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The environmental consequences of explosive weapon use: infrastructure

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.

  • The destruction of the buildings will likely release hazardous material into the air and on the ground, such as toxic smokes and heavy metal.
  • Estimates suggest that the conflict in Syria has generated 15 million tonnes and 5.3 million tonnes of rubble in Aleppo and Homs respectively.
  • UXO contamination in Ukraine and Syria prevents civilians from returning or reconstruction taking place.
  • Exposure to the dust and debris when buildings and industrial facilities are destroyed by explosion weapons is linked to cancers and other health consequences.

Destruction of towns and cities

When used in urban areas, explosive weapons with wide-area effects inevitably lead to the damage of infrastructure. This devastation hinders access to vital services and makes areas uninhabitable, causing long-term displacement.

The destruction of buildings themselves will also likely release hazardous material into the air and on the ground, such as toxic smokes and heavy metal.  As the NGO Conflict and Environment Observatory notes: “When buildings are directly impacted by munitions or damaged through pressure waves generated by explosions, building materials are pulverised, generating large volumes of dust. Pulverised building material dusts are typically a heterogeneous mixture of materials, such as cement, metals, PCBs, silica, asbestos and other synthetic fibres. Exposure to these dusts can have both physical and chemical impacts on health.”

While there is little research on the long-term health impacts from the damage in the post-conflict setting, some insight can be gained from some defining events of this century. American scientists found that the release of toxic dusts following the attack at the World Trade Centre in 2001 resulted in a significant increase of cancer risk amongst the exposed. More recently, there has been concern over potential lead poisoning of Parisians living nearby Notre-Dame Cathedral, after the devastating fire of April 2019.

One can expect similar issues of cancer and toxic poisoning in conflict-affected countries, particularly places like Syria where a third of homes are estimated destroyed alongside countless hospitals, schools, factories and more. Moreover, the destruction of the health infrastructure in places like Syria means that the monitoring of the health impacts from toxic dust and rubble is all too often frustrated.

What is known is the scale of the problem. One year after the battle of Mosul and the retaking of the city from the Islamic State by the US-led coalition, the United Nations’ Environment Programme estimated the city bore some eight million tons of war debris, rubble highly contaminated with UXO and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

With conflict comes a challenge, too, ineffective waste disposal, and such lingering detritus poses further challenges. In Lebanon, the debris from the destruction of downtown Beirut was said to have contributed to the nation’s lasting garbage problem, which has led to pollution in the Mediterranean sea and significant air pollution across the country.

A similar issue arose in post-WWII Germany. In the old town of Nuremberg, some ten million tonnes of rubble from the ferocious fighting there were deposited in a huge pit after the war ended. In the ensuing years, other waste of many kinds continued to be dumped there. Few safety measures were carried out to ensure such pollutants were contained and, over time, this waste leached beyond its earth confines, severely polluting the nearby Silbersee, or Silver Lake. There, lethal concentrations of hydrogen sulphide were found and while the landfill has since been landscaped, forested and incorporated into the Volkspark Dutzendteich, the Silver Lake remains heavily polluted to this day. Some fifty people have reportedly lost their lives after bathing there, after ignoring rules warning not to do so.

Any failure to impose effective procedures governing the removal and disposal of conflict rubble will not only lead to pollution from waste dumps but will also decrease the levels of materials recycled; increasing the demand for raw materials. Where debris has been managed poorly in the past, these failures – and the subsequent environmental harm – is rarely addressed, owing to the prohibitive costs.

These numerous challenges pose not just immediate environmental health concerns to civilians in impacted areas and those displaced, but also raise lasting consequences that can be felt decades later, and both Ukraine and Syria show evidence of such direct and long-term harm.

Ukraine

Ukraine’s census data shows significant recent population decline in both Luhansk and Donetsk, the two oblasts most impacted by the conflict. According to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine, the population in these oblasts decreased by over 37,000 and 65,000 respectively between 2016 and 2018, constituting the two highest population decreases across the country over these two years.

As of February 2019, over 50,000 homes were reported destroyed in Ukraine’s war. About one in every 10 families were also reported as being unable to access shelter assistance due to the absence of formal documentation confirming tenure rights or their rights of ownership. This process to receive documentation can take a year and can cost up to $400. As in so many post-conflict countries, the bureaucratic process is often an insult to the injury of explosive violence.

Moreover, there is no quick or easy fix to the damage caused across large parts of eastern Ukraine. One village, Shyrokyne, that sits in the Volnovakha Raion of Donetsk Oblast, was ‘retaken’ by the Ukrainian army in 2016. Today, however, it still sits in ruin, uninhabitable. The lasting damage of the fighting and permanent threat of explosives hidden in the rubble make it a ghost town.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), in response, to such realities, conducted an assessment of housing and shelter in Luhansk oblast, publishing their results in July 2019. They visited some 3,100 addresses and found that 1,289 needed urgent repair.

It is not just housing. Waste and water pipes in eastern Ukraine were also impacted by shelling, leaving water supplies contaminated and, in some cases, leading to community illness and individuals requiring hospitalisation. Damage to water drainage, removal systems, water supply infrastructure and treatment facilities, forces residents to use unprotected shaft wells, boreholes and springs. Such improvised responses, and the threat itself, has led UNICEF to estimate that at least 750,000 children in the region are at risk of contracting water-borne diseases like diarrhoea. Disturbingly, these children are almost three times more likely to die from disease due, in part, to a lack of safe drinking water and the capacity to keep clean and hygienic. In short, the damage to water systems by explosive violence lingers and can threaten lives long after the bombing has stopped.

Syria

In Syria, the reality is even starker. The levels of destruction seen there is on the scale of European cities destroyed in World War II Germany, such as Dresden. In Aleppo alone, at least 15 million tonnes of rubble were estimated to have been created in bombing attacks by 2017, while 5.3 million were reported in Homs, according to the World Bank’s Toll of War report.

Such vast quantities of rubble, and the ensuing clearance needed, raises a host of environmental concerns many of which could have a significant impact on human health. And it is not just Aleppo and Homs – Raqqa, Douma and many other urban areas also witnessed major attacks. Indeed, AOAV’s data on explosive violence in Syria shows that three-quarters of all harm from explosive violence happened in populated areas. Few places were safe.

By 2017, it was reported that 50% of Syria’s basic social infrastructure lay damaged or broken. During 2018, heavy bombardment continued to rain down on towns and cities; 34,136 buildings were damaged or destroyed in Eastern Ghouta; a further 1,415 were impacted in Idlib; some 1,198 in Manbij; and yet more in Taqba and Afrin. Such damage continued across the country in 2019, and such damage will continue until the conflict comes to its much-welcomed end.

A thematic assessment of satellite identified damage by the research organisation REACH, published in 2019, gives a snapshot understanding on just how high the levels of rubble rise across Syria. In Aleppo, some 35,722 buildings were damaged or destroyed. In Eastern Ghouta this figure was similar, with 34,136 buildings estimated impacted. In Homs, 13,778 buildings were seen lying in ruin, and in Raqqa a similar number of 12,781 buildings lay damaged or destroyed. A look at the entire graph created by REACH shows just how high the levels of rubble across many areas of Syria remains. In short, Syria is an enormous building site of destruction and devastation, with about a third of homes across Syria thought damaged or destroyed by 2017.

REACH, ‘Syrian Cities Damage Atlas’, 2019. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/reach_thematic_assessment_syrian_cities_damage_atlas_march_2019_reduced_file_size_1.pdf

In 2018, the UN estimated the cost of the damage of Syria’s cities lay at some $120 billion. By 2019, 12 million people – half of Syria’s pre-war population – had been displaced. Some 5.6 million people – women, girls, boys and men – had fled the country entirely. A further 6.6 million had been internally displaced. And, given the extent of the damage, it is likely such displacement may last years, if not decades.

Despite all of this, some people remained, living in areas unfit for habitation. Others even began to return. What greets them is a hard future. To clear the debris in Aleppo alone would take six years of continuous work and 26 million ‘truck-kilometres’. There is not the equipment, the funds, or the capacity to carry out most of the clearance work needed; the enormity of the task ahead is hard even to articulate.  And, given the current crisis of COVID 19 and other pressures on the international community, finding funding to clear the streets of debris will be harder still.

In the meantime, informal waste dumping, already a pre-conflict issue in Syria, will increase. The burning of waste, said to be on the rise, will further contribute to the pall of pollution that lingers over the beleaguered cities. And so it goes. In the end, the memory of this terrible conflict will be one of dust, as much it will be one of violence.

Industrial facilities

In times of conflict, industrial plants and factories may be deliberately or accidentally impacted by explosive violence. This destruction may lead to leaks or spillages of hazardous materials into the environment, or cause persistent fires that belch toxic fumes into the air. There are many historical cases of such environmental catastrophes. During the Kosovo conflict, in 1999, airstrikes led by the NATO coalition damaged oil refineries and depots in Pančevo, resulting in widespread environmental damage. There have been reports of “Pančevo cancer” among people from the affected area who breathed in those poisonous clouds. Burning oil often contains soot particles made of carbon, along with sand, dust and dirt, and plumes of gases including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic hydrocarbons (e.g. benzene) and hydrogen sulphide quickly contaminate and radiate.  This can cause asthma and other long-term health complications. Some work has already been done on the impact of damage to industrial facilities from recent damages caused explosive violence, particularly by PAX.

Ukraine

The shelling of industrial facilities in Ukraine has caused significant environmental damage, with chemical spills contaminating large surrounding areas. One 2018 FAO report described how some of the industrial enterprises damaged as a result of the fighting included coke processing plants, steelworks, oil refineries, chemical plants, thermal power stations and two of the largest chemical enterprises in the region, all highly environmentally hazardous industries. So, whilst a lack of industrial activity as a consequence of the conflict saw emissions decrease by 40% in Donetsk and 75% in Luhansk (compared to 2013), the damage to some factories has meant that any short-terms alleviation of pollution may be undermined by long-term environmental harm from leaks and spills.

Extractive mines in the region have also been impacted. Several have stopped operating due to the shelling of electrical power plants, which hindered ventilation and water supply. The displacement of workers also had an impact. Overall, the lack of staff and electricity has meant that 36 mines have now flooded.  Such flooding released methane gases and toxic heavy metals into local groundwater pools, poisoning water supplies and potentially spreading radioactive contamination. Such contaminated water is in danger of spreading to the central Siverskyi Donets river, a stream of water that provides up to 85% of the water used by the Donbas Water Company – Donbas’ main supplier. There are also transborder contamination risks to the Sea of Azov, connected to the Black Sea by the narrow Strait of Kerch.

Such harm has already begun. A 2017 study found that the Siverskyi Donets river had elevated sulphate concentrations, as well as higher than normal nitrogen and phosphorous levels. This was attributed, in part, to the disruption of wastewater treatment facilities operations. Additionally, a five-fold increase in concentration levels of strontium and barium was recorded – both chemicals being widely found in modern munitions.

In the Siverskyi Donets basin, sulphates were found at five-times greater levels than the maximum permissible concentrations; nitrates were twice as elevated. Waters from the Lopan river tributary in the Siverskyi Donets basin were also found to contain high traces of heavy metal concentrations, and alkylphenols levels were running at seven times greater than EU limits. Many heavy metals have well-recorded deleterious health impacts due to their toxicity, some of which are linked to organ damage and are carcinogenic, while many alkylphenols are toxic to aquatic life and also negatively impact human health. Overall, an analysis on 61 soil and water samples collected in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts within government and non-government controlled territory found that 100% of the surface water and 75% of underground water in the government-controlled areas were contaminated with alien chemical and mineral components. In the non-government controlled areas, 85% of the surface and underground water was said to be contaminated

It is worth noting that the only other time the Donbas mines flooded was during WWII. The Soviet Union took five years to drain them and the local population had to migrate during this period to safer areas to flee the dangers of contamination.

The pollution from mines also has the potential to make water permanently undrinkable. The full impact on water quality will become clearer over the next decade. However, there have already been cases of ground subsidence and methane explosions in cellars – both thought to be linked to mine flooding. The ground is said to have subsided by as much as 92cm in some parts of Donetsk City, with an average of 25cm subsidence recorded.

Syria

Studies by the NGO PAX found that industrial zones in Syria have been particularly targeted by explosive violence.[i] Other accounts from journalists detail wrecked industrial zones. While it is not known exactly what type of factories and plants have been destroyed, and it is difficult to evaluate the scale of the damage, it is clear that the threats of contamination and reverberating pollutants still exist. Although there are critical gaps in data concerning most the industries damaged and the pollution caused, it is clear that that oil refineries and reservoirs have been a focus of bombardments throughout the conflict.

Syria’s oil and gas infrastructure has been repeatedly targeted during the conflict. With the Islamic State controlling some 60% of Syria’s petrol production at the height of the group’s power, refinery infrastructure became a key target by the US-led coalition and others fighting ISIS. By the end of 2016, the coalition’s military operation Inherent Resolve claimed to have destroyed at least 1,620 oil facilities. In 2015, in one attack alone outside Raqqa, 140 munitions were reported to have been dropped, striking five gas and oil separation points, as well as hitting two crude oil collection points. Such destruction of formal oil infrastructure had consequences. In part, it led to greater levels of artisanal oil structures – ones with fewer safety measures and with higher chances of creating pollution. In Deir Ezzor alone there were at-least 5,791 makeshift refineries reported in 2016.

By 2018, the sheer damage to oil installations across Deir Ezzor, Al-Hasakah and Raqqa was made painfully evident from satellite imagery provided by the European Space Agency. Several oil spills occurred throughout 2017 and 2018. In Thayyem, Deir Ezzor, the oil spill was 7km long. The human health consequences from such pollution include a significant escalation in cancer rates, especially those affecting the lungs and skin, as well as inducing foetal malformations, according to the Health Care Director based in Deir Ezzor. The environmental damage of oil spills, depending on their size, can also include groundwater pollution, harm to wildlife habitats, food contamination, to name just some.


But, despite such horrors, as the armed conflicts continue in both Syria and Ukraine, it is likely further infrastructural harm will occur, adding to the toll. While some impacts are already clear, many may only reveal themselves in years to come. And it will take billions of dollars to remedy this harm – aid that is sorely absent from post-conflict territories. In the end, the surrounding populations and the natural world are destined to suffer as a result of the unwanted storm of steel that war so often brings.


[i] PAX, ‘Amidst the Debris: A Desktop Study on the Environmental and Public Health Impact of Syria’s Conflict’, October 2015, and PAX, ‘Scorched earth and charred lives’, August 2016.