The Environmental Impacts of Airstrikes

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Warfare brings with it misery, devastation, and lost or broken lives. Add to this the toxic, denuded wasteland left behind long after the bombs stop falling and the guns go silent - whenever that day may come.

Airstrikes do more than just kill people and level buildings. They cause environmental damage as a family member recently pointed out while watching footage of a Turkish attack in northern Syria.

Airstrikes are all too common in modern warfare and their common occurrence during war means more environmental destruction. They can contaminate the air and soil. Take airstrikes from armed drones which usually use explosive weapons. Those explosive weapons “can produce pollutants that pose risks to human health following their initial impacts,” according to Conflict and Environment Observatory.

Airstrikes targeting oil infrastructure do tremendous environmental damage

Some airstrikes in Syria have targeted oil installations under ISIS control. Oil fire can release toxic substances into the air, such as carbon monoxide and lead. Those substances can spread and wind up in soils and groundwater. They can cause health problems for people and animals. Being exposed over long periods of time can cause all sorts of health problems, including respiratory disorders, liver problems, kidney disorders, and cancer.

A report by the Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) found that over 250 targets related to oil installations have been damaged by coalition bombing in Syria. Russian airstrikes may have destroyed more than than 1,000 fuel tankers. According to the AOAV report, the destruction of fuel tankers not only released toxic substances into the air but forced the Islamic State to rely more on “hazardous and makeshift sites, with corresponding greater health and environmental risks.”

The intense environmental damage in Syria

The Syrian government is unable to deal with the incredible environmental damage from coalition airstrikes. The government only controls part of the country and even the parts it controls lack the things we consider in developed countries to be basic amenities. The environmental damage done only adds to the harshness of life in Syria.

A study by the Dutch non-governmental organization, Pax looks at four types of environmental damage from the war in Syria. The first type of damage comes from targeting industrial and critical infrastructure. Environmental pollution can concentrate around damaged industrial facilities and critical infrastructure plus military bases. Heavy damage to residential areas and exposure to hazardous building rubble is the second type of damage. There are areas in Syria which experienced widespread destruction in light industrial and residential areas. After airstrikes target a building, the remains contain toxic substances such as asbestos, household waste, and medical waste.

The contamination from the intense use of weapons is the third type, but certainly not the least. There is a lack of data on the amount and levels of environmental contamination from the residues of conventional weapons. What we do know is that heavy metals dispersed into populated areas after airstrikes pose health hazards. The breakdown of environmental services is the fourth type, and it is a huge problem in a country experiencing a civil war. Not only do Syrians deal with the environmental damage from airstrikes but the damage caused by lack of basic services such as waste removal.

“If you look at a lot of domestic fire ranges of militaries, there's been a lot of pollution problems because of accumulation of heavy metals and the substances in explosives, which leak into the environment,” said Wim Zwijnenburg, the author of the Pax report.

Syria will need intense environmental cleanup