Part I: Plenty of environmental issues
For as long as people having being waging war, wars have had a negative impact on the environment. In antiquity, warriors destroyed dikes and dams to flood enemy territories and gain the advantage. Romans employed the scorched earth policy, also used by Russia during World War II.
But it was only after the scandal of American defoliation of Vietnamese forests during the Vietnam War (1959-1975) that the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) was expanded to protect the environment. A short time after the ecocide committed by Americans, two majors texts to protect the environment in time of war were adopted: The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD) which prohibits using the environment as a weapon in conflicts (adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1976) and the protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, adopted on 8 June 1977.
But the environment is not always a victim during wars. Indeed, you have three major connections between war and environment: environment can be the victim or the cause of a conflict and it can also be used as a weapon during war. In very rare cases a conflict can be favorable for the environment, as is the case in Korea where the Demilitarized Zone between North Korea and South Korea has become an amazing wildlife reserve as no one is allowed to enter there.
Environmental protection during war is a very complicated and dense subject. Many issues arise because not all conflicts are of the same variety (international and non-international conflict) and are therefore governed by different laws. Also, wars are composed of three distinct periods (pre-war, war and after-war) that all create specific environmental problems.
There are four major impacts that conflicts can have on environment: direct impacts due to armed combat, indirect impacts due to survival strategy, indirect impacts in lawless zones and impacts due to movement of populations (refugees or displaced populations).
In addition, a conflict invariably worsens environmental issues that a country already has. For example in Afghanistan, where war has been waged since 2001, problems like lack of water or desertification became worse because of the absence of powerful national or local authorities. Therefore ponds and swamps disappear and deserts gain ground on fields. Populations do not have any choice to earn their living other than poaching endangered species like the Snow Leopard.
One of the main forms of pollution during war is that of water and this is for two major reasons. First, polluting water is an excellent combat strategy to weaken troops and second, it also effects populations and this ricochets on to the country and authorities. Generally speaking, the loss of environmental governance spawns faster environmental damage and has many consequences for populations such as disease, loss of farmland and difficulty in accessing resources. All those problems generate a durable social and economic destabilization that can generate new conflict, thereby perpetuating a vicious circle...
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is a notable example of environmental destruction. Since 1974, the Middle East is the site of violent confrontations between these two states. The conflict monopolizes a large part of the financial budget and collective spirits of each state, leaving the environment as their last preoccupation. The “war for water” to control access to drinking water is one of the main problems in this conflict. Installations like waterworks are targeted during battles. Trash is also a big issue because the persistence of the conflict resulted in the end of trash collection in those two countries. Thereby, trash is now burnt in the open air which generate a huge release of dioxin. Farmlands like orchards are also uprooted to create new “protection zones”, undoing farmers’ work and transforming farmlands into desert.
The majority of people agree to protect nature because we can both use it and save it for later. But what about the intrinsic aspect of nature? Nature also has plenty of treasures we do not use and we should protect these treasures because of their own value. During war, forests and endemic species are endangered the most. Even during peacetime endemic species are on tenterhooks, so there is no need to explain how serious the problem becomes during war. For example Sri Lanka is one of the top twenty-five most biodiverse regions in the world, with 23% of Sri Lankan species being endemic. The civil war there has continued since 1983 and the majority of its endemic species are now classified as “endangered species”.
Because of their richness and convenience, forests everywhere are always very exposed targets. Rebels and even armies often use forests to hide themselves, in the process destroying trees and biodiversity. Even as a precaution, armies may destroy tree cover to prevent attacks. Likewise, rebels exploit forest resources to make money and finance their fight.
In Liberia 90% of the land was covered by forests at the beginning of the twentieth century. Since civil war started in 1989, forests have decreased so much that today only 30% of the territory remains covered. Gold and diamond mines also contribute to the destruction of Liberian forests where animal species are becoming endangered because of poaching and the reduction of tree cover. The increase in precious woods traffic completes this pattern of destruction. So it comes to full circle: civil war generates environmental degradations, environmental degradations generate tensions and those tensions generate persistence of the civil war.
The most shocking thing in environmental impacts of wars is that these impacts can be deliberate. As mentioned previously, the first case of deliberate chemical pollution was the American defoliation (with the “Agent orange”) in Vietnam. Today, chemicals used during defoliations still have consequences on landscapes and on populations, leading to diseases and birth defects.
The military strategy of environmental destruction to unsettle the enemy is called “environmental warfare” and regroups different types of pollution such as “weather modification capabilities”, “weather control” or “made-to-order weather”. The most frequent strategy is cloud seeding, whereby militaries attempt to exert control of the weather. During the Vietnam War, the US army’s “Project Popeye” consisted of cloud seeding to prolong the monsoon and flood the Ho Chi Minh trail, therefore slowing down the Vietnamese resistance. Other methods used by armies include spraying chemicals, contamination by radioactive materials, arson or the introduction of foreign plant species.
One of the major consequences of a conflict and one of the major causes of pollution is the displacement of refugees. Until 1990 humanitarian organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) did not consider the environment when organizing their refugees camps. Admittedly humanitarian organizations must act as fast as they can to protect threatened populations. But with more than 10 million of refugees in the world (source UNHCR) and knowing that each refugees stays in a camp for approximately 15 years, it is necessary that the UNHCR first consider the potential environmental impacts of this situation. For example, when the ethnic conflict breakout in 1994 in Rwanda, around 2 million Hutus were housed in camps in Tanzania and Congo. This was the world’s biggest population displacement. Among these millions of Hutus, around 720,000 installed their camp in the Virunga National Park in Republic Democratic of Congo (RDC). The consequences were tragic for the flora and fauna of the park. More than 300km2 was destroyed due to the massive search for firewood, poaching increased to help satisfy the demand for food and racetracks were even built. After only a few months the park was filed in UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger List.
Four years after this drastic situation, environmental protection during refugee operations finally became a priority for the UNHCR. Every refugee operation contains three phases: the emergency phase, the care phase and the stabilization phase. Since 1998 humanitarian organizations have developed specific solutions to prevent environmental damages for each phase. Thus during the emergency phase, it is essential to not locate refugees camps on protected areas like a National Park, in spite of the fact that these kind of areas are very popular and full of resources.
In 2010 the number of armed conflicts is estimated between 126 and 146 and there are always more destructive weapons being developed, causing more death and greater environmental destructions each time. Maybe it is time to raise some questions. Are we really aware of all the environmental damages a war can cause? And why does international humanitarian law fail to prevent those damages? And maybe the most important question: who should pay to restore the environment after a war?
(Drawings by Nakao Eki)
Une version française de cet article est également disponible dans notre section Matrix.
|< Prev||Next >|
|Written by : June LEE
Send a message to June LEE
Other articles by this author
- Life Sustainability Awards 2012: Papa Mape and Lifok 'Oteng (04 December 2012)
- International Austronesian Conference 2012 (26 October 2012)
- Memories of War in the Pacific: A series of lectures by Prof. Lin Poyer (21 November 2011)
- Mapping and Unmapping the Pacific:island perceptions of an "oceanic continent" (28 January 2011)
- Borneo: Under the palm trees (09 March 2010)
- Taipei Ricci Institute: shifting its focus (04 March 2010)
- New Year as a time for self-reflection (11 February 2010)
- A Lost Decade? (21 December 2009)
- Listening to the Body (18 June 2009)
- Northern Taiwan: a Virtual Metropolitan Region (15 April 2009)
- Local Development and International Tensions (29 August 2008)
- After Taiwan's Elections (28 March 2008)
- Air-conditioned Democracy (29 February 2008)
- Overcoming Handicaps (18 October 2007)
- Experimenting with the Extreme (27 September 2007)
- The Dung-luo River Culture Association (17 August 2007)
- Chr-nan Communal Association (17 August 2007)
- Free Time... (27 June 2007)
- Chou Sheng-Hsin: Taiwan's Thousand MileTrail (20 April 2007)
- Chang Chun-Shu: Sustainable Campus (19 April 2007)
This month's Renlai
Help us keep the content of eRenlai free: take five minutes to make a donation
- Conference: Embrace the Pacific June 5th
- Amateurs in Tokyo - Reasonable Riots
- Obesity and Freedom
- Focus Response: Father Jacques Duraud, SJ on 'My God?'
- Dancing through the lens: Photographing the Pacific Festival of Arts
- Religious Colonialism: Cultural Loss in the Solomon Islands
- Shell Money, Dowries and the Skulls of Ancestors: The Living Traditions of the Solomon Islands
- The Langalanga People: "Natives" of the Man-made islands of the Solomons
- A Vibrant Culture with an Ugly Facade: Honiara and the Pacific Art Festival
- Swept away from Sinology by the Allure of Taiwan's Pacific coast
eRenlai provides a monthly newsletter that introduces you to the Focus and other articles.