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)


(web links correct as of July 2003)

The Ecologist (2003) War on the environment. Vol. 33, no. 4, p44-45. May.

Friends of the Earth (2003) War in Iraq: why Friends of the Earth is opposed. February, 13th.

Medact (2002) Collateral Damage: the health and environmental costs of war on Iraq.

New Scientist (2002) Afghanistan faces an environmental crisis. January.

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.