People residing in conflict-ridden areas often find themselves afflicted not only by the ravages of war but also by the devastation brought by the climate crisis. Out of the 20 countries identified as the most susceptible to climate change by the Notre Dame Global Initiative Index in 2021, 60 percent are sites of armed conflict, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In Palestine, for example, the environment is not spared from the ongoing genocide perpetrated by Israel. The destruction of Gaza’s water and sanitation infrastructure left 97 percent of Gaza’s water undrinkable, as risks of land and soil degradation are intensified by the siege. Olive trees, a top Palestinian export, are also forcefully uprooted and destroyed by Israeli forces.
The destruction of Palestine’s lands is driven by Israel’s desire to occupy the country and exploit its natural resources, with some advocates linking the occupation to oil extraction. A 2019 United Nations (UN) report estimates that there are over 3 billion barrels of oil located both off the coast and beneath the occupied lands of Palestine. Emerging as a gas exporter, Israel continues its exploration of natural gas off its Mediterranean coast.
The environment’s destruction, then, drives conflicts as much as it is a consequence of wars.
Wounds of the Soil
The ravaging of Palestinian land and other climate-vulnerable nations hinders these countries from establishing climate-resilient structures to cope with climate challenges, leading to insecurity in water and food resources, among others.
For one, forest destruction from the Ukraine war comes primarily from artillery shelling, which leaves behind heavy metals such as copper that leak into nearby bodies of water and pose health risks to humans and the local wildlife. In Somalia, the lack of other forms of livelihood caused by decades of civil war led Somalis to turn to charcoal trade, resulting in a vicious cycle of deforestation and 126 hectares of tree cover lost in 2022 alone, per Global Forest Watch. Meanwhile, the bombardment and explosion of mines in farmlands in Yemen hamper food production, which led to 20 million Yemenis experiencing food insecurity.
But the damage brought by war on the environment does not only come directly from the fighting itself. The carbon footprint of militaries worldwide makes up about 5.5 percent of global carbon emissions, with the US military taking the top spot, according to a 2022 report by Perspectives Climate Group.
Military emissions are even exempted and completely unchecked from the Global Stocktake, which is a part of the Paris Agreement that measures the emissions of each country and identifies ways to limit their emissions, said Mitzi Jonelle Tan, convenor and international spokesperson of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines.
As conflicts continue to heighten the vulnerability of institutions and infrastructure crucial to allowing citizens to adapt to climate impacts, urgent climate goals are further rendered unreachable.
While the devastation of the environment is an inevitable ramification of conflict, the exploitation of land is in itself the cause of waging wars. In the last 60 years, at least 40 percent of international conflicts have been linked to natural resources, while at least 18 violent conflicts have been fueled by the extraction of natural resources, according to the UN Environment Programme.
Israel's implementation of apartheid policies and practices heightened vulnerabilities to climate change, precluding Palestinians’ capacity to adapt, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The control of access to natural resources and land appropriation by Israel are major factors in the occupation of Palestine, opening the opportunity for mineral extraction in the Dead Sea by Israeli companies. This, along with the diversion of waters from the Jordan River that feed into the sea, has led to the Dead Sea shrinking by one-third of its surface since 1960.
In Congo, the extraction of minerals involves private companies financing and cooperating not only with factions within the government but also with rebel groups and paramilitaries. Supplying weapons in return for access to natural resources is a worthwhile trade not only for private companies but also for state-backed organizations in the Congo, found a UN Security Council report.
Oil was a determining factor for multiple conflicts around the Persian Gulf, according to John Duffield of Georgia State University. Conflicting interests in the prices and production of oil led to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, a country that had 9 percent of the global oil reserves. In an effort to hinder the intervening US-led Coalition forces, the Iraqi military set fire to Kuwaiti oil wells, decreasing the air quality and causing ashfall in the surrounding countries of the Arabian Peninsula for months.
The Philippine experience is also a testament to the extractivist motives underpinning ecologically destructive projects, often advanced through repressive campaigns. Between 2012 and 2021, the Philippines witnessed the deaths of 270 environmental defenders, with one-third of these killings connected to the mining industry, as Global Witness reported. For one, multinational mining company Oceanagold Corporation’s ecologically destructive venture in Nueva Vizcaya since 1994 resulted in the displacement and repression of indigenous residents of the area, all for the sake of continuous profitable extraction in one of the most mineral-rich nations in the world.
War cannot be separated from the land that it destroys. Even after years have passed since the last shot was fired, post-war situations still require countries to make up for the economic losses from the conflict such as damage to infrastructure and disruption to the supply chain. Extractive industries increase their outputs to match the demand of a post-war economy, which means the extraction of the environment is resumed, said Jeffrey McNeely of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
As long as wars driven by the pursuit of resource extraction persist, leading to intensified environmental degradation, our ability to realize global climate targets will remain elusive.
The challenges faced by environmental and human rights defenders are intertwined, said Tan. Protests must be utilized to push for policy changes concerning climate resilience and lobby for peace talks. “We must understand that they’re not two separate issues … The environmental crisis that we’re experiencing cannot be discussed separately from politics, war, conflict, and militarization.”
Unearthing the connection between wars and environmental degradation not only gives a clearer picture of their root causes, but also enables the efforts of both movements to synergize. As the compounded impacts of wars and climate catastrophes afflict people in sites of conflict, it is their collective resistance that will prove to be the most potent in the struggle towards lasting peace and climate justice. ●
First published in the December 20, 2023 print edition of the Collegian.
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