“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Christmas Eve Sermon, 1967
Society’s well-being is inextricably linked to the environment. In parallel with the urbanization of the globe, armed conflicts are on the rise. The immediate damage that weapons such as air strikes, cluster bombs, etc., cause remains highly visible, but the long-term impact of their use is often overlooked.
One such impact is the contamination of the environment with weapons debris, their associated chemicals, unexploded munitions, and abandoned weapons. This can have devastating environmental and health implications.
Aside from killing and maiming civilians, it precipitates psychological damage, socioeconomic damage, and environmental damage. Despite more than two decades since the adoption of the Mine Ban Treaty, a milestone in itself, nearly 70 countries worldwide are still fighting weapon contamination.
While millions of mines have been destroyed, millions remain in countries like Columbia, Laos, and Libya, still causing plague as remnants of war.
What is Weapon Contamination?
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Weapon Contamination is described as the presence of several weapons during and after an armed conflict or after a violent situation.
In addition, it includes landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW), which further consist of unexploded ordnance (UXO), weapons that have been fired due to any reason they failed to explode and abandoned ordnance (AXO), which are left behind by combatants in the heat of the battle or it’s extremely moving.
These components can release a variety of chemicals and heavy metals into the environment, including lead, mercury and cadmium. These chemicals can persist in the environment for decades or even centuries. Such chemicals can leach into soil and water sources, affecting wildlife and humans.
As a result, the whole population is deprived of access to water, farmland, health care, and education.
Impact on the Environment
Weapon contamination has vast environmental impacts and can affect ecosystems and natural resources. Soil and water resources can be contaminated with lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals, making them unfit for agriculture or recreational use. This leads to another cycle of misery for civilians seeking to survive during or after an armed conflict.
Water pollution: Access to water sources is blocked by mines or is dangerously contaminated by ERW. Access to safe drinking water may become even more problematic during and after a war, especially when the sources have been deliberately targeted as a strategic method of psychosis.
In addition, contaminated water sources can affect aquatic life and other wildlife, leading to mass die-offs and population declines.
Soil contamination: impacts plants’ ability to grow, leading to significant reductions in crop yields. Traditional food sources tend to be at high risk of contamination, which further jeopardizes existing sources and leads to a hunger crisis. As no surplus food for monetization is produced, it threatens the local economy, household, and food security of the concerned region.
Health hazards: Prolonged exposure to contaminated soil and water sources can lead to chronic health problems, including respiratory problems, cancer, and neurological disorders. Additionally, heavy metal exposure can lead to developmental delays and learning disabilities in children.
For instance, the environmental impact Agent Orange caused during the Vietnam War was exacerbated because of high weapon contamination. Agent Orange was an herbicide used to defoliate the Vietnamese jungle and destroy agriculture yields that might feed the enemy, supposedly to serve as ‘the tactical use.’
Consequentially, it contaminated soil and water sources with the toxin dioxin. Observations dating back to 1970 have had long-lasting effects on the Vietnamese population, including a rise in miscarriages, cancer, skin diseases, and other health problems.
In addition, many servicemen who suffered long exposure to Agent Orange developed health disorders. Therefore, in 1979, US veterans filed a lawsuit against seven herbicide makers that produced Agent Orange for the military.
Furthermore, the means and methods of war cause rampant destruction of the wildlife and biodiversity of the affected area. Natural ecosystems become combat zones, even a single aspect like noise pollution affects living beings.
Consequences may include eardrum damage, changes in hearing ability, and the masking of auditory signals. For instance, the inability to recognize the sounds of predators.
Additionally, it may become an additional factor in population decline, species extinction, and habitat degradation.
International Framework to Protect the environment during and after an armed conflict
In the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, nations committed to protecting the environment in armed conflict, adopting Agenda 21.
Principle 24 of Agenda 21 explicitly states: “Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, as necessary.”
The case of Ukraine
From sky-high fuel consumption and a ginormous carbon footprint to the degradation of thriving ecosystems caused by fighting, the conflict has racked up environmental costs.
As far as soil health and agricultural productivity are concerned, no one will definitively comment on that, but it will be a mammoth task.
Excessive shelling has damaged wetlands, which are essential for water filtration and carbon sequestration, and poses enormous challenges to crop remediation.
To address the impact of weapon contamination on the environment, efforts must be made to clean up contaminated sites. This includes the removal and appropriate disposal of debris and associated chemicals.
Furthermore, Ukraine estimates carbon emissions from the Russian invasion of approximately around 33 million tonnes of CO2 from the conflict. As global warming unfolds, it is imperative that policies are in place to limit weapons use in sensitive environments.