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The environmental fallout of conflict

By Darryl D'Monte

Since the time the US army dropped the terrible defoliant, Agent Orange, on the Vietnam countryside, war and conflict have had a devastating impact on people and the environment

One of the least reported instances of environmental degradation is that caused by conflict and, to a lesser extent, natural disasters. The UN has been intervening in such cases, which is obviously a very sensitive issue. Not only are member countries involved in conflicts reluctant to call in a UN agency -- this is the only condition in which the agency will respond -- but UN staff are subject to extreme danger in these situations.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has a disasters and conflicts initiative which is operating in several countries at the moment. These include Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Gaza and the Sudan. To tackle natural disasters, it is currently working in China and Haiti. It has worked in Iraq in the past.

Cases where war has damaged the environment and affected people’s health can be traced back to Vietnam, where the US army dropped the terrible defoliant, Agent Orange, meant for crops, on the countryside. This chemical, developed by Monsanto and Dow Chemicals (now the owners of Union Carbide, which declared itself insolvent following the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984), devastated vast swathes of Vietnam’s countryside and also triggered genetic defects in babies born afterwards. According to Silja Halle of the UNEP programme, there was a 50% increase in birth defects due to the spraying.

In the 1990s, several central African countries that faced civil strife, like Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, faced a ‘triple whammy’. There were conflicts over natural resources, which exacerbated their exploitation. Thus, there was extensive logging of timber, mining of (‘blood’) diamonds and the degradation of rivers and streams. Your browser may not support display of this image.

In Afghanistan, in 2002, people displaced by the conflict fled to remote areas where they exploited the terrain in order to obtain firewood and shelter. Sometimes, refugees had to be accommodated on fertile land. As a consequence, certain provinces faced rates of deforestation as high as 50-95%. These were areas that had meagre tree cover to begin with.

During the Kosovo conflict, 50 industrial sites were bombed in Serbia and four environmental ‘hot spots’. As many as 80,000 tonnes of oil caught fire at the Pancevo site. In Lebanon, in 2006, Israel bombed an oil installation which spewed out huge plumes of toxic gas. The truckloads of rubble that had to be cleared from the site jammed roads for days afterwards. UNEP officials were criticised, subsequently, for putting out a report that stated that the damage caused by bombing the oil installation was not as severe as was originally imagined. Lebanon angrily responded that that seemed to give Israel carte blanche to bomb civilian sites. This example highlights the sensitivity of any UN intervention in armed conflicts.

Also in 2006, the Darfur conflict in Sudan greatly exacerbated damage to the environment by forcing cattle to graze in arid regions and accentuating deforestation. The irony in such cases is that what is often seen as conflict between countries or communities (and tribals, in the African scenario) is actually over natural resources. One dimension involves access to and ownership of scarce resources such as land and water, and the hostilities only worsen the exploitation of such resources. Future climate variability will accentuate such tensions as decreasing rainfall leads to desertification. The 16 driest years in Darfur have occurred since 1972.

According to Tammy Obeidallah, writing in Palestinechronicle.com last month: “The land once known as Palestine began suffering detrimental and irrevocable changes in the early-1950s when Israel’s fledgling government drained the wetlands surrounding Lake Huleh, north of the Sea of Galilee, for a housing project. Once the lake was dry, the Palestinian painted frog that inhabited the wetlands became extinct. The last reported sighting of the small amphibian was in 1955. Today, many other species are facing extinction due to Israel’s gross disregard for the environment.Your browser may not support display of this image.

“Israeli fish farming is killing off coral reefs in the Red Sea, threatening unique species of fish and other marine life. According to coral ecologist Dr Yossi Loya, 5 million fish are bred in cages each year without permits, a $20-million-per-year industry protected by the Israeli agriculture lobby. Coral reefs in Aqaba and along the Sinai Peninsula continue to thrive, as Jordan and Egypt do not permit large-scale fishing off the Red Sea coast.”

Another natural wonder, the Dead Sea, is also under threat. At a 2009 regional conference to address the dramatic drop in Dead Sea water levels, it was determined that industrial development would have to slow down. The Israeli company ICL Fertilisers/Dead Sea Works has, on the contrary, been increasing potash production at its Dead Sea facility, by 30%.

Zalul, an Israeli watchdog organisation monitoring the effects of industrial dumping, reported that 500 million tonnes of raw sewage is discharged into the Mediterranean Sea annually. In addition to industrial waste, the municipalities of Acre and Ashdod have no properly built sewage treatment facilities, contributing to sea pollution. In the Tiberias municipality, seven beaches along the Sea of Galilee were closed in 2007 after Israeli health ministry officials found double the allotted amounts of faecal bacteria in the water.

While Israeli citizens have been adversely affected by the government’s failure to adopt responsible policies, Israel’s ‘environmental terrorism’ against Palestinians and neighbouring countries is far more sinister. In the West Bank, illegal outposts and unauthorised settlements pump sewage into rudimentary pits. A village called Deir Sharaf served as a dump for Israeli settlers until 2005, despite its close proximity to underground wells on which tens of thousands of Palestinians depended for drinking water and sanitation.Your browser may not support display of this image.

In a 2009 report, the Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din cited 69 complaints of olive groves being damaged or destroyed in the past four years. Twenty-seven such incidents involving the destruction of hundreds of trees occurred between January and October 2009, despite a statement from the Israeli defence forces that the olive harvest had passed “quietly”. Not only are the centuries-old olive trees vital to the livelihood of Palestinian villagers, they possess an almost spiritual quality; their loss to farmers is tantamount to losing members of their immediate family.

In Gaza, even before the Israeli blockade, Palestinian fishermen were prohibited from sailing more than 5 km out to sea, rendering the immediate coastal area devoid of fish. The Israeli military routinely destroyed wells serving refugee camps. International Solidarity Movement member Rachel Corrie wrote of sleeping in front of the wells with fellow activists to prevent their destruction, before she was murdered by an Israeli bulldozer driver in March 2003.

Israel’s 2006 bombardment of Lebanon damaged the Jiyeh power plant serving southern Lebanon, resulting in a 15,000-tonne oil spill that devastated local fishermen and the ecosystem. During that time, millions of dollars of infrastructure was destroyed in Gaza, exacerbating problems with water supply and sanitation. Due to the Israeli siege, international agencies were prevented from entering Gaza to repair damaged wastewater treatment facilities, resulting in the March 2007 disaster in the village of Umm Naser when a sewage reservoir burst its banks, destroying 200 homes. Two elderly women and three children were killed.

Along with the human toll, farmers suffered massive losses to their livestock during Israel’s assault on Gaza from December 2008-January 2009. UNEP reported that 35,000 cattle, sheep and goats as well as 1 million birds and chickens were killed. Animal carcasses and chemical agents used by the Israeli army contaminated the water. Farmers report that the chemical-laden water now dehydrates crops. According to UNEP, as many as 1.5 million Palestinians are at risk because the groundwater in Gaza is no longer suitable for drinking or for irrigation due to chronic contamination.

Israel continues to raze farmland, irrigation piping, homes, greenhouses and wells along a buffer zone on the Gaza side of the internationally recognised Green Line. Anyone found within this Israeli-imposed no-man’s land risks being shot. At least 13 Palestinian civilians were killed and 39 injured in border regions inside and outside the buffer zone last year, including women and children.

“The true stewards of Palestine cultivated their land from ancient times until it was stripped away from them when Israel was established,” writes Obeidallah. “Since then, Zionist immigrants have raped the land, poisoned the waters, polluted villages and decimated the native population. Determining who has the real spiritual and emotional connection to the Holy Land is as simple as comparing the landscape of Palestine prior to 1948 to the ever-expanding wasteland of today, yet another casualty of Zionist aggression and greed.”

Since 1990, UNEP estimates that there have been 18 conflicts all over the world that were financed by the exploitation of natural resources. In Afghanistan, between 1978 and 2001, these included gems, timber and opium. There were variations of the same two or three resources, in different orders of priority, in Burma and Cambodia. The Democratic Republic of Congo, between 1996 and 2008, has the longest list: copper, coltan (a metallic ore), diamonds, gold, cobalt, timber and tin. In the ongoing strife in Somalia, fish and charcoal play a role. In Nepal, in the decade that ended in 2006, it was yarsa gumba, a valuable fungus, which was exploited. Oil continues to feature in Congo and Colombia; guerrillas and narco-terrorists in the latter also trade in gold, coca, timber and emeralds.

In Angola, the anti-colonialist movement UNITA is estimated to have earned $3.4 billion between 1992 and 2000 from ‘conflict diamonds’, while the government relied on oil revenues. On the other hand, there are individuals who benefit from access to resources such as diamonds and coca. They have a vested interest in opposing peace and an incentive in prolonging the conflict.

While the direct and indirect impacts of all these conflicts are widespread, UN officials believe that there are links between conflict, environment and peace. Undoubtedly, strife undermines the health of people, livelihoods and security. Conflicts heighten the risk of death and disease and also cause loss of productivity. Jobs are endangered due to decreased supplies of food, water, energy and income itself. Security is at stake due to increased vulnerability to natural hazards.

With increasing populations and growing consumer demand, natural resources will continue to be exploited in the future. However, environmental degradation will diminish supply. In many countries that are caught up in conflict, environment ministries and bureaucracies remain weak. With climate change, the distribution and supply of natural resources will only worsen. All these factors create a fertile ground for a spurt in resource-based conflicts.

At the same time, they present an opportunity to reinforce not just peace but sustainable development. A classic example is the Good Water Neighbours initiative launched by an NGO called EcoPeace and Friends of the Earth Middle East, in 1991. It raises awareness between Palestinians, Jordanians and Israelis on how they share water problems. Since there is mutual dependence, this becomes the basis for developing dialogue and cooperation. Initially, 11 communities in these three countries were chosen for the initiative; this has now risen to 25. It has helped build trust and led to improvements in the water sector. 

As UNEP’s Halle says: “It is using environment as the key impetus for building peace. After these years of experience, it has demonstrated that environment knows no borders, particularly when it comes to water resources. It is often said that the next world war will be over water, but water also has the greatest potential to promote cooperation because it is so scarce.”

In Rwanda, otherwise badly impacted by civil strife, major investments in natural resources have yielded economic dividends that have helped the country develop. It has invested in managing natural sanctuaries and developed high-value mountain gorilla tourism. It costs $500 for a permit to see these huge, gentle giants, and there is a queue to see them. This revenue has greatly benefited Rwanda and also helped conserve the threatened species.

In Afghanistan, some 5 million trees have been planted since 2003. This has not only provided jobs but gone towards restoring the landscape. UNEP brokered a meet on trans-boundary water management between Afghanistan and Iran in 2005. It was the first time in 13 years that the two countries cooperated with each other. Such initiatives help to reinforce peace and promote development.

Infochange News & Features, March 2010