Analysis: War destroys ecosystems as surely as it destroys lives

As war and conflict rage in Ukraine, Yemen, South Sudan, Libya and elsewhere in the world, it is important to consider the long-term effects of military conflict, which can destroy the environment as well easily that they destroy lives. Revelator Reports.

Here are 10 of the most dangerous ways war affects the animals and plants around us, many of which also harm humans in the process.

1. Bullets and bombs

The military can target people and infrastructure, but other lives stand in the way. It can be hard to track, but a study published in the journal Nature in 2018 found that even a year-long conflict can cause local wildlife populations to crash. And a 2013 article by PLoS One speculated that the Barbary lion could have disappeared when its last forest refuge was destroyed during the Franco-Algerian war of 1958.

2. Toxics and pollution

Heavy metals like lead can remain in the environment long after a bullet has been fired or a bomb has exploded. Chemical agents like herbicides, often used in wartime to defoliate forest hideouts, can harm a wide range of species, either immediately or for decades afterwards. Vietnam’s use of Agent Orange has contaminated the soil for generations, affecting fish and birds before moving up the food chain to humans.

Other damage can come from what is destroyed during the war. We see it now in Ukraine, as hundreds of experts and organizations expressed their concerns on March 3 in an open letter published by the Environmental Peacebuilding Association: “Russia’s military operations in a heavily industrialized and densely populated area containing numerous refineries, chemical plants, and metallurgical facilities further heighten the threat of these hostilities to the Ukrainian people and their environment, now and for years to come.

3. Noise pollution

These explosions, fighter jets, tanks and other war weapons don’t need to hit you to hurt you. Guns, missiles and vehicles make a lot of noise. This constant cacophony can disrupt wildlife habits, affecting sleep, migration, and the ability to hear and track prey. A 2016 study for Audubon magazine found that owls couldn’t hear their prey when artificial sound levels reached just 61 decibels. Many military rifles, by comparison, produce a noise of around 150 decibels, and that’s quiet compared to some weapons or vehicles.

4. Habitat destruction and degradation

How would your house behave after a line of tanks drove through your front yard? Not good.

And that’s true in times of war. A 2002 article published in the journal Conservation Biology documented the environmental damage caused by the conflicts between 1961 and 2000, including deforestation, erosion, encroachment on wildlife reserves, pollution, oil spills, drainage swamps, the release of invasive species, etc. The authors described many of these conditions as “serious.” Some nations never recovered.

5. Poaching, subsistence hunting, collecting firewood and other means of “living off the land” by starving soldiers, locals and refugees

An army travels on its stomach and, as we see in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, these soldiers are not always well fed, either through lack of planning or through disruption of the supply chain. This can cause…problems. During World War II, stranded and starving Japanese soldiers ate a flightless bird called the Wake Island rail. Wars have also caused widely documented declines in elephants, gorillas, bonobos, a range of ungulates and hundreds of other species.

6. Domino effect

Let’s say these hungry soldiers eat all the local herbivores – what happens to the ecosystem after they disappear?

In Gorongosa National Park, the disappearance of elephants and other large vegetation-eating species during the Mozambican civil war from 1977 to 1992 led to a 34% increase in tree cover, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Ecology. This may sound like a good thing, but as the authors wrote, it’s a sign of an imbalanced ecosystem:

“Wood encroachment is a significant conservation and management issue in savannas, grasslands and rangelands where it threatens native herbaceous plant species as well as the animals and ecosystem processes that depend on them. Further expansion of tree cover in Gorongosa could inhibit recolonization of some areas by species that prefer open habitats (including buffaloes, wildebeests and zebras).

7. Killing of civilian conservation workers and destruction of conservation facilities and infrastructure

Who will help species in need if trained and experienced professionals are killed or displaced? In 2012, conservation efforts for the okapi (a relative of the giraffe that resembles a cross between a zebra and a horse) suffered a devastating setback when a militia attack killed six people at the conservation project in the okapi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rebels also killed the project’s 14 resident okapi, burned down buildings, and looted supplies.

More recently, six rangers protecting the DRC’s famous mountain gorillas were ambushed and killed last year by the Mai-Mai militia, one of many such attacks. The Thin Green Line Foundation, which supports rangers, estimates that 100 rangers are murdered each year on average.

As wartime threatens these conservation personnel, they become increasingly important, as the authors of the 2002 Conservation Biology article wrote:

“It is local conservationists and field staff who must maintain continuity of presence during times of political instability, establish lines of communication with local government officials and military administrators in political landscapes in rapidly changing situation, and provide much-needed material and moral support to besieged reserve personnel in areas beset by war and civil strife.In cases where government institutions have been overthrown or ceased to function, non-governmental organizations communities and conservationists can help maintain the continuity of conservation programs.

8. Epidemics affecting people, livestock and wildlife

War has long been a breeding ground for disease (and the advent of biological weapons is making matters worse). Earlier this month, health experts warned that invading Ukraine could accelerate the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases. Historical wildlife disease outbreaks documented during wartime include rinderpest, anthrax, rabies, human monkeypox, bubonic plague, and foot-and-mouth disease. Many of these diseases threatened people directly or pushed them further into starvation.

9. Resource Extraction

Too many wars have been fought for gold, oil or other lucrative natural resources. War also facilitates illegal extraction, whether mining in conflict zones or poaching in lawless areas. The militia that attacked the okapi conservation center in 2012 were responding to efforts to restrict their illegal ivory trade and gold mining.

There’s another angle to this, of course: oil and gas extraction is at the heart of Ukraine’s conflict, and that only makes climate change worse. How many more conflicts for food, water and other scarce resources will this fuel in the future?

10. Disruption of government services, financial and human capital and political instability

If you’re busy fighting for your survival, patrolling for poachers or polluters is the least of your worries. Meanwhile, death, exhaustion and trauma wreak havoc on all levels of society.

These are probably the most important messages of 2002 Conservation Biology paper, which should ring true in this time of war two decades later.

And the effects, the authors warn, won’t be short-term. War causes scarcity, which promotes social and political conflict, which breeds more war. The loss of wildlife species can have cascading environmental consequences, ranging from extinctions to epidemics and invasive species. Businesses and opportunistic criminals use the cover of war to increase their environmentally destructive activities. Conservation funding is transferred to military and police operations, perhaps permanently. Disruptions to sanitation and medical infrastructure during wartime can cause long-term epidemics, while the destruction of waste treatment facilities or oil, gas or nuclear operations can poison the landscape for generations.

Just like the human trauma of war. Just ask the millions of people fleeing Ukraine today, many of whom are descendants of refugees from previous wars and already carry the stories of their ancestors in their hearts, minds, history and culture.

This story originally appeared in The Revelator and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration boosting climate story coverage.