further and weaken the region’s post-Assad future.

The takeaway

Technically speaking, the Geneva Convention restricts methods of warfare “which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment,” meaning such actions (defined as ecocide) may violate international law.

aha75pxIconAccording to the UN, 40 percent of internal wars over 60 years have been linked to exploitation of natural resources, though whether the results qualify as “long-term and severe” is subject to speculation.

While legal frameworks may be able to mitigate the damages caused by standing armies, the harm inflicted by terrorist groups and displaced communities is beyond international control, with the issue of human rights, understandably, taking priority.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert