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The exploitation of the environment in war and armed conflict

By: Ximena Orosco Cano (@xioroscoc) and Cecilia Nina Vargas (@Cecilianinavargas1)

In times of war, nature suffers accelerated degradation. Water pollution, soil poisoning, deforestation, and air pollution are some of the effects of war on the environment. According to the Environment Program of the UN, at least 40% of all conflicts in the world are linked to the exploitation of natural resources, whether for the exploitation of wood, gold, or oil, or less abundant resources such as water or fertile land (Aquae, 2021). Therefore, in 2006, the UN passed a resolution recognizing that healthy ecosystems and sustainably managed natural resources help reduce the risk of armed conflict currently, every November 6th is celebrated as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.

One of the greatest effects of wars on the environment took place during the two World Wars. It is estimated that in the North and Baltic Seas there are about 1.6 million tons of munitions as a consequence of these wars, which constitute a serious problem since they end up releasing toxic compounds that ultimately threaten life in marine ecosystems. This practice was banned in 1972 by the Oslo Convention, but the number of weapons found on the seabed is currently unknown (Aquae, 2021).

Impact of armed conflicts on the environment

The environmental impact of a conflict varies depending on who is fighting, where, and how. High-intensity conflicts use huge volumes of fuel, leading to CO2 emissions, also, large-scale vehicle movements cause great impacts on the landscape and soil, which is multiplied by the use of explosives (Coronel, A., 2022).

Conflicts with the systematic bombing of civilian populations generate enormous amounts of rubble and debris, as well as the need to restore huge quantities of material. In these contexts of scarcity, the country's natural resources become the target of the contenders, which may well be legal goods, but exploited and sold illegally; it is a plundering of resources that allows the financing and perpetuation of the war. These products, which are highly valued in the markets of developed countries, are exploited and sold without control, exchanged for weapons, and make it possible to generate war economies in which numerous actors obtain substantial profits (Greenpeace, 2007).

The most relevant impacts of armed conflicts in recent decades

  • Agent Orange: For nearly a decade, between 1961 and 1971, in the Vietnam War, the US Army sprayed millions of liters of a range of herbicides and scrubs across vast swaths of southern Vietnam. The most used chemical agent was the so-called orange agent and it was part of the deliberate destruction of the forests to deprive the Vietcong guerrillas of the cover that allowed them to launch attacks against the American soldiers (Ambientum, 2021).

  • Congolese Civil Wars: Since the mid-1990s, a series of bloody armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has had a devastating effect on wildlife that has been a source of meat for combatants, civilians struggling to survive, and the merchants. As a consequence, small species such as antelopes, monkeys, and rodents, as well as larger ones such as apes and elephants, have borne the brunt of the war (Ambientum, 2021).

  • Marshes and oil wells burned in Iraq: In the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein's troops drained the Mesopotamian marshes, the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in response to a Shia uprising in southern Iraq. A series of dams and canals reduced the marshes to less than 10 percent of their original extent and transformed the landscape into a salt-crusted desert (Ambientum, 2021).


Ambientum (2021). El medio ambiente sufre las consecuencias de las guerras. Consultado el 16 de octubre del 2022. Recuperado de

Coronel, A. (2022). La guerra no afecta al medioambiente, es una catástrofe medioambiental. Diario “El Salto”. Consultado el 16 de octubre del 2022. Recuperado de

Fundación Aquae (2021). Los efectos de la Guerra en el Medio Ambiente. Consultado el 16 de Octubre del 2022. Recuperado de

Greenpeace (2007). Impactos de la guerra en el Medio Ambiente. Consultado el 16 de Octubre del 2022. Recuperado de


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