Ecological Footprint of War

Ecological Footprint of War
Author: Aakriti Singh,
3rd year student of School of Law, 
Christ University.

In the realm of military history, no account of a war is complete without the detailed narrative of the physical environment of the battle. Throughout history, recollections of war often hold explicit description about the destruction the environment has undergone. War and the physical environment share a close and inter-connected link with each other. War, no matter how insignificant, has always negatively impacted the physical environment. What started off as one of the by-products has now become objective of various military strategies.  Historically, it started off with Romans burning enemy crop fields, which would destroy the sustenance of the opposition and smoke them out of their placements, thus making it easier to pierce through the defence lines. War has significant and irreversible damage on the environment- acid rains, ozone layer depletion, and increase in local temperature, dust clouds, deforestation, and nuclear contamination are some of the outcomes of war. During the Gulf War of 1990-1991, Iraqi soldiers detonated Kuwaiti oil wells and pumped enormous quantities of oil into the Red Sea. This caused acute chemical poisoning and “some serious hot spots where contamination by hazardous substances released during the air strikes poses risks for human health and the aquatic environment[1]. Over ten million cubic meters of soil was still contaminated as late as 1998. A major groundwater aquifer, two fifths of Kuwait’s entire freshwater reserve, remains contaminated to this day. Ten million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf, affecting coastline along 1500km and costing more than $700 million to clean up. During the nine months that the wells burned, average air temperatures fell by 10 degrees C as a result of reduced light from the sun.[2] Wartime environmental devastation not only destroys biodiversity, but can also cause disease, starvation, and massive loss of life.[3] History is evidence that the impact of war, is not just limited to the battlefield. The effects of war extend to the environment and the future generations as well. In 1965, ‘Operation Sherwood Forest’ was implemented as a measure to destroy, through massive forest fire, almost 30,000 hectares of Vietnamese tropical forest. The results from this operation leveled hundreds of villages and left hillsides scarred to the present day. ‘Soil lateration’ has affected vegetation growth and has turned the Earth into scorched, crater-filled landscapes. [4] 

Environmental degradation is a facet of war. Over the years, the intensity, and frequency of environmental degradation has risen, with armies more capable of harming its target. Surplus of research and historical incidents demonstrates the impact of war, on environmental degradation. Be that as it may, the compensation or restoration processes post-war are limited to the causality caused to humans and does not encompass the damage to the Environment. It becomes important to take into account, the degradation caused to the Environment, as it is the sole component essential to sustain the future generations. [5] On analysing the Economics of Environmental destruction due to War, the damage that is caused to artillery is limited to one generation, in essence, the injury received terminates with the extinction of the artillery and does not carry to the future generation(except nuclear and chemical warfare). However, the same does not hold good for environmental damage. Environmental detoriation endures for generations to come, precedence would be the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which continue to be unfit for inhabitation till the present day.

Warfare is a unique anthropogenic disturbance as it is much greater in magnitude than other anthropogenic disturbances such as logging or mining. Furthermore, it is capable of provoking high scales of destruction within a brief timeframe.[6] Despite posing such colossal hazard to the environment, environmental war crimes do not receive the prominence compared to other anthropogenic disturbances.

Only recently, the international arena has recognised the impacts of Environmental war crimes The protection of environment is achieved, by treating Nature itself, as the victim of war. Therefore, humanitarian principles and laws would apply to the nature, as they apply to the victim of war crimes.. In 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, prohibited those attacks that either intended or expected to cause “long- term and severe damage to the natural environment.” even when not connected with the health or survival of a human population.[7] The term “ecocide” has been coined to utilize principles to combat wide-spread, long term and severe damage to the environment. [8] In the recent times, various scholars have analysed provisions that deal with international humanitarian law dealing with property, chemical and biological warfare can be interpreted broadly to encircle environmental war laws as well.[9] Post the Cold war, the limited “individualistic well being” drastically morphed into “intrinsic value” taking into consideration, the biological diversity of the environment as a whole.[10] Concepts such as “deep ecology” rejected “shallow” focus on concept of pollution and gave a greater scope to ecology by circling the notion of “the right to live and blossom” beyond the human context to other forms of life”[11] The 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development recognized “warfare as inherently destructive of the environment” and urged states to cooperate in the development of international law pertaining to wartime environmental protections. The impact of war is not limited to notions of human suffering caused, but is now extended over the environment, giving it a humanitarian form. [12] By providing nature a humanitarian standing, it becomes essential to weigh the potential of human suffering and loss against the damage and harm caused to the physical environment.[13] 

 The idealogy to conceptualise the environment as a humanitaranian form is further aided, by the fact that natural forces are uses as combatants and aid to assist the war. Britain has awarded the ‘Dickin’ Medal to animals that show valour. Dolphins have been militarized and incorporated in the Russian navy[14], Honeybees are trained for bomb-detection and bats carry incendiary devices.[15]By incorporating the humanness and intention to harm, the argument of assigning natural forces, a humanitaranian stance is further strengthened. Be that as it may, conferring humanitarian rights to nature is not the sufficient to combat environmental war crimes. Provisions to integrate environmental justice principles into processes of post-conflict justice and reconciliation should be integrated in the present legal frameworks. Uniform legislations need to be brought in place, to ensure adherence to the set standards throughout the international arena. Usage of biological and chemical weaponry should be prohibited, with sanctions on States that are found violating the rules. Post-conflict assessment shall be carried out, to reveal the level of degradation caused to the Environment. Such an assessment is beneficial in several ways- it provides better information and base for future conflict resolution, expansion of the humanitarian laws that are applicable to the environment and allows to ascertain the level of damage to the environment, and the effort that will be required to restore it. The findings of such assessments can help states understand if it was necessary to resort to War, in the first instance and if such quantum was necessary.


Since time immemorial, War has been synonymous with environment degradation. The effect of war is not limited within the battle field are tickles down to several other components of society. War is capable of leaving its impression, decades after it is over and is capable of causing a greater amount of destruction than various other disturbances such as mining and logging. It is of vital importance for the international arena to understand the drastic effect that War can have, on the environment. Degradation caused due to War is not limited to the scope of one artillery attacking on the other, it encompasses the testing of ammunition and destructible instruments, within the purview of one’s State itself. The destruction posed by wars on environment needs to be taken into consideration strictly.

[1] UNEP in Iraq Post-Conflict Assessment, Clean-up and Reconstruction- December 2007

[2] Duncan McLaren and Ian Willmore, The environmental damage of war in Iraq, The Guardian, January 19 2003

[3]Browyn Leebaw, Scorched Earth: Environmental War Crimes and International Justice, Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 12, No. 4 (December 2014), pp. 770-788

[4] Browyn Leebaw, Scorched Earth: Environmental War Crimes and International Justice, Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 12, No. 4 (December 2014), pp. 770-788

[5] Gündling, Lothar. “Our Responsibility to Future Generations.” The American Journal of International Law, vol. 84, no. 1, 1990, pp. 207–212. JSTOR,

[6] Joseph P. Hupy, The Environmental Footprint of War, White Horse Press, Environment and History, Vol. 14, No. 3 (August 2008), pp. 405-421

[7] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, U.N. Doc. A/CONF. 183/9.

[8] Falk, Richard. 1973. “Environmental War Crimes and Ecocide: Facts, Appraisal, and Proposals.” Security Dialogue 4: 80-96.

[9] Roberts, Adam. 2000. “The Law and War and Environ- mental Damage.” In The Environmental Consequences of War: Legai Economic , and Scientific Perspectives , ed. Jay E. Austin and Carl E. Bruch. New York: Cambridge University

[10] Eckersley, Robyn. 1992. Environmentalism and Political Theory: Towards an Ecocentric Approach. Albany: SUNY Press.

[11] Na ess, Arne. 1978. “The Shallow and the Deep, Long- Range Ecology Movement: A Summary.” Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 16(1 – 4): 95

[12] Browyn Leebaw, Scorched Earth: Environmental War Crimes and International Justice, Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 12, No. 4 (December 2014), pp. 770-788

[13] Inadequacy of the Existing Legal Approach to Environmental Protection in Wartime.” In The Environmental Consequences of War, ed. Jay E. Austin and Carl E. B

[14] Faith Karimi “Ukranian Dolphins to Switch Nationalities, Join Russian Navy,” CNN World, updated March 27, 2014, 7:41 EDT.

[15] Kosek, Jake. 2010. “Ecologies of Empire: On the New Uses of the Honeybee,” Cultural Anthropology 25(4): 650-678.

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