Effects of Military Conflict on the Environment

Over the last three decades military conflicts have been an ongoing phenomenon in some of the countries of the Arab world, notably in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. The destruction of human lives and future opportunities for the populations of this area are clear and well documented. Less talked about is the damaging effect on the environment. The long-term effects are for the most part unknown, but for future sustainable development in the region, the protection of the environment is necessary.

In Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, the major problems arising from armed conflict are

• water: access, quality, and quantity available for human consumption, and agriculture.

• sewage and wastewater: treatment and disposal

• solid waste: demolition debris, and its disposal in addition to the usual solid waste

• military debris: including landmines, unexploded ordnance and cluster bombs, spent cartridges and shells, military vehicles, toxic material, and radioactive material (depleted uranium) in Iraq.

The destruction of targets such as buildings, roads, bridges, infrastructure results in:

a. Air, soil, water pollution from burning of plastic and wood, vehicles

b. Dispersal of asbestos fragments into the air; localized air pollution

d. Potential for disease from decomposed carcasses and of human remains under rubble

e. Filling up of landfills with construction debris and industrial waste

f. Destruction of wastewater treatment sites cause raw sewage to flood agricultural areas, contaminating soils, crops, or flow untreated in the sea.

Disruption of power supply results in:

a. Disposal of untreated sewage into land, river and seas

b. Disposal of healthcare waste without incineration

Dealing with and disposing of health care and hospital waste represents a further environmental challenge.

In Palestine:

Almost 31% of communities in Gaza and the West Bank have no water networks; the main water supply is harvested rainwater.

Seepage of wastewater from cesspits into local springs is a hazard caused by absence of infrastructure maintenance. In communities that depend on springs as their main water source, water borne diseases occur including amoeba and Hepatitis A.

Wastewater networks are limited to urban centers: about 35% in the West Bank and 65% in Gaza are connected. The rest of the population depends on vacuum tankers to remove wastewater from septic tanks and cesspits; waste is transported via these tankers to wadis or manholes of other communities that do have wastewater networks. Checkpoints and curfews impede the passage of transport tankers. Improper waste dumping results in harvested rainwater, springs and groundwater becoming increasingly polluted and unusable.

Environmental Impact of the Separation Wall in the West Bank:

Construction of the wall has meant the uprooting and removal of tens of thousands

of trees, and has affected the hydrology of the watersheds.

In the northern West Bank, the 8-meter high concrete wall has become a barrier to storm water flowing to the west, and communities close to the wall are subject to serious flooding.

The wall cuts natural ecological corridors; alters animal distribution and movement patterns, fragments habitats. It alters natural surface water flow and groundwater recharge, cuts communities living near its path from their access to water wells, sanitation and hygiene services.

In Iraq:

The main sources of environmental damage are effluents from oil refineries, factory and sewage discharges into the rivers, fertilizer and chemical contamination of the soil, and industrial air pollution in urban areas.

The contaminants released in the smoke and soot from fires set to oil wells and refineries have impacted human and animal health. They could cause damage to vegetation and crops, landscapes, and human artifacts including archaeological sites.

The contaminants are:

• extreme heat • carbon soot • carbon monoxide • oxides of sulphur

• unburnt hydrocarbons • oxides of nitrogen • poly aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) • carbon dioxide • polychlorinated-dibenzo-dioxins and furans • radon

Bombing of Iraqi nuclear facilities and various weapons production and storage sites, including those for chemical weapons, and the destruction of industrial production facilities released large amounts of hazardous materials into the environment

Toxic chemicals from damaged oil facilities contribute to water pollution.

Depending on the scale of contamination, the effects on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the Mesopotamian marshes, farmlands, and aquatic ecosystems in southern Iraq could be severe, affecting weather systems, solar radiation, and food chains.

Desert Ecosystem:

The desert crust has major ecological value as a protector of the thin desert soil against wind erosion, as an absorber of water (from fog, dew and the infrequent rain), as a suitable bed for seed germination, and as a photosynthetic layer that adds a significant amount of organic carbon and organic nitrogen into the desert ecosystem, thus increasing its productivity. The crust is fragile and easily damaged and very slow to repair itself.

It consists of a layer of algae, mosses, lichens, fungi, bacteria that occupies the top one millimeter of the desert soil.

Vehicles and tanks break up the compacted sand and gravel surface, increasing the frequency and intensity of sand and dust storms. Ruts created by military vehicles, particularly tracked vehicles like tanks, could remain for years.

In Lebanon:

Land mines and cluster bombs contaminate 34 million square meters in Lebanon, mainly in the south. Presence of unexploded ordinance hinders the development of drinking water and irrigation projects.

The bombing of the Jiyeh oil storage tanks in July 2006 caused 15,000 tons of heavy fuel to spill into the Mediterranean Sea. The spill contaminated 150km of Lebanon’s coastline, covered the sea bed, beaches and was deposited on rocks. The toxic substances in the oil affected the marine environment and can cause long term impacts such as the sudden collapse of fish population years after contamination.

References and further reading:

UNEP, The Crisis in Lebanon, Environmental Impact, 2007 http://www.unep.org/lebanon/


Palestinian Hydrology Group, http://www.phg.org/campaign

UNEP Desk Study on the Environment in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 2003
ARIJ Applied Research Institute, Jerusalem http://www.arij.org/

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Weekly Briefing Notes http://www.ochaopt.org/

Stop the Wall Campaign www.stopthewall.org

UNEP Desk Study on the Environment in Iraq, 2003, www.unep.org/pdf/iraq_ds_lowres.pdf

UNEP Assessment of Environmental “Hot Spots” in Iraq, 2005