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The environmental consequences of explosive weapon use: agriculture

This article is part 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.

  • In Ukraine’s Donetsk region, agricultural production had fallen by almost 35% by 2016.
  • The amount of irrigated land in Syria shrunk by 47% by 2015, and water reservoirs by 49%.
  • In the conflict-impacted areas in Ukraine, the livestock population is said to be at about half or less than pre-conflict levels.
  • In some areas of Syria, bee colonies have decreased by as much as 86%.

Explosive violence causes damage to crops, the soil and livestock; displaces farmers and other experts who are essential to ensuring the smooth running of farms and other agricultural industries; damages water networks essential for irrigation; and the resultant UXO can prevent many from accessing and using the land for decades. Additionally, it is frequently those who work in agriculture who are among the most economically vulnerable.

In both Syria and Ukraine, the agricultural impacts are profound. In the Donbas region of Ukraine, the sale of agricultural produce is the second-largest source of income, behind only pensions.

Crops

Ukraine

Most of the production of fruit and vegetables in Ukraine is generally for consumption in households. Those that do sell fruits and vegetables generally do so on a small scale and only when there is a surplus from their household. 91% of households are thought to be engaged in plant production, with the majority engaged in subsistence farming. Between 2014 and 2016, vegetable yields in Luhansk and Donetsk fell, according to a 2018 FAO report. Though the drop was only slight in Luhansk, in Donetsk yields fell by 22%. Surrounding regions saw increases in these years. Donetsk was particularly impacted, with total agricultural production having fallen by 34.7% by 2016, compared to 2014.

The damage to industrial facilities and mines also poses a significant threat to agriculture in eastern Ukraine. For example, the high mineralisation of mine waters, as well as the sulphates and chlorides, can lead to the salinisation of flooded soils, which can negatively impact plant growth. The irrigation of agricultural land with surface waters polluted by mine waters can also harm. This is likely to lead to ‘a significant drop in the quality and quantity of agricultural products produced,’ according to the FAO’s 2018 report.

In Donbas, AOAV met with Igor Mashakin, a Ukrainian farmer. He explained that before the conflict, his farm of 900 hectares was producing 2,000 tonnes of wheat, sunflower and barley a year, and he had 13 employees. Throughout the conflict, however, much of his land was shelled, destroying equipment, including a combine harvester, a bulldozer and a drying machine. “They estimated the cost of the harvester to be $9,000”, according to Igor. “The bulldozer was $15,000.  And then the missiles hit a fuel depot, and the holes made by the shrapnel meant the fuel seeped out overnight.  That was another $6,000.” This, combined with the loss of the crop drying machine, the costs incurred hiring another machine to dry those crops, and damage to the outhouses in the farm, put the total estimated direct costs of the war at some $100,000.

Three of Igor’s employees quit, while others turned to drinking. Some of his employees have been injured by the shelling. Much of the land surrounding Igor’s farm is also contaminated by landmines.

Igor Mashakin, a Ukrainian farmer

By 2015, production levels were down 50%, and they were unable to harvest sunflowers or sow more seeds for next season’s crops. As well as the estimated $100,000 direct damage, they lost a further $45,000 in revenue.

Such a lower rate of income also meant that the farm could not buy more modern equipment.  Instead, they rely on agricultural machinery that should long ago have been scrapped. Logistical problems also emerged; before the war, the farm’s workers travelled just to Donetsk to sell their product at market, some ten kilometres away. Now, they have to go all the way to Dnipropetrovsk, as the company that used to buy from them had to shut down owing to the conflict.

New buyers also push down the price; deliberately reducing their offers because they know the farmers are already under the thumb: “The buyers in Dnipropetrovsk are asking for 30% lower than the price we used to get.”

Syria

The bombardment of agricultural sites has persisted throughout the conflict in Syria, including crop fields, storage facilities, irrigation networks and bakeries. The supply of wheat and the production of bread, Syria’s staple food, has been particularly targeted by armed actors to hurt food supplies. As one Syrian told AOAV, ‘for Syrians, a meal without bread, is not a meal’. Grain silos and wheat warehouses have been destroyed or damaged in airstrikes. In some cases, this has occurred by accident, while in others such strikes were part of cold-calculated strategic objectives.

ISIS are well known for their ‘scorched earth’ tactics, torching hundreds of acres of agricultural land in eastern Syria and Iraq. But the harm to the environment there has worsened owing to the use of IEDs and landmines around these areas. This makes putting out such fires too dangerous to risk. Overall, some 74,000 acres of farmland in Hasakah, Raqqa and Aleppo were burnt by ISIS in 2019. The loss from the fires in Raqqa alone has been valued at $9million. Bombardment by regime forces and their allies have also started fires, exacerbating the crisis, particularly in Idlib. And though it is unclear whether this was intentional or collateral damage, the impact on farmers there has been extensive.

Water and irrigation facilities have also frequently been damaged in attacks. As early as 2014, 35% of water treatment plants had been damaged, with the bombing of water facilities carried out by many forces.

The further contamination of water has lead to many health problems among residents, an issue exacerbated by the increase of toxic chemicals in the soil and groundwater – a result of weapon use and arms manufacturing. Faisal Hejji, a Syrian farmer, claimed to be, “depending more on rain rather than other irrigation methods”. In a country with such volatile temperatures and weather patterns, such concern for the safety and quality of groundwater offers a further setback for those who normally rely on irrigation.

This concern has had dramatic consequences. Stanford researchers have estimated that the amount of irrigated land in Syria shrunk by 47% by 2015. Water reservoirs were down by 49%. Such a drop is further impacted by damage to power infrastructure, which makes it difficult to supply remaining irrigation systems with the necessary energy.

All of this has consequences. The area of land sown with wheat and barley in Syria stood at 2.16 million hectares in 2015-16. This was a 30% decrease from the 3.12 million hectares sown in 2010. Admittedly, recent years have seen things improve slightly; in 2019 the Syrian wheat harvest reached 2.2 million tonnes, an almost doubling of the paltry 1.2 million in 2018. But this is a far cry from the pre-conflict levels of production, of some 4.1 million tonnes. Moreover, this 2019 improvement in cereal harvests has been largely attributed to heavier rains. The national damage to infrastructure, the burden of ongoing conflict and instability, and the mass displacement of Syrian agricultural workers have all impacted, and continue to impact, food production in this sorrowful country.

So, whilst there have been some improvements and recovery in some areas of Syria, millions still live under the daily burden of food insecurity, and those brave enough to carry on farming face a  dangerous occupation. This enduring conflict continues, unrelentingly at times, to displace farmers, contaminate land and destroy agricultural infrastructure.

Livestock

Ukraine

Livestock is not free from the tyranny of the conflict that has visited Ukraine. Farmers and herders fear using their lands for grazing, as numerous cattle have already been killed by landmines. They are also concerned with a rise in natural predators, such as wolves, foxes, wildcats and martens, all of which have reportedly increased since the conflict began.

Farm in eastern Ukraine.

The number of livestock has dropped significantly across the country. The only exception has been the number of pigs, whose numbers rose between 2013 to 2016, boosted by so-called ‘Enterprise’ farms. Cattle and sheep, though, who have a greater need for outside pasturelands, decreased in numbers by 39% and 52% respectively. The number of pigs on farms classified as a ‘legal farm’ or a ‘private entrepreneur’ also decreased over this period. On ‘legal’ farms the number of cattle, pigs and sheep decreased by 65%, 87%, and 99% respectively. The number of poultry appears to have remained stable or increased on enterprise farms.  It is clear that a conflict marked by its explosive ordnance impacts livestock in different ways.

Giant livestock facilities in Donbas also put areas surrounding the sites at risk. Due to the levels of animal waste such facilities produce, the damage caused by shelling can threaten nearby water sources. For example, shelling damage to one pig farm caused sewage to leak into water sources used by cattle, killing one and leaving seven animals sick.

Milk production has also been highly affected, halving in 2016 in Luhansk compared to 2010. In surrounding regions, those not in the conflict zone, production however remained stable. Many of the dairy farmers in the government-controlled areas have also been cut-off from their previous consumer markets, as well as from large-scale processing facilities now based in non-government-controlled areas and beyond the frontier. In general, the livestock population is said to be at about half or less than half of pre-conflict levels.

Syria

Displacement appears to have had one of the biggest impacts to livestock in Syria, with livestock abandoned, sold early or butchered. The decreases in livestock that have been exacerbated by not only the displacement of farmers but also other skilled livestock workers, including veterinary staff. Despite very limited information on livestock levels, it is estimated that during the first three years of the conflict in Syria, sheep numbers fell by 45%, goats by 30%, cattle by 40%, and poultry by 55%. The numbers are thought now to be stabilising though nowhere near the pre-conflict levels.

In the Badia rangelands, which accounts for 86% of grassland and natural pastures in Syria, about 28% of sheepherders have lost their herds. The main risks in the area include threats from fighting, as well as landmines and other UXO; during the height of the conflict, many herders were forced to flee Badia. Indeed, so many left that their absence has caused pasture regeneration in the region. Livestock production has also become more expensive owing to price inflation for feed, as well as lack of water access – a factor exacerbated by the bombardment of water infrastructure and networks.

It was recently reported that water buffalo in the countryside surrounding Hama have been highly impacted by the continued use of explosive violence in the region in recent years. Not only have water buffalo become direct casualties of the bombardment, but much of the land has become unusable, and farmers and their buffalo have been displaced by the shelling. The total number of water buffalo in the area had decreased by two-thirds compared to the pre-conflict level by 2017.

Bee-hives have also been heavily impacted. This not only has consequences for livelihoods but may also hamper pollination unless addressed. In some areas, bee colonies have decreased by as much as 86%. Much of this is thought to be due to bombardment and the resulting air pollution and displacement.


The devastation of agricultural land not only has had consequences for livelihoods but also health, with many Syrians now depending on food assistance and others facing malnourishment. In one week of early February 2020 alone, dozens of children perished due to the terrible conditions within the displacement camps, including lack of access to food and medicine. In Ukraine too, food insecurity has risen amongst the conflict-affected population, with a particular impact on the elderly. The elderly thought to account for half of those facing food insecurity in eastern Ukraine.

The impact of explosive weapons on food security has been seen most starkly in Yemen, where the conflict has seen the humanitarian crisis deepen due to heavy bombardments across the country. Attacks on food and agricultural sites have been a concerning strategy of the Saudi-led coalition and the impact has been devastating. Such targeting has contributed significantly to the wider humanitarian emergency with 22.2 million Yemenis now in need of humanitarian assistance, according to UN figures.