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Environment and explosive violenceReverberating effects

The environmental consequences of explosive weapon use: UXO

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.

  • Modern weapons are estimated to have a failure rate of about 5%.
  • The toxic residue from military munitions in drinking water, soil, surface water and air may sometimes present a greater hazard to more people than the actual explosion.
  • Both Syria and Ukraine are among the countries most affected by landmines and UXO in the world.
  • It is estimated to cost about 2.5 euros to lay a mine in Ukraine and about 900 euros to clear it.
  • It is likely to take another 15 years at least to clear Ukraine and more than 30 to clear Syria.

Without even detonating, UXO can cause substantial civilian harm. It is well known that many of the different components of explosive weapons can be harmful to the environment, with consequences for human health. The composition of the munition shell is also concerning, as it is often made from heavy metals such as copper or lead. Explosive munitions will typically contain elements such as lead, antimony, uranium, dinitrotoluene, trinitrotoluene, and hexahydro-1,-3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine (RDX) which are ‘generally resistant to biological treatment and remain in the biosphere’ – the contamination often has toxic environmental effects and can result in harm to human health.[i] For example, it has been demonstrated that humans exposed to trinitrotoluene (TNT) may experience several harmful health effects, including anaemia, abnormal liver function and cancer.[ii] Other organisms, particularly aquatic organisms, also experience lethal toxic effects.

According to Richard Albright, a renowned expert in weapons, doctor in environmental sciences and former US Army officer, the toxic residue from military munitions in drinking water, soil, surface water and air may sometimes present a greater hazard to more people than the actual explosion.[iii] One of the most dangerous aspects of this contamination is that it can escalate up the food chain. People might be harmed not because they were directly exposed to explosive weapons pollution, but because they ate contaminated crops or livestock, or drank contaminated water, months or years after the attack took place.

France, Belgium and Germany are even today still affected by the soil contamination from WWII;[iv] with areas labelled “red zones”, and their surrounding lands, still not used for agricultural purposes.

Modern weapons are estimated to have a failure rate of about 5%. This is higher for older weapons still used in conflict and other weapons like cluster munitions. This means that of ordnance dropped in conflict, 5% is likely to remain on the ground, harming civilians, exacerbating displacement and preventing livelihood activities. Other weapons lie in wait too – those designed to only detonate when they come into contact with a person – landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Many of these remain without having been triggered after a conflict has come to an end.

Furthermore, as conflict has become more urbanised, it is often towns and cities which the UXO now contaminate. This increases the likelihood of civilians coming into contact with UXO and presents substantial challenges. For example, some UXO will be hidden under rubble and detonate when the debris is moved; it is difficult to prevent civilians returning to their homes until clearance is provided; and often in inner urban areas, there are hindrances to the movement of equipment and personnel. Of course, the presence of UXO in rural areas, including agricultural land and forests, also presents its own challenges.

The threat UXO poses is long-lasting. On August 4th 2019, two people were killed when a WWII bomb detonated in a garage in Poland. Such a lasting threat poses a drain on state resources. For example, AOAV found that, between 2014 and 2018, there were 5,041 call-outs relating to munitions which may have been in service during WWI and WWII, according to a Freedom of Information request to the UK’s Ministry of Defence.[v] In the UK, between 2010 and 2016, an average of 61 WWII air-dropped bombs had to be safely detonated every year. Total numbers of UXO in the UK could be even higher, with 15,000 items of UXO removed from UK construction sites between 2006 and 2008, at substantial cost.

This is just the UK; the long-lasting legacy of UXO impacts dozens of nations around the world. The ‘Iron Harvest’ of the Somme, the UXO legacy of the 1916 offensive that took over a million lives, could take over 500 years to clear.

Poster in Ukraine warning of explosives

Ukraine

Ukraine is said to be one of the most mine-affected countries in the world. It has been estimated that 7000km2 of the land has been contaminated by UXO and that two million people are exposed to the risks of such pollution. An estimated 70% of families struggle to conduct their lives and avoid contamination in affected lands. The Landmine Monitor recorded 2,078 mine casualties (725 killed and 1,353 injured) between 2014 and 2017 in eastern Ukraine alone. Such contamination also means that villages and people are isolated from basic services including water, gas, electricity, all of which have seen damage during the conflict which often cannot be repaired due to the presence of UXO.

Villages near the contact line, such as Troitske, suffer greatly from mine and UXO contamination, reducing the residents’ access to farming as they are afraid to cultivate the land, impacting their sustenance and agricultural economy.

Farmers and children are particularly impacted by the contamination. In 2018, landmines and UXO were the leading cause of death among children in the conflict-affected areas, while farmers are faced with a hard choice – either risk the explosion or lose their income.

The type of contamination in Ukraine means that clearance, though it has already started in some areas, is likely to take many years. The most common devices encountered by the mine clearance agency HALO in Ukraine are tripwire-initiated hand grenades, anti-personnel mines and anti-vehicle mines, as well as UXO. Many minefields will contain a combination of different threats. Areas that are likely to contain tripwire devices and anti-vehicle mines that are minimum-metal, are far slower to clear. The presence of tripwire-initiated devices means that in one month a team may clear just 10% of the land they might typically be able to clear if these devices were not present.

Scrap metal yard in eastern Ukraine

For minimum-metal mines, clearance teams must use more sensitive detectors but, due to shrapnel from shelling and other metallic clutter, this results in more time spent checking the ground for threats, when often it is just metallic clutter. This, as well as the climate in Ukraine, makes the clearance of such threats take longer than it might in other circumstances.

Anti-vehicle mines have a particular impact on rural communities and Ukraine is seeing more deaths from anti-vehicle mines than anywhere else in the world. Many along the frontline rely on agriculture, and such communities have remained in limbo, unable to safely conduct their work.

While there are at least 200 minefields across Luhansk and Donetsk, it is not just these that threaten civilians. UXO in populated areas has also caused casualties and prevented rebuilding. With power cut off to some communities, locals are forced to face landmines and other UXO to collect firewood for heating.

It is thought that it costs about 2.5 euros to lay a mine in Ukraine and about 900 euros to clear it. It is likely to take another 15 years at least to clear Ukraine of the explosive contamination.

Syria

Syria is one of the most contaminated countries from UXO in the world. It is estimated that 10.2 million people are exposed to explosive hazards; more than half the population.[vi] Owing to the fog of war, the scale of the contamination is not fully known, though the number of casualties and the levels of bombardment suggests it is alarmingly high. The UNMAS Syrian response unit in Jordan estimated that there has been, on average, one instance of explosive weapon use in Syria every ten minutes between 2015 and late 2018.[vii] Each incident could likely mean the deployment of several munitions. With about one in twenty of these not detonating, it is clear that Syria faces a considerable amount of contamination.

This mountain of lethal legacy makes clearance a far deadlier task. While IEDs are likely to cause injuries, the UXO from manufactured weapons generally contains significantly higher levels of explosives and tend to result in fatalities. Those carrying out the clearance are often unprepared for the task. 

Due to the level of conflict that continues in the country demining organisations cannot carry out their work. This in many instances means civilians carry out clearance themselves, which has killed or injured many. An Amnesty investigation found at least 1,000 people killed by explosives between October 2017 and April 2018 in contaminated areas and as many more may die before reaching medical care, many more are likely harmed.

The local organisations that have been able to carry out work have faced significant challenges. When AOAV interviewed members of the Rojava Mine Control Organisation (RMCO),[viii] they reported significant challenges to clearance efforts in Raqqa, including a lack of large, armoured vehicles to clear the rubble; something necessary due to the likelihood of explosives among the debris. 

The casualties from these weapons are just the tip of the iceberg. UXO leaves far more civilians living in impoverished conditions, displaced or otherwise unable to access livelihoods. The impact on Syrian agriculture and redevelopment is profound, with the potential to cause long-lasting harm even once the munitions are removed due to the damage from the pollution and the abandonment of contaminated areas. Such issues are discussed in more detail in other areas of this report.


While there are admirable goals in place to rid the world of landmines by 2025, such goals seem unattainable when you note that contamination continues apace in countries like Syria and Ukraine. Although these countries see high levels of humanitarian aid and funding compared to others, it is clear that while many governments sign off on billions to fund war and military might, they rarely part with similar sums for demining or other peacebuilding initiatives.  In 2013, for example, Legacies of War calculated that the United States had averaged an annual contribution of $2-2.5 million for UXO clearance in Laos. In contrast, the US spent $13.3 million (in 2013 dollars) per day, or $44 billion in total, bombing Laos over nine years.

Similarly, while the US provided the Pentagon with $15.3 billion in 2019 to fight in Syria and Iraq, President Donald Trump in August 2018 withdrew the yearly development payment of $230 million to support stabilisation efforts, including demining. Though many states will contribute billions as part of a warfare effort, few are willing to part with similar sums to deal with the consequences. This means that while demining operations have begun in both Syria and Ukraine, much of this is underfunded, especially local initiatives. Leaving these munitions in the earth for longer increases the polluting impact.


[i] Lima, D. 2011, ‘Impact of ammunition and military explosives on human health and the environment’, Reviews on Environmental Health, Vol 26(2).

[ii] Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, ‘Toxicological Profile for 2,4,6-Trinitrotoluene’, September 1996, https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tfacts81.pdf.

[iii] Richard Albright, Cleanup of Chemical and Explosive Munitions Locating, Identifying Contaminants, and Planning for Environmental Remediation of Land and Sea Military Ranges and Ordnance Dumpsters (2012), 33.

[iv] Andy Garrity, ‘Assessing the Toxic Legacy of First World War Battlefields’, Toxic Remnants of War Project (blog), 2013, http://www.toxicremnantsofwar.info/assessing-the-toxic-legacy-of-first-world-war-battlefields/.

[v] Freedom of Information request dated 30 May 2019 to the Ministry of Defence. FOI reference number: FOI2019/05144/18/06

[vi] UNOCHA, ‘2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview: Syrian Arab Republic’, March 2019.

[vii] Interview with Matthew Williams, Head of the Programme and Coordination Unit at UNMAS Syria response in Jordan, 19 Oct 2019.

[viii] Interview with Mustafa, Vice President at RMCO Syria, Via Whatsapp, 4 Oct 2018.