Now Reading
The Environmental Consequences of War

The Environmental Consequences of War

A satellite image shows grass fires and damages at Antonov Airport in Hostomel, Ukraine, February 27, 2022. Photo: Maxar Technologies/Reuters

  • Health impacts of conventional and unconventional war range from physical and mental injuries, and loss of life in the hundreds to millions.
  • The world’s armies have been known to produce the bulk of chlorofluorocarbons, which were banned in the 1987 Montreal Protocol for damaging the ozone layer.
  • While nuclear experts say that the risk of direct threats to these reactors is low, some have said the bigger threat is that of degradation of Ukraine’s power grid.

As a physician providing medical support in disasters, I encountered two major environmental events, the aftermath of which resembled war zones.

In the 1984 Bhopal disaster, dubbed the world’s worst industrial disaster, scores of people fled from their homes to escape the killer gas spewing from the Union Carbide factory. I witnessed them in the hospital as they lay breathless and dying from the toxic effects of methylisocyanate, for which there was no known antidote.

Initial rumours about the accident ranged from foreign plots, terrorists, and retaliation for political decisions.

In 2005, I was on a medical team providing support in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane had caused massive flooding in the city following which the entire population had been evacuated. The disaster transformed New Orleans from a fully functioning democracy to near anarchy in a matter of days as the civic systems and services broke down.

While these two environmental disasters were dissimilar in nature, the common factor was that the precipitating event had shocked the cities, bringing them to their knees.

The difference between natural or environmental disasters and war is one of intent.

Where the former may be accidental or an act of nature, the latter is intentional. For much of recorded history, scorched earth methods of war caused much devastation and hardship to local populations. An example of this is given in the Mahabharata epic, where the Pandava kings burnt the Khandava-prastha forest to build their capital, causing death and loss of habitat to forest-dwellers and wildlife. 

As human development increased in complexity, progression from mechanical to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons have damaged the ecosystems and environment. Health impacts of conventional and unconventional war range from physical and mental injuries, and loss of life in the hundreds to millions. The use of Agent Orange as a defoliant in the Vietnam War resulted in forest and wildlife depletion, crop damage, and health effects on both Vietnamese populations and American soldiers who served in the war.

A US Marine tank launches flames while in action near Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965. Photo: Reuters/US Army

Hazardous chemical and oil spills during peacetime have poisoned the land and water, and this has increased by orders of magnitude during war. The toxic effects of these spills are persistent for decades.

Military activities include the manufacturing, testing, and transport of weapons requiring huge amounts of fossil fuels. Multiple studies have found that these activities result in massive greenhouse gas emissions. The United States and Canadian militaries have been estimated to be one of the largest polluters in the world.

The world’s militaries have been known to produce the bulk of chlorofluorocarbons which were banned in the 1987 Montreal Protocol for damaging the ozone layer in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Like a double-edged sword, development of weapons has also spurred research in drug and pharmaceutical industry, and spawned technologies like global positioning systems, drones, and artificial intelligence which help scientists conduct better ecological restoration and remediation. 

Also read: We’re Killing the Environment, and There’s a Word for It – Ecocide

The use of nuclear weapons in Japan arguably brought an end to World War II, but the blast effects and ionising radiation were devastating, dramatic, impacting the biosphere and human health. Strontium-90, a radioisotope found in nuclear fallout, is known to invade the food chain, and accumulate in plants, animals, and humans. Nuclear energy for peaceful purposes like electricity generation has been touted as cost-effective and less polluting.

However, most countries realize the deterrent potential of nuclear weapons and have overtly or covertly proceeded to acquire them. The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War group has noted that extensive nuclear explosions could prevent sunlight from reaching Earth, and the resulting drop in temperature would cause a “nuclear winter”. The organisation recommended a nuclear test ban and demanded that the great powers refrain from first use in conflict situations.

As we watch the images of Russia’s war on Ukraine, we cannot help but think of the myriad effects on people and the environment.

In 1986, Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant reactor exploded and burned during a test releasing about 400 times more radiation than the Hiroshima bombing. Thirty people died mostly of radiation exposure in the immediate aftermath of the accident and concerns about cancer linger. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone of hundreds of square miles was established to limit human exposure and parts of the land must be abandoned for centuries.

A view from a helicopter of one of Chernobyl’s destroyed reactors, months after the April 1986 explosion. Photo: IAEA Imagebank, CC BY-SA 2.0

The now defunct Chernobyl nuclear reactor is on one of the main invasion paths, and reports indicate that it has been taken over by the Russian military. Ukraine’s nuclear regulatory agency states that elevated gamma radiation levels were detected in the area after the reactor was seized by the Russian military. The rise in radiation levels was attributed to the movement of heavy military vehicles disturbing the contaminated topsoil. Ukraine also has fifteen operating reactors which provide half of the nation’s electricity.

The Ukrainian government said on its official website that “Russia’s attack on Ukraine may cause another ecological disaster by moving its military forces to Chernobyl. If Russia continues the war, Chernobyl can happen again in 2022.”

While nuclear experts say that the risk of direct threats to these reactors is low, Dr R. Scott Kemp, professor of nuclear science, notes the bigger threat is that of degradation of Ukraine’s power grid, which could cause rolling blackouts. The most recent attack has been on an oil depot in Kyiv outskirts resulting in toxic fumes being emitted. The local population, particularly children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing respiratory disease are at risk of being affected.   

Natural resources are a major source of conflict between nations and most wars have taken place over territory, raw materials, water, and food. It is well known that militarism is connected to the safeguarding of human security. Several UN treaties have provisions to limit the environmental impact of war and institutions like the International Peace Bureau are advocating a more integrated approach to security, emphasising the interdependencies between humans and the environment.

Recognising that wars have been a constant in human history, promoting such efforts to prevent the increasing degradation of our environment is vital.     

As it happens, humankind as a whole appears to be conducting its own war of sorts, on the environment, and Earth’s ability to adapt will be lost if urgent measures are not taken.

V. Ramana Dhara is a physician exploring links between health and the environment. He is a former member of the International Medical Commission on Bhopal. 

Scroll To Top