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‘The Broken Land’: a review of the environmental impact of explosive weapons

This article offers highlights of AOAV’s examination of the environmental impacts of explosive violence. The full report, The Broken Land: the environmental consequences of explosive weapon use, can be found here.

Explosive weapons can devastate a landscape.  They can reduce buildings to toxic rubble and destroy long-cherished trees. They can contaminate the soil for decades and cause poisons to leach into once healthy rivers.  They can decimate ecosystems and disturb the harmony of nature.  They kill humans and animals without reflection and tip the world out of balance.

While the links between conflict and the environment have been investigated by some organisations such as The Conflict and Environment Observatory, relatively little research has been carried out into the environmental impacts of explosive weapons. This lack of research needs to be addressed. Not only do explosive weapons result in lasting environmental damage, but this harm has considerable health and livelihood consequences for civilian populations.

In an attempt to address this lack of research, AOAV set out to focus on four key areas of environmental concern, to gain some understanding of the environmental consequences from the use of explosive weapons. These areas are unexploded ordnance (UXO), agriculture, infrastructural damage, and flora and fauna. To provide tangible case studies, we focused on two on-going conflicts: Syria’s nine-year-long conflict which began in 2011, and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine which began in 2014.

Key findings

Infrastructure:

  • The destruction of infrastructure by explosive weapons results in hazardous dust and debris; such debris remains in the area for long periods
    – In Aleppo alone 15 million tonnes of rubble was generated, which would take at least six years of continuous work to clear.
  • Damage to such infrastructure, including water supply and treatment infrastructure, often leaves water supplies contaminated, impacting the environment and human health
    – Such damage, in part, led UNICEF to estimate that at least 750,000 children in eastern Ukraine are at risk of contracting water-borne diseases like diarrhoea
  • The bombardment of essential and industrial infrastructure and the displacement of key workers often results in the release of further toxic chemicals, causing water, air and soil pollution.
    – In Ukraine’s Donbas, 36 mines have now flooded, likely to have released methane gases and toxic heavy metals into local ground water pools which has the potential to pollute key water supplies
  • Oil facilities have frequently been targeted in bombardment during conflict which has lasting ramifications for local populations and habitats
    – By the end of 2016, the coalition’s military operation, Inherent Resolve, claimed to have destroyed at least 1,620 oil facilities as part of their fight against ISIS

UXO

  • UXO litters conflict zones and results in lasting harm
    – Modern weapons have a failure rate of about 5%.
  • UXO contamination last decades
    – It is likely to take another 15 years at least to clear Ukraine and more than 30 to clear Syria
  • While the costs of laying landmines is inexpensive, clearance is very costly
    – It is estimated to cost about 2.5 euros to lay a mine in Ukraine and about 900 euros to clear it
  • Explosive munitions will typically contain elements such as lead, antimony, uranium, dinitrotoluene, trinitrotoluene, and hexahydro1,-3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine (RDX), which can have toxic environmental effects
    – For example, humans exposed to trinitrotoluene (TNT) may experience several harmful health effects, including anaemia, abnormal liver function and cancer.
  • Munitions can contaminate drinking water, soil, surface water and air, which can present a greater hazard than the actual explosion and can escalate up the food chain
    – France, Belgium and Germany are even today still affected by the soil contamination from WWII; with areas labelled “red zones”, and their surrounding lands, still not used for agricultural purposes
  • UXO leaves local populations exposed to explosive hazards, preventing redevelopment and agricultural work, as well as causing death and injury
    – In Syria, it is estimated that 10.2 million people are exposed to explosive hazards; more than half the population.

Agriculture

  • The use of explosive weapons harms agriculture; contaminating the land and displacing farmers and other key workers
    – In Ukraine’s Donetsk region, agricultural production had fallen by almost 35% by 2016
  • Explosive weapons damage irrigation networks, hampering agricultural efforts
    – The amount of irrigated land in Syria had shrunk by 47% by 2015
  • Explosive weapons can kill livestock directly, force owners to butcher livestock early, force farmers and herders to flee or otherwise interrupt livestock production
    – In the conflict-impacted areas in Ukraine, the livestock population is said to be at about half or less than pre-conflict levels
  • Damage to large livestock infrastructure by explosive weapons can also expose the environment to harmful chemicals
    – Shelling of a pig farm in Ukraine’s Donbas resulted in animal waste polluting water sources and caused the death and sickness of local cattle.
  • Explosive weapon use in agricultural land can also cause fires or prevent fire from being put out due to fear of UXO
    – Some 74,000 acres of farmland in Syria’s Hasakah, Raqqa and Aleppo were burnt by ISIS in 2019, who had mined the surrounding area

Flora and fauna

  • Bombardment can force animals into other areas as they flee explosive violence or the consequences of displacement for example.
    – Mountain gazelles, which used to be seen in their hundreds before the conflict are now considered extinct in Syria
  • In some instances, the human displacement caused by explosive weapons may result in a rise in some animal populations, though this may exacerbate conflict between humans and these animals
    – In Ukraine’s Donetsk region, the population of wolves has risen by approximately 50% from pre-war levels
  • Those displaced by explosive violence often rely on the local environment for resources such as firewood which can also have significant impacts on local environments
    – In Idlib, known as the Green Governorate, 70% of trees were thought to have been burnt or cut down by 2018, compared to pre-conflict levels
  • The displacement caused by explosive weapons often results in the abandonment of pets and increases the numbers of stray animals
    – In one animal shelter in Ukraine’s Donbas region, the number of stray dogs rose to some 800 during 2016 alone

To read the full report, please click here.

Methodology

As part of AOAV’s research into both the lasting health and environmental consequences from the use of explosive weapons, AOAV carried out desk-based research, as well as interviews and on the ground investigations in Ukraine and at the Syrian border in Lebanon. Interviews were conducted with academics, NGO personnel, farmers, civilians, demining organisations, and other experts.  The data on explosive weapons comes from the Explosive Weapons Monitor Project. For this methodology please see our latest Explosive Violence report.