War and the environment

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Chars Guerre du Golfe Koweit
Any war is a human tragedy. However, wars foster a complex relationship with the environment that should not be underestimated. Sometimes, the reason, or part of the reason for them is the environmental issue of access to resources. Sometimes, the environment is used in a conflict. This always results in an environmental degradation which in turn causes casualties.

In 2007, 67 of the 328 conflicts in the world (of variable intensity) were linked to natural resources. Most were in Africa and Asia. (1) These conflicts were sometimes about the ownership of certain resources. Conversely, resources could also be used to fund conflicts. The two sides of the problem were often linked.

Wars over resources

There are many examples of wars over resources. The colonial conquests were obviously aimed at seizing more wealth. More recently, during the First Gulf War, Iraq invaded Kuwait to take over its oil and currency reserves. Such conflicts have occurred on all the continents, and not only between North and South. Thus, in the Saltpetre war, around the turn of the 1880s, Chile, Peru and Bolivia were fighting over the control of nitrate reserves among other things. (4)

Form and intensity

These conflicts can take different forms : high or low intensity intra-community quarrels, violent acts, sabotage, tensions, latent conflicts and armed conflicts in which violence is systematically used in an organised fashion. These troubles often occur in politically unstable countries and/ or in countries where wealth is very unequally distributed.

Thus, in the XXth century, many coups d’états were linked to oil interests (in Iran against Mossadegh, for example) or mining interests (in Chile against Allende). Many civil wars have started from tensions due to problems over access to land between breeders and farmers like in Rwanda in 1994, over access to water like in Sudan in the 1980s or over access to mines like in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). (3)

Funding the conflicts

Natural resources with a strong market value are looted to fund many wars. Precious stones helped fund conflicts in Burma, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the DRC, to name but a few. They provided the Unita rebels in Angola with almost 4 billion dollars, between 1992 and 2001. Wood trafficking provided the Khmers rouges with about 240 million dollars a year in the 1990s (2) [see Mines summary]

The environment issue

A well-known example of the environment being used for military purposes is Orange Agent being sprayed by the Americans during the Vietnam War (1959-1975). Tens of millions of litres of this toxic product from the family of dioxins and similar products were spread in Vietnam. It was meant to prevent Viet Minh soldiers concealing themselves and destroy crops. This product is still causing problems and malformations.

But there are many other cases: more recently, Saddam Hussein deliberately dried out swamps in East Iraq in response to those living there who had rebelled against him during the First Gulf War.

The consequences of conflicts

Apart from the numerous dead and injured, conflicts cause or encourage corruption, trafficking, rapes and other exactions, forced recruitment of adults and children, etc.

The environmental consequence is the degradation and the destruction of habitats, the overexploitation of resources and pollution. During the First Gulf War, oil wells burnt and polluted the air and the soil and millions of litres of oil that were intentionally dumped in the Persian Gulf killed tens of thousands of birds and damaged corals and coasts.

Serbian forces destroyed villages in ex-Yugoslavia and thus destroyed the drinking water and waste water systems. The use of impoverished uranium shells during recent conflicts has also caused a whole new set of problems. Evaluating them is a great source of debate.

Ecosystems are not the only ones threatened by these different types of environmental damage. Indeed, war and the environment can become locked in a vicious circle. Environmental degradation can bring about an increase in poverty that can increase a country’s political instability. This can in turn stir up the risks of armed conflict… This is one of the reasons for which the United Nations created a group which comes in after conflicts, cleans sites, helps remove mines, etc. through the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).


Most conflicts cause migration (2.2 million people displaced in the DRC). Sometimes, very large amounts of people then find themselves concentrated into very small, often ill-suited areas. In certain cases, the few available resources are used up very quickly – wood and fuel, for example. This only makes the refugees’ living conditions worse. 850 000 people fleeing the Rwanda massacres thus sought refuge near the Virunga national park which is a hive of biodiversity. By hunting and cutting wood there, they are believed to have destroyed 300 KM2 of it in a few years. Conflicts can isolate certain populations like in Gaza where the state of the environment is very worrying.

When there is no conflict

Even without conflict, the armed forces’ activities affect the environment : military bases implanted here and there are often contaminated by explosive or fuel residue. Military manoeuvres also damage ecosystems. It therefore seems that the very strong sonar used by the Navy can kill certain cetaceans.

Paradoxically, certain militarised areas can be real havens for biodiversity. This is the case of mined zones, no man’s land and buffer areas like the demilitarised areas between North and South Korea or certain areas near the former Iron Curtain in Europe. As Man is not there, Nature can thrive.

Water is a resource that is becoming rare. And many experts have predicted that there will be conflicts over how this ever-more coveted resource is shared. Yet there are 263 river basins shared by 145 countries.

Paradoxically, there are very few examples of wars that have started over this. Water was only one of the many factors that led to Civil War in Sudan and/ or the conflicts between Israel and its neighbours- Israel has been accused of controlling most of the West Bank’s water-bearing resources and of illegally sharing them with the Palestinians.

On the contrary, it even seems that water is sometimes a reason for peace. It is indeed difficult to get hold of the resource – unless you invade and occupy the hydrological basin permanently. Tensions are often extremely high, but on many rivers, multipartite committees are being set up to try to find a way of managing the resource.

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