When we talk about ending war, we have to talk about the environment. And when we talk about the environment, we also have to talk about the ways its destruction can be a catalyst for war.
Environmental Causes of War
Environmental factors aren’t the only reason for war, but they often escalate conflict and trigger unrest—all of which leads to war.
One of the most common environmental factors contributing to war is a lack of water. Drought ratchets the tension in already fragile states like Syria and Iraq, often causing conflict to erupt over a lack of resources.
In addition, drought often triggers mass migration as people search for food, water, and opportunity—leading to overcrowding and a sometimes volatile clashing of different cultures and religions.
Syria’s civil war started in large part because of extreme drought from 2006 to 2011. The unprecedented lack of rain caused most of the farms in Syria to fail, triggering an influx of rural families to already crowded cities like Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. Without enough resources or opportunity for all, the country fell into conflict.
Meanwhile, ISIS used drought and lack of water as a recruiting tool in Iraq. Much of their recruitment took place in the driest parts of Iraq. They also offered the hope of a salary to farmers who couldn’t earn a living after their crops dried up.
Similarly, the war in Darfur, Sudan was also escalated by drought. Yemen and Libya, both currently overrun by civil war, are also in the throes of intense drought. And for countries already entrenched in conflict, adding another stressor such as drought only further obstructs their ability to move toward peace.
Effects of War on the Environment
The relationship between the environment and war runs both ways. Environmental degradation makes war more likely, and war contributes to even more environmental degradation.
The ground in Syria and Iraq is sown with landmines. Not just a few mines, but thousands upon thousands—experts estimate there are 10 to 15 million unexploded ordnances and landmines in Iraq. It could take over 30 years to completely clear Syrian soil.
Landmines make it dangerous for families to move home, for commercial transportation, and for farmers to resume farming.
Landmines aren’t the only environmental threat, either. In 2017, as ISIS struggled to defend their territory from Iraqi forces, they ignited 25 oil wells—up to two million barrels of oil. There is concern that the oil spilled into groundwater and the Tigris river, leading to widespread pollution.
ISIS wasn’t the only group to light oil fields on fire, either—in 1991 Saddam Hussein employed a similar tactic while retreating from Kuwait.
ISIS also set fire to a sulfur plant outside of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. In the hours following, hospitals saw patients for breathing problems, skin rashes, and even suffocation.
No one knows yet what the long-term effects will be of the sulfuric smoke that settled over surrounding towns and fields, but the toxicity from the spilled oil and smoke from the oil fields and sulfur plants could be widespread, changing the health of both people and soil.
Throughout the years of war in Iraq and Syria—from the Gulf War in the 1990s to 2003 invasion and beyond—the US used depleted uranium munitions, including millions of rounds during battle.
In 2015, the US used depleted uranium in Syria as well. Depleted uranium is a waste product of nuclear power and is toxic to both the earth and individuals who come in contact with it. Since 1995, reports of birth defects and cancer in Iraq have increased, which may be due to exposure to depleted uranium.
Our early work in Iraq provided lifesaving heart surgeries for kids in places like Fallujah, where US forces fired millions of rounds of depleted uranium munitions, many of which are still in the earth to this day. The parents of these kids believed the life-threatening conditions their children faced were the result of war and the toxic ammunition used by both Saddam Hussein and the US.
Remaking the Earth After War
The environment and war are intricately connected. Environmental factors trigger conflict and conflict damages the earth… and the cycle spins upon itself. But the cycle can be broken and the environmentally damaging legacy of war can be reversed.
In Syria, we can bring farmers back to their homes and equip them to reclaim their identity. For some, in areas not at risk with landmines, it’s returning to the soil and crops, providing tractors and seeds and creating small communities of farmers. In other places, we’re teaching people to mushroom farm. Mushrooms don’t need land to grow—they’re grown in bags strung from the rafters of farmers’ homes.
Job creation grants mean people don’t have to all fight for the same resources—they can create new avenues for income to support their families. The economy grows, creating a stronger structure for the whole country—a structure that could withstand unrest.
And in one camp for Syrian refugees, children learn about the importance of recycling. They use recycled material to create art—simultaneously giving them a therapeutic outlet after war and reducing the amount of waste that goes into the earth.
The pattern of war begins and ends in our care for each other, in our care for the earth. We can disrupt the cycle of violence by protecting our earth. Peace begins with us, in our hands and our hearts, and in the soil we stand upon.