The Environmental Footprint Of War

By Edith Bell

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The environmental footprint of war must be a major topic of discussion in the context of global warming, yet it is often ignored. On February 24 at 2 p.m. at the Carnegie Library in Squirrel Hill, Women’s International League for Peace will present the film, “SCARRED LANDS & WOUNDED LIVES.” Discussion will follow the film.

The event is open to the public. Free admission.

Here is a brief overview of what the film presents: The scale of environmental damage over the last half century is unprecedented. Falling water tables, shrinking forest cover, declining species diversity – all presage ecosystems in distress. In SCARRED LANDS AND WOUNDED LIVES, filmmakers Alice and Lincoln Day recognize our deep dependence on the natural world and the significant threat to that world posed by war and preparations for war. These trends emanate from forces of humanity’s own making: unsustainable demands on natural resources, species loss, and ruinous environmental practices. Ironically, however, war – that most destructive of human behaviors – is commonly bypassed.

In all its stages, from the production of weapons through combat to cleanup and restoration, war pollutes land, air, and water, destroys biodiversity, and drains natural resources. Yet the environmental damage of war and preparation for war is routinely underestimated, underreported, and even ignored. The environment remains war’s silent casualty.

An estimated 150 wars have been fought since World War II. Many are civil wars, others are fought over natural resources such as water, fishing rights, or for diamonds in Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Congo.

During the Gulf war, Iraqi soldiers torched 500 Kuwaiti oil wells, causing water pollution and black smoke throughout the area. Its damage to the ecosystem is still unknown. Military debris from the long war in Iraq pollutes the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as well as the land and air.

Bridget Guarasci (Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Franklin & Marshall College), in her article “Environmental Rehabilitation and Global Profiteering in Wartime Iraq,” reports, “Iraq’s soil is polluted from military debris including unexploded ordnance, spent cartridges, and military vehicles as well as radioactive material like depleted uranium from US munitions. During the Gulf wars in 1991 and in 2003, the US shot about 1,200 tons of ammunition in Iraq, compounding the contamination problem.

“As a result, rates of cancer grew exponentially: the overall incidence of breast and lung cancer, leukemia and lymphoma have doubled and tripled. In 2013, scientists documented 140,000 cases of cancer in Iraq, with 7,000 to 8,000 new cases registered each year since then. For Iraqi women, the incidence of breast cancer increased from 26.6 in the pre-war period to 31.5/100,000 in 2009 with 33.8 percent of breast cancers diagnosed in girls less than 15 years old. Birth defects have also increased exponentially.”

Iraq is only one of many suffering areas. In Yemen the destruction of the sanitation system has caused cholera, not to mention the starvation caused by the continuous bombings.

As the world focuses on the death of people in wars, we are destroying our planet and making it unlivable for future generations of humans and many other species.

Edith Bell is the coordinator of the Pittsburgh branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and a long time peace and justice activist.

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Long-time Merton Center member Edith Bell (right) joins with fellow Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom members to leaflet at the January 19th Women’s March in Pittsburgh. Photo Credit: Neil Cosgrove.

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