That’s today, according to the UN. It’s a pretty cumbersome name, but International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict raises an important point.
War is always a human tragedy, but that is often compounded when the land is dragged into the conflict. It can happen in all kinds of ways. Sometimes it is deliberate, such as the burning of crops or trees, polluting water sources, or setting oilfields on fire, as retreating Iraqi troops did in the first Gulf War. Other times the environment is collateral damage, when napalm is dropped on forests for example, or when oil spills from bombed ships . In the last round of fighting in the Lebanon, leaked oil from a Beirut power station affected 150 km of coastline, seriously damaging tourism and fishing industries.
Sometimes it is simply the movement of troops and machines, or the drain on natural resources from displaced people, or the breakdown of environmental management. Somalia’s coast is most famous for piracy at the moment, but one of its untold stories is the ravaging of its fish stocks. With no one to protect local fishermen, Somalia’s coastal waters have been plundered by international fishing fleets.
Damage to the environment can last far beyond the conflict itself, making it much harder to return a region to stability. Refugees may return home to find the land will no longer support them. I remember reading of Sudanese refugees unable to rebuild their homes, because all the trees had been burnt. The competition for food, water and wood can then fuel further tensions.
This kind of long-term damage can last for generations. In some situations, deforestation can lead to desertification, making regions permanently unfit for resettling. Saddam Hussein notoriously oversaw the draining of the Euphrates-Tigris Delta as part of his campaign against the Marsh Arabs, turning their traditional homeland into a desert waste.
When we think of conflict and the casualties of war, people are always the priority. Quite rightly so, but as the people depend on their environment, that needs protecting too. Even in ancient times, war was conducted with certain protocols. The Bible forbid the jews to cut down fruit trees when waging war against a city. The ancient Assyrians used to salt the land around the capital cities of their enemies, but it was reserved as their ultimate punishment. Despite this, International law is still rather hazy on the environmental aspects of war, and military objectives tend to overrule environmental considerations.
The UN hosts the annual day as an awareness raising event, calling for greater sense of responsibility. But really, couldn’t they have called it ‘war and the environment day’ or something?