Dr Kobi Leins - Blog - Image by  Dariusz Sankowski
Dr Kobi Leins - Blog - Image by Dariusz Sankowski

Weather Underground: Environmental Impacts of War and the Forgotten International Legal Instruments that Govern

As the world’s eyes were on Glasgow, where more than 100 world leaders provided pledges to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the focus was on governments and industry. Not mentioned in the dispatches, although almost certainly present unofficially was the massive global military complex. The environment is subject to degradation by governments and industry not only during peacetime, but in times of war.

Wars create immense amounts of waste, and often leave devastated environments in their wake. One of the most well-known examples is the United States’ use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War to remove foliage from the trees, destroy enemy cover, mobility and in some cases, deliberately contaminate sources of food. Less well-known is that between 1963 and 1972, the United States Air Force also seeded clouds in operations designed to lengthen the rainy season to make life for combatants on the ground unpleasant and unpaved roads impossible to traverse. As a result, States came together to negotiate the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, opened for signature 10 December 1976 (ENMOD). The last time States attended a review conference for ENMOD was 1992, and many States and diplomats seem to have forgotten about its existence.

Many harmful environmental impacts of war are not as visible as the defoliating effects of Agent Orange. The materials used in military operations, uniforms, weapons and even waste (often disposed of through carcinogenic burn pits) pose threats to the environment and any humans nearby, both in the short and in the long-term and often across long distances through water tables and food chains.

Many of these chemicals used are known as ‘forever chemicals’ and can be found in every single human alive today, as they accumulate in our bodies. Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are materials increasingly banned in food packaging and other civilian applications due to their highly carcinogenic properties. On the battlefield and on military bases, their use continue in fire retardants, weapon systems, and fabrics, just to name a few examples. The risks of contamination are not remote and far away – they are local and already evident at many existing military bases – affecting civilians and military personnel alike.

Information is increasingly becoming available about the potentially toxic effects of many of these materials used in war on the environment and to the human body. Some of these substances transfer across the blood brain barrier and accumulate over the long-term. The ubiquitous use of such materials in war needs to be reassessed on the basis of new proof their potential toxicity, regardless of their source. Residual, potentially toxic materials that seep into the water table or food chain during or after war violate the human right to clean food and water – but who is paying attention? Where are the regulations in the military manuals? These ‘forever chemicals’ cannot be removed or neutralised with current technologies.

Protection of the environment during armed conflict requires not only high-level international legal agreements (such as the neglected ENMOD), but also practical rules and granular guidance in military manuals and instructions that can be applied in any battlefield. The very nature of many of these toxins means that they will travel through water tables and enter food chains without being easily detectable; and accumulate in human bodies around the world. This is an element of environmental protection far too long overlooked, that needs far greater attention by the global community. The environment does not distinguish between war and peacetime – nor do the potentially lethal substances we are continuing to use in war. The ENMOD Convention needs to be revived – ten States need to come together to get this party going again – or to consider the serious risks posed by the environmental consequences of war. The time for increasing protection of our environment during warfare – alongside all the other conversations about the climate crisis – is now.

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