The Environmental Dimensions of the ‘War on Terror’

Notes for a Lecture by Stuart Parkinson, SGR, for CCE seminar ‘The War on Terror’, Sussex University on 5 July 2003
 

Structure of lecture:

Environmental roots of conflict

    • Scarce resources, eg water (eg Middle East); land for agriculture, population growth
    • Abundant resources, eg oil (1991 Gulf war; civil war in Sudan; unrest in Nigeria); minerals (diamonds in civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola; metal ores in civil war in Democratic Republic of Congo); timber (eg unrest in Indonesia)
    • ‘War on Terror’ - Iraq/ Afghanistan wars - control of oil resources was a factor
      • Other foreign natural resources and their processing operations which the West relies on could also become terrorist targets, eg gas fields/pipelines, timber/ paper plants, uranium mining/ refining

Direct environmental impacts

    • Eg 1991 Gulf war
      • Damage to infrastructure allowed disease and ill-health to spread - tens of thousands of Iraqi's died of the health effects of the war
      • Damage to water purification facilities (and related electricity supplies) caused major shortages of clean water
      • Chemical/ biological/ nuclear weapons plants bombed - toxic/ radioactive releases may be a cause of Gulf War syndrome
      • Damage to sewerage plants caused serious pollution
      • Oil well fires - more than 600 wells set ablaze, some burning for 9 months - smoke blocked sun - temperature fell by 10C; approx 1000 people died due to acrid smoke; 300 million tonnes CO2 released contributing to Climate Change
      • Oil polluted groundwater - 60 million barrels leaked into ground poisoning 40% of groundwater (Kuwait has less water per head than any other country)
      • Oil spills into sea - at least 6 million barrels of oil leaked into sea causing largest ever oil slick - devastated local bird, mammal, fish populations - prawn fisheries decimated
      • Landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO), eg cluster bombs - 1.6 million landmines laid by Iraqi forces in Kuwait; approx 5% of bombs do not explode on impact (higher % in desert) - many people killed/ injuries
      • Depleted Uranium (DU) - super-dense metal used in armour piercing weapons - approx 290 tonnes spread across Gulf - source of low-level radioactivity and toxicity
      • Damage to desert ecology - obvious bomb damage, but also movements of armoured vehicles broke up fragile soil surface - approx 50% of Kuwait's land area damaged
      • References: UNEP, 2003; Additional info from: New Scientist, 2003; FOE 2003; Medact, 2002
    • 2003 Iraq war - preliminary assessment made in UNEP 'desk study' (UNEP, 2003)
      • Damage to water purification (and related electricity supplies) leading to major shortages of clean water
      • Damage to sewerage plants and lack of waste collection leading to increased disease risk
      • Oil fires - only 9 wells set ablaze, but many oil-filled trenches around Baghdad (trying to fool incoming missiles) - causing high levels of air pollution in local area, and groundwater contamination
      • Water desalination systems damaged, causing salt water damage to fields
      • Chemical plants again targets - causing toxic releases
      • UXO (including cluster bombs), DU again used by Allied forces (US has refused to accept DU is problem and hence won't assist in clean up)
      • Further damage to local ecology, especially southern wetlands - internationally important wintering area for hundreds of thousands of birds
    • Afghan war (New Scientist, 2002)
      • Many similar issues to Iraq
      • Since end of war, major deforestation by refugees for fuelwood; migratory birds down by 85%; rare species (eg snow leopard) killed for valuable fur etc

Indirect environmental impacts

  • Iraq/ Afghanistan wars allow continued reliance on oil, accelerating Climate Change
- oil sources are now more secure, and oil production can now be expanded (oil production in Iraq is among the cheapest in the world, at 25% of North Sea oil costs) - these factors will help bring down oil prices and encourage higher global consumption
 
- the US Energy Information Agency forecasts world oil consumption will rise by between 37% and 90% by 2020 - victory in Iraq will mean the increase in consumption will be towards the higher end of this estimate
 
- the US already produces 25% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions (the gas which contributes most to Climate Change), while its population is only 3% of world
 
- Reference: Friends of the Earth, 2003
 
  • Maintaining very large armed forces
- consumes high levels of natural resources (eg oil for fuel - world's armed forces consume as much petrol as the whole of Japan, and 1/4 of world's aviation fuel)
 
- produces high levels of hazardous waste (US Dept of Defense generates more than 5 largest chemical companies combined)
 
- Reference: The Ecologist, 2003
 

Tackling the environmental causes of conflict

  • Annual world military spending is nearly $800,000,000,000 - US budget alone is nearly 50% of this (approx $400bn); UK budget is approx $40bn (£25bn)
  • Spending some of this money on environmental and social issues could prevent many conflicts, eg clean water (6000 children die every day from lack of clean water/ poor sanitation), renewable energy (eg solar, wind) would reduce dependence on oil, sustainable agricultural practices would prevent soil erosion/ deforestation and hence provide food security.
  • Extra cost of universal education, halving poverty and cutting child deaths by three quarters is estimated at $25bn per year (UNICEF, as quoted in Independent 21/05/03)

References

(web links correct as of July 2003)

The Ecologist (2003) War on the environment. Vol. 33, no. 4, p44-45. May. http://www.theecologist.org/

Friends of the Earth (2003) War in Iraq: why Friends of the Earth is opposed. February, 13th. http://www.foe.co.uk/

Medact (2002) Collateral Damage: the health and environmental costs of war on Iraq. http://www.medact.org/

New Scientist (2002) Afghanistan faces an environmental crisis. January. http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99991733

New Scientist (2003) Future looks bleak for Iraq's fragile environment. March 15th, p12-13.

UNEP (2003) Desk study on the environment in Iraq. United Nations Environment Programme. April. http://postconflict.unep.ch/