When we think of war, our thoughts instantly turn to the violence, pain, suffering, and triumph that accompanies it. We think of the immediate human impact, such as those who lost their lives as a result of the fighting. Rarely, however, do we consider the severe and often long-term environmental impacts that also result from war.
War is bad, and its lasting effects are worse. As a result of the harmful environmental impact of war, on the 5th of November, 2001, the United Nations General Assembly declared November 6th the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. The environmental effects of war, which can be persistent and long lasting, are often left unsaid and thus are never fully recognized. As stated in the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, protection of the environment during war is essential to keeping the future open for all people, everywhere.
Here are a few examples of how war has impacted environment:
Pearl Harbor: Oil Pollution
The sinking of the USS Arizona by the Japanese during WWII, and its subsequent memorial, still evoke emotions in Americans to this day. It represents the struggle our grandparents went through to ensure our country would remain sovereign. However, when visitors come to see the USS Arizona, one of the things they are greeted by is the brightly colored oil that’s been slowly leaking from the wreck since its original scuttling.
Over 500,000 gallons of oil remains in the USS Arizona, and scientists agree that a sudden spill would be disastrous for the surrounding ecosystem. Nevertheless, no concrete efforts have been made to stop the leak, safely remove the oil, and ensure that a huge spill never occurs. Instead, only research on the possibilities of a massive oil spill have been conducted. The oil is still leaking, and it’s got 500,000 gallons to go.
Rwandan Civil War: Habitat loss
The Civil War and genocide in Rwanda was spurred on in part by the stressor of resources in the country. As is common with many African nations, impoverished people trying to lift themselves from poverty have exploited forests and wildlife. This doesn’t usually work out as planned. In fact, as people increased agricultural growth and deforestation in Rwanda in an effort to improve their livelihoods, the instability of the economy only increased as their resources became unstable. This heightened tensions, and ethnic conflict in the country created a rapid influx of refugees who fled into the diminished forests and wildlife reserves. In an already cramped space, Rwandan refugees increased the pressure on the country’s natural resources and negatively impacted the diverse wildlife, including rare mountain gorillas. Those habitats and the wildlife that resides in them were severely impacted during the conflict, and still haven’t fully recovered.
Vietnam: Chemical Harm
As the Vietnam War progressed, guerilla fighters turned to the dense forests to hide themselves from the Southern Vietnamese and American offensive. It worked, until the US began using an herbicide known as “Agent Orange” to kill off massive amounts of the forest growth to reveal the guerilla fighters. This method of warfare is one of the most direct ways to harm the environment during wartime. It not only had a direct impact to the ecological sphere of Vietnam, including plant life and biodiversity, it also had a lasting health impact on the Vietnamese people. Birth defects, tumors, rashes, and an increase in cancer were only a few of the long-lasting effects that Agent Orange delivered to the Vietnamese people.
Not enough conversation has been had about the importance and impact of environmental harm due to armed conflicts and war. We must look to the past to teach ourselves how to prevent ecological harm during wartime, and make sure that ensuring the future of our planet is always the number one priority.
Colleen Wanner, Intern