Environmental Costs

The impact of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan can be seen not only in the social, economic and political situations of these areas but also in the environments in which these wars have been waged. The long years of war have resulted in a radical destruction of forest cover and an increase in carbon emissions. In addition, the water supply has been contaminated by oil from military vehicles and depleted uranium from ammunition. Along with the degradation of the natural resources in these countries, the animal and bird populations have also been adversely affected. In recent years, Iraqi medical doctors and health researchers have called for more research on war-related environmental pollution as a potential contributor to the country’s poor health conditions and high rates of infections and diseases.

27 Water & Soil Pollution: During the 1991 aerial campaign over Iraq, the US utilized approximately 340 tons of missiles containing depleted uranium (DU). Water and soil may be contaminated by the chemical residue of these weapons, as well as benzene and trichloroethylene from air base operations. Perchlorate, a toxic ingredient in rocket propellant, is one of a number of contaminants commonly found in groundwater around munitions storage sites around the world.

The health impact of war-related environmental exposure remains controversial. Lack of security as well as poor reporting in Iraqi hospitals have complicated research. Yet, recent studies have revealed troubling trends. A household survey in Fallujah, Iraq in early 2010 obtained responses to a questionnaire on cancer, birth defects, and infant mortality.  Significantly higher rates of cancer in 2005-2009 compared to rates in Egypt and Jordan were found.  The infant mortality rate in Fallujah was 80 deaths per 1000 live births, significantly higher than rates of 20 in Egypt, 17 in Jordan and 10 in Kuwait.  The ratio of male births to female births in the 0-4 age cohort was 860 to 1000 compared to the expected 1050 per 1000. [13] 

Toxic Dust: Heavy military vehicles have also disturbed the earth, particularly in Iraq and Kuwait. Combined with drought as a result of deforestation and global climate change, dust has become a major problem exacerbated by the major new movements of military vehicles across the landscape. The U.S. military has focused on the health effects of dust for military personnel serving in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.  Iraq service members’ exposures to inhaled toxins have correlated with respiratory disorders that often prevent them from continuing to serve and performing everyday activities such as exercise.  U.S. Geologic Survey microbiologists have found heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cobalt, barium, and aluminum, which can cause respiratory distress, and other health problems. [11] Since 2001, there has been a 251 percent rise in the rate of neurological disorders, a 47 percent increase in the rate of respiratory problems, and a 34 percent rise in rates of cardio-vascular disease in military service members that is likely related to this problem.[12]

Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution from Military Vehicles:  Even setting aside the accelerated operational tempo of wartime, the Department of Defense has been the country’s single largest consumer of fuel, using about 4.6 billion gallons of fuel each year.[1] Military vehicles consume petroleum-based fuels at an extremely high rate: an M-1 Abrams tank can get just over a half mile on a gallon of fuel per mile or use about 300 gallons during eight hours of operation.[2]  Bradley Fighting Vehicles consume about 1 gallon per mile driven. 

War accelerates fuel use.  By one estimate, the U.S. military used 1.2 million barrels of oil in Iraq in just one month of 2008.[3]  This high rate of fuel use over non-wartime conditions has to do in part with the fact that fuel must be delivered to vehicles in the field by other vehicles, using fuel.  One military estimate in 2003 was that two-thirds of the Army’s fuel consumption occurred in vehicles that were delivering fuel to the battlefield.[4]  The military vehicles used in both Iraq and Afghanistan produced many hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and sulfur dioxide in addition to CO2. In addition, the allied bombing campaign of a variety of toxics-releasing sites such as ammunition depots, and the intentional setting of oil fires by Saddam Hussein during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to air, soil, and water pollution.[5]

War-Accelerated Destruction and Degradation of Forests and Wetlands: The wars have also damaged forests, wetlands and marshlands in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.  Radical deforestation has accompanied this and the previous wars in Afghanistan.  Total forest area decreased 38 percent in Afghanistan from 1990 to 2007.[6]  This is a result of illegal logging, which is associated with the rising power of the warlords, who have enjoyed U.S. support.  In addition, deforestation has occurred in each of these countries as refugees seek out fuel and building materials.  Drought, desertification, and species loss that accompany habitat loss have been the result.  Moreover, as the wars have led to environmental destruction, the degraded environment itself contributes in turn to further conflict.[7]

War-Accelerated Wildlife Destruction: Bombing in Afghanistan and deforestation have threatened an important migratory thoroughfare for birds leading through this area. The number of birds now flying this route has dropped by 85 percent.[8]  U.S. bases became a lucrative market for the skins of the endangered Snow Leopard, and impoverished and refugee Afghans have been more willing to break the ban on hunting them, in place since 2002. [9] Foreign aid workers who arrived in the city in large numbers following the collapse of the Taliban regime have also purchased the skins.  Their remaining numbers in Afghanistan were estimated at between 100 and 200 in 2008.[10](Page updated as of March 2013) 

[1] Col. Gregory J. Lengyel, USAF, Department of Defense Energy Strategy: Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks. 21st Century Defense Initiative. Washington, DC:  The Brookings Institution, August, 2007, p. 10.

[2]Global Security.Org, M-1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ground/m1-specs.htm

[3] Associated Press, "Facts on Military Fuel Consumption," USA Today, 2 April 2008, http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2008-04-02-2602932101_x.htm.

[4] Cited in Joseph Conover, Harry Husted, John MacBain, Heather McKee. Logistics and Capability Implications of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle with a Fuel Cell Auxiliary Power Unit. SAE Technical Papers Series, 2004-01-1586. 2004 SAE World Congress, Detroit, Michigan, March 8-11, 2004. http://delphi.com/pdf/techpapers/2004-01-1586.pdf

[5] United Nations Statistics Division. "United Nations Statistics Division - Environment Statistics." United Nations Statistics Division. http://unstats.un.org/unsd/environment/Questionnaires/country_snapshots.htm.

[6] Carlotta Gall, War-Scarred Afghanistan in Environmental Crisis, The New York Times, January 30, 2003.

[7] Enzler, S.M. "Environmental effects of war." Water Treatment and Purification - Lenntech. http://www.lenntech.com/environmental-effects-war.htm.

[8] Smith, Gar. "It's Time to Restore Afghanistan:  Afghanistan's Crying Needs." Earth Island Journal. http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/eij/article/its_time_to_res... Noras, Sibylle. "Afghanistan." Saving Snow Leopards. snowleopardblog.com/projects/afghanistan/.

[9] Reuters, "Foreigners threaten Afghan Snow Leopards," 27 June 2008. http://www.enn.com/wildlife/article/37501

[10] Kennedy, Kelly. "Navy researcher links toxins in war-zone dust to ailments." USA Today, May 14, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2011-05-11-Iraq-Afghanistan-dust-soldiers-illnesses_n.htm.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Busby C, Hamdan M and Ariabi E. Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005-2009. Int.J Environ.Res. Public Health 2010, 7, 2828-2837.

[13] Ibid.