When we think of war we usually think in terms of human casualties and displacement. But human tragedy is only one aspect of war. Another is the long lasting ecological footprint resulting from war that often takes decades to resolve. Ecological footprint normally refers to an entity such as an individual, company or government. In this article it is used in the context of a military presence or product of war. An ecological footprint refers not only carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases contributing to the carbon footprint but also to ecological issues including pollution and use of non-renewable resources such as clean water.
Ecology is of great concern because war generally involves the indiscriminate destruction of land and damage to the surrounding environment. One such example was the dropping of the atom bomb on two Japanese cities at the end of the 2nd world war. In this case the ecological footprint consisted of massive destruction of land and long lasting effects of radiation. Another example of war-induced ecological footprint was the spraying of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Not only was Agent Orange an effective defoliate but also released dioxins as it degraded, causing serious health problems for anyone exposed to it.
Some of the more obvious environmental issues resulting from war are air and ground pollution, destruction of forests and land mines. An indirect impact to war’s ecological footprint is the diversion of government money and resources from less urgent programs, some of which relate to the environment. There are other more obscure ecological issues to consider such as the weakening of basic services and infrastructure within a country. This often results in water shortage, cooking fuel shortage and waste mismanagement during and after the war. The ecological footprint is impacted because inadequate water management can result in bacterial contamination, water loss via leaks (pipe damage) results in insufficient irrigation of cropland, food shortage and soil erosion. The Iraq war resulted in cooking fuel shortages and led to residents cutting down trees in order to cook.
Another war-related issue is the threat to biodiversity due to large numbers of displaced refugees. For example, the mountain gorilla population and habitat were threatened after the Rwanda genocide as displaced refugees returned to an overpopulated country and were forced to inhabit the forest reserves. A very serious impact to war’s ecological footprint in wartime is the mishandling of hazardous substances such as radioactive material. For example, during the Iraq war (in 2003) two hundred barrels of uranium oxide were stolen from a nuclear plant south of Baghdad. The contents of the barrels were dumped into rivers then local residents used the containers for storing basic amenities. Iraq’s nuclear inspector now believes that one thousand people could die of leukemia. Manufacture and test of dangerous weapons (in wartime or peace) also increases the ecological impact of the military presence. The contaminants from military sites are slowly leaching into the environment. Disposal of nuclear waste is a significant global problem.
In recent years, most scientists and responsible individuals have been much more concerned with the ecological footprint we are leaving for future generations to deal with. Concerns such as climate change, biodiversity and pollution. War is a significant contributor to all of these environmental problems. Hopefully our political and military leaders will be joining the green movement and consider the environment in future war activities, more so than in the past.