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War and the Environment

Human beings and infrastructure are often the focus of discussion when the destructive consequences of armed conflict are under consideration. The natural environment in which we live is often forgotten, yet it may well be the one of the most affected casualties of war.

Warfare takes place on all three forms of environmental media ie. water, air and land. This very fact renders the environment vulnerable to abuse and misuse when two or more combatants are at war, especially because destroying the environment requires little effort, whereas defending the environment is not an easy feat, even for the most militarily strong nations.

The environment is attractive as a tool of war because it is an asset to whosoever claims authority over it, as it brings forth food, provides a place for dwelling, and generates wealth. Thus to cripple one’s enemy, you would have to destroy his environment. The interwoven nature of our environment makes it possible to launch an attack on all media of the environment with one strike, a classic example being the attack levelled on the environment by Iraq during the Gulf war. Here the Iraqis set fire to over 500 Kuwaiti oil wells and intentionally occasioned an oil spill of three million oil barrels into the Gulf Sea, this barbaric act affected land, air and water.

The costs associated with rehabilitation, clean up and damage control are exorbitant. However, one cannot put a price on the loss suffered in destroyed ecosystems and environmentally sensitive areas. It thus behoves the  international community to direct concerted efforts into galvanising the controversial right to a healthy and satisfactory natural environment. Having this right form part of International and domestic laws would, by necessary implication, create a duty on sovereign states to not only protect the environment during wartime, but also to respect the environment of enemy states.

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