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The environmental impact of the war can last for a century

After the industrial revolutions, the development of technology and warfare further increased the impact of wars on the environment, says Erik Kovács Dr. We discussed the ecological implications of the Russo-Ukrainian war, lessons from history, and the most severe environmental degradations—interview on Hype&Hyper.


In one of your analyses, you state that armed conflicts place enormous burdens not only on the economy and society but also on culture and environment. Does the environmental burden come directly or indirectly?

The environment is affected by wars both directly and indirectly. I am referring here to the extraction of raw materials: how mining impacts forests and the vegetation in general. Moreover, we should mention the effects of production, which is still based mainly on fossil fuels, military exercises, and pollution. In addition, there is the environmental burden of hazardous waste and emissions from combat vehicles, which account for a large proportion of global carbon dioxide, methane, and other particulates.

Can you give specific examples of historical and modern wars that have had a massive environmental impact?

Every conflict has entailed environmental changes since the first wars in history. The landscape-altering structures such as the Great Wall of China, the ancient Athenian architectural works, the Limes of the Roman Empire, and the deforestation to build ships and fortifications are good examples. Military areas are estimated to have accounted for 25-40 percent of the land area of ancient civilizations, while today, this figure is 3-8 percent. In the present and recent past, the Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the Syrian civil war, and the frequent North Korean military exercises have also caused severe environmental pollution, not to mention the use of chemical weapons in the Vietnam War. Military activities and wars generate soil, air, water, chemical, and noise pollution due to the weapons and vehicles. During World War I, the entire ecosystem of the Isonzo (Soča) was wiped out by chemical spills; the Danube suffered environmental damage during World War II. The war in our neighboring country also leads to substantial water pollution, which can cause local and regional problems through the pollution of streams, rivers, and groundwater both in the short and long term.

Is it possible that the environmental impact will cause even more significant losses than the destruction of the war itself in the long term? 

The answer is, unfortunately, yes. After the industrial revolutions, the development of technology and warfare further increased the impact of wars on the environment. The environmental implications of the advancements have already been apparent long before the conflict erupted, and they are persistent. Building and maintaining the military infrastructure requires vast amounts of resources, both human and natural. The latter’s mining, refining, and production emit large quantities of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, which indirectly affects us by intensifying global warming and climate change. Most of these are released into the environment through the combustion of coal and hydrocarbons. But there are even more dangerous substances: particulates (PM2,5, PM5, PM10), sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, benzpyrenes, and gases from organic solvents; moreover, in an aquatic environment, phosphorus compounds, heavy metals, industrial pollutions, and residues of petroleum, fertilizers, and pharmaceutical products. And we cannot overlook the damage to agriculture and the soil contaminated for centuries.

László Bárdos | Hype&Hyper

The environmental footprint of armaments and military maintenance is high, but undeniably some of humanity’s greatest inventions were developed during wars and then put to civilian use. Is it possible that there will be bigger advantages in the long-term than the environmental disadvantage itself?

At present, innovations and inventions in warfare and armaments impact other industries and sectors. The military industry developments can help medicine, astronomy, meteorology, and information and communications technology in many cases. Examples are robotics, satellites, space telescopes, mobile phones, and microchips.

Which weapons are the most destructive to the environment?

Land mines, cluster bombs, and explosive remnants can limit access to agricultural land and contaminate soil and water with metal and other toxic substances during conflicts on land. Vehicle movements, explosions, and fuel spills damage landscapes and fragile biodiversity; events can have consequences even 50-60 km away. Conventional weapons can also cause serious problems; for example, the combustion of white phosphorus releases substances that damage the windpipe and lungs, not to mention that they are highly flammable. Almost all weapons impact the environment, but the most devastating so far was the US’s atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

As modern technology advances, can we talk about ecologically sustainable weapons? Does such a concept or trend exist?

Weapons are also getting more advanced, but it is impossible to create ecologically sustainable weapons. Since they are destructive, they are certainly not sustainable from an environmental perspective.

What are the environmental impacts of the Russo-Ukrainian War so far? How quick and expensive can rehabilitation be?

The Russo-Ukrainian War enormously damages the environment, not just the economy and the people. Just look at the air pollution caused by constant bombing and huge military vehicles, the drinking water and rivers contaminated due to the damaged water pipes, the nuclear power plants surrounded by militants, or the cities facing food shortages. In addition to military targets, Russian troops have also heavily attacked infrastructure. As a result, gas, water, and electricity services were completely cut off in several towns and areas. Russia has attacked or occupied several Ukrainian metallurgical plants, factories, and other energy service provider infrastructure constructions. Many ports, refineries, and chemical plants were attacked, burning for days, and releasing many contaminants into the air, water, and soil. The demolition of buildings built during the Communist era released significant amounts of asbestos into the air, which can cause severe lung and respiratory diseases, irrespective of age. Environmental rehabilitation varies. The water will recover relatively quickly, the soil and air more slowly, but the picture will be clearer after the war, which will hopefully end soon. In my opinion, the human and economic consequences are the priorities now.

From an environmental perspective, which was the most destructive war since World War II? Could nature recover since then?

The most destructive man-made event in history was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the military operation that ended the Second World War in 1945. The bombing was carried out by the United States Air Force, and to this day, these two cases are the only examples of the use of nuclear weapons in warfare. In the following four months, 90,000-166,000 people died in Hiroshima and 60,000-80,000 in Nagasaki due to the bombings’ consequences. After this period, countless other people have also died of burns or radiation sickness. The impact on the environment was immeasurable and inconceivable, and the environmental effects are still felt today.

Erik Kovács Dr. graduated from the University of West Hungary with a Master’s degree in Geography and then obtained his Ph.D. at the Doctoral School of Environmental Sciences at Eötvös Loránd University. He specialized in environmental geosciences, in particular climate research and agroclimatology. He has been working on climate change research for almost 12 years and is currently a senior researcher at the Climate Policy Institute in Budapest.

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