War, the killer of the environment

Updated: Apr 21

By Simona Fiorelli

Different places, different people, different cultures and different goals, but war has always been part of human history. Even though every war has different side effects, the environmental cost is still excluded from the war budget, suggesting how history seems to teach us nothing.

In the common imagination, if we think of war, our mind immediately focuses on gruesome scenarios: blood, despair, desolation, human catastrophes, fear, struggles for supremacy.

War does not "only" destroy buildings, families, ambitions, there is a further cost that is often not calculated when the sums of a conflict are drawn: the environmental cost.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict can be considered as a reminder of the impact that war and each nation's military activities have on the environment. What are the possible environmental costs we will have to pay for this conflict?

Research done by a Turin physicist, Luigi Sertorio, who worked as a member of NATO Scientific Affairs Division, focuses on some estimates that give a sense of a war’s environmental impact.

An Abrams M1 tank, weighs 65 tons and does 1 km with about 4.5 litres of fuel, so 450 litres per 100 km (its turbo engine is nicknamed "gas guzzler"). Other tanks consume an average of 200-300 litres per 100 km. A fighter aircraft like the F-15E Strike Eagle or F16 Falcon consumes about 16200 litres per hour. A B52 bomber consumes about 12000 litres per hour.

An AH64 Apache helicopter gunship consumes about 500 litres/hour. As for support vehicles or various logistics, we can estimate an average consumption of 1 litre/km. An F15 fighter jet flies at over 2000 km/h and consumes between 16000 and 20000 litres of kerosene per hour. In a few days, such a volume of gaseous emissions in the atmosphere nullifies the efforts of entire nations to reduce consumption and save energy, despite of the Kyoto Protocol.

This conflict has led the European Union and its member states to evaluate their energy dependence on Russia. The EU today imports around 40% of its natural gas from Russia: Italy and Germany are the ones that mostly depend on Russia; to decrease this dependence it will be necessary to diversify supplies and increase the sharing of renewables. This will take time, even some years.

In the immediate future, Italy is evaluating the chances of reopening - for a limited period - coal-fired power plants, the most polluting and climate-impacting fossil sources. Once again, a conflict would cause an unpredictably unnecessary initiative against the environment.

But what we are experiencing today is just the tip of the iceberg of countless conflicts that have been part of human history since immemorial times. To fully understand the concept, let us recall some environmental events and catastrophes of the recent past.

The negative effects of conflicts on the environment have increased exponentially since the 1960s when the weapons used, spreading venoms through the air and water, cause deadly effects on health and the environment that go well beyond the length and the end of the conflict.

Considering that since 1962 transport planes have spread at least four types of defoliants, among them the poisonous leaf remover thrown on the cultivated fields to starve the Vietcong fighters, it is estimated that only in 1967, about 6000 square kilometres of forests and 900 of cultivated fields were “treated” in this way.

Approximately 325000 hectares of surface were erased, with the consequent impoverishment of the ecosystems of huge forests in which a multiple biodiversity lived peacefully.

Another example of an event of biodiversity devastation occurred in the Iran-Iraq conflict with the destruction of about 13 million dates –producing palm trees.

In 1991, during the first Gulf War, more than 700 million litres of oil were poured into the Persian Gulf and almost 300 km of the Kuwait and Saudi Arabia coasts were polluted with crude oil. 25.000 migratory birds died while flying in the area. The oil wells sabotaged by the Iraqis caused fires resulting in the emission of about half a billion of carbon dioxide, with air pollution reaching India. Wide oil lakes originated from the largest ever ground spill. The environmental damage of this conflict has been calculated at about 108.9 million dollars.

Early in the nineties, in addition to having caused the flight of more than half a million people, the civil war in Rwanda led to the destruction of forests and the killing of wildlife by the inhabitants in search of food.

It should be mentioned that scholars started to analyze the environmental impact of conflicts more carefully after the end of the 1999 Kosovo war. Pekka Haavisto, an expert on international environmental issues, led UNEP/Unchs (United Nations Environment Program) to create the world's first "post-conflict environmental assessment" organization.

For the first time in history, parties involved in the Kosovo conflict reported the other partners’ environmental violations in the area. The events reported have given greater impetus to the study of post-conflict environmental damage. The work of the UNEP Task Force in the Balkans has been financially supported by Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. This willingness of states clearly shows the States’ increased interest in protecting the environment and assessing damage caused by war events.

Russia and Slovakia and various NGOs have also started to carry out this type of studies, which shows the increased interest in the protection of the environment.

Oriana Fallaci wrote, "There is nothing to learn from war, there is only to cry."

In the light of these considerations, in addition to all the atrocities that a conflict can bring, we must always consider the sacrifice imposed on our planet as our problem, not just that of future generations.