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The Impact Of War and Weapons On Humans And The Environment

Environmental Effects Of Weapons

Chemical Weapons

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Approximately 19 million gallons of Agent Orange were used by the US military in southern Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. An aggressive herbicide which defoliates trees, it was used on a large scale in Vietnam’s jungles to enable US troops to spot Communist troops more easily. It eradicated around 15% of South Vietnam’s vegetation, and gave rise to serious health problems for the soldiers, civilians and local wildlife that were exposed to it. Agent Orange contains dioxin, a highly toxic substance that is still detected in the bodies of Vietnamese people today. It contaminated the soil and rivers and, through the food chain, passed into fish - a staple of the Vietnamese diet.

Apart from the serious human health effects of Agent Orange - which include cancer and birth defects - the rapid loss of vegetation that it causes leads to severe soil erosion. This contributes to a major drop in species population due to habitat degradation. High concentrations of dioxin persist in the land, and ecosystems have suffered irreversible damage.

The impact of chemical weapons dumping by the Japanese Army in China is thought to be just as severe.

Biological Weapons

While many of the chemicals used in war break down relatively quickly, biological weapons pose an even greater threat than chemical weapons because it may be impossible to reverse the effects of an organism that has been unleashed into the environment.

The fear of an attack from biological weapons is greater than ever because, of all weapons of mass destruction, they are the easiest and cheapest to produce. At the most basic level, bio-terrorist attacks against people only require access to natural diseases that can cause disastrous epidemics – laboratory cultures or specialised disease strains are not necessary. Natural diseases are common, widely distributed and easily acquired and transported.

Biological weapons are also the hardest to detect, especially with today’s ease and rapidity of international transport, and the spread of disease is enhanced by the increased human and animal resistance to antibiotics.

The use of biological weapons is not only a threat to humans, it is also a serious threat to agricultural ecosystems, wildlife faunas and their habitats.

Recently, biological agents have been developed by some governments for use against illicit crops such as the opium poppy in Afghanistan and the coca plant in Colombia. This has raised alarm about the potential for the biological agent to infect other non-target species. The potential is great because the biological agents are designed to be applied on a large scale – over hundreds of thousands of hectares. A spill-over effect on non-target species of plants or animals would be a serious threat to biodiversity.

A bio-terrorist attack on a nation’s livestock would have a devastating effect on that nation’s agricultural industry in terms of economic loss. Moreover, it could have harmful spill-over effects on other susceptible wildlife species: introduced diseases affecting domesticated animals or humans could be particularly harmful for native species that are naturally rare, and species whose numbers have been depleted due to habitat degradation. Foot And Mouth disease alone is known to have an impact on more than 60 wildlife species.

Adding to this, a population of wildlife species infected with a human or livestock disease would most likely be culled in order to control the spread of the disease. Despite research showing that it might not be necessary, populations of native wildlife in many areas are already put through rigorous culling or destruction to try and control the transmission of their diseases to domestic animals. In the USA, part of the program to control brucellosis in cattle has been the culling or attempted eradication of populations of bison and white-tailed deer.

Depleted Uranium

Depleted uranium (DU) is easily ingested by humans because it turns into radioactive dust on impact. As a result, hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers have been exposed to a highly toxic, radioactive substance and have suffered the numerous effects of this. In fact, the World Health Organisation suggests that young children in particular are at great risk because “typical hand-to-mouth activity of inquisitive play could lead to high DU ingestion from contaminated soil.” At least 600,000 pounds of DU and uranium dust were left in the Middle East after the Gulf War. With a half-life of 4.5 billion years, the health effects of DU will be a long-term problem.


It has been estimated that there are between 60 and 110 million landmines in the ground worldwide. Over 26,000 people are injured or killed by landmines annually and even greater numbers of domestic and wild animals are killed.

The consequences of landmines are felt years after hostilities cease. As well as the human casualties, landmines are a significant contributor to such global environmental crises as deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution and declining biodiversity.

Landmines cause physical and emotional injuries, destroy communities, and prevent reconstruction, access to safe water and the return of displaced persons to their homes. They also render fertile farmland unusable, creating food shortages and malnutrition.


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As landmines are planted just below the surface of the land, their most direct impact is upon soil quality and composition. When a landmine explodes it destroys surrounding vegetation and shatters and displaces the soil, making it vulnerable to water and wind erosion. If landmines explode on cultivated land, levels of agricultural production are dramatically reduced. In many countries, landmines have reduced harvest yields by as much as 50%.

Even the reclamation of landmines has a detrimental effect on soil productivity. Clearing requires the ploughing of large areas of land which tears up and damages vegetation and biological diversity. Soil is also contaminated by toxic substances. As the casings of landmines decay and corrode, poisonous substances are leached into the surrounding soil and water. These substances, Trinitrotoluene (TNT) and Cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine (RDX), are carcinogenic and toxic to mammals and other organisms. They are long-lasting and can easily penetrate the food chain.

Wildlife and livestock

Wildlife and livestock are a common casualty of landmine explosions. There have been reports of antelopes and elephants killed by landmines during the civil war in Angola. Elephants have also been killed by landmines planted along the border between Burma and Bangladesh. Brown bears were killed by landmines in Bosnia and Croatia. Native tigers are threatened by landmines in Cambodia. In Tibet, rare species of clouded leopard, barking deer, snow leopard and Royal Bengal tiger have been reported as casualties of landmines – either maimed or killed. In the Congo Democratic Republic, rebel forces tested some fields for the presence of landmines by herding cattle across them.

Depletion of resources/deforestation

The presence of mines denies farmers and villagers access to natural resources, and this drives them into more marginal and fragile environments. Forests often become the only source of fuel and food, and the resulting depletion of resources leads to deforestation and the destruction of biological diversity.

When people are driven off their most productive agricultural land they may be forced to depend on a smaller area of land to survive or earn a living. This land may be over-cultivated and depleted of its minerals. Poor soils are fragile, vulnerable to erosion and yield less. Over-cultivation accelerates the process of desertification, which destroys complex ecosystems.

The protection of natural resources in mined areas becomes almost impossible, and sustainable development plans are forced to be put on hold. For example, there are parts of north-west Egypt which are inaccessible as they still contain land mines from the battle of El Alamein in 1942.

Nuclear Weapons

(a) Potential Damage

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has calculated both the human and environmental effects of a global nuclear war. It estimates that over one billion people would be killed immediately and a further one billion seriously injured: perhaps a total of three billion (half of the world’s population) would be immediately affected. It adds that the spread of radiation would affect even larger numbers of people through the destruction of crops and wildlife, the pollution of seas and water supplies: many people far from the site of the nuclear war would die of starvation.

(b) Production

Currently the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, India, Israel and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons. Iran and North Korea are acquiring the technology to build them and there is the possibility that other countries will follow.

The manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons also damages eco-systems. Large areas of land have been contaminated in the states of Nevada and New Mexico in the USA, and in French Polynesia, South Australia, and parts of Russia and China. There are waste disposal problems from the manufacture of nuclear weapons in both the USA and Russia.

(c) Waste

Russia has a large number of discarded nuclear-powered submarines. Most belonged to the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet at the Arctic Circle in the Barents Sea, with others once part of its Pacific Fleet at Vladivostok. Russia built its first nuclear-powered submarine in 1959 but the race to build more submarines during the Cold War overtook the construction of facilities to handle the spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. Most of this was stored at naval maintenance yards or at submarine bases. Some of the waste went into the Barents and Kara Seas. In 1980 there were about 120 submarines but, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there are now only 40 in operation. The unused submarines are laid up and deteriorating, with the increasing risk of radioactive material leaching out. Russia has been promised assistance by the Group of Eight (G8) countries.

Government military spending includes training, housing, feeding, clothing, supplying and maintaining its army and providing it with weapons. When a country goes to war there is the cost of transporting its army to the battlefield, medical costs and the loss of human lives - skilled people. After the war there is the cost of cleaning up the pollution and rebuilding and repairing infrastructure. Military spending is a massive drain on a country. Money spent on the military is money that is not spent on health, education and the environment.

Other Types Of Weapons

Napalm, cluster bombs and other types of explosives all inflict considerable damage to the environment and still form a hazard from wars that ended decades ago.

Recently, an article in the New Scientist claimed that a sunken vessel lying off the Kent coast in the UK is at risk of exploding at any time. The ship was carrying nearly 14,000 conventional bombs when it ran aground in 1944. A previous investigation concluded that the bombs were too dangerous to move, but if they all exploded, there would be a column of water, mud and metal 1,000 feet (over 300 metres) wide and 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) high. Considerable damage would be done to the nearby town of Sheerness.


Practices like the use of weapons containing depleted uranium, the placement of AP [anti-personnel] landmines, the bombing of factories and storage facilities and the burning of oil refineries have devastating effects on the environment and must not be legitimised as acts of war in the international legal framework. Humankind has always counted its war casualties in terms of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians, destroyed cities and livelihood. The environment has always been an unpublicised, unnoticed victim of war. The UN and environmental activists are demanding that nations stop using environmental destruction as a weapon of war.

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