The environmental costs of war and Islam’s solution

Lubna Junaid, Environmental Science student, Suriname

War always results in the same thing: Destruction. 

In the aftermath of war, the focus lies on the loss of human life, the destruction of property and the great financial burden. The silent victim of war, however, is the environment. One has to wonder what price the environment has paid as a result of modern warfare and what the effects of this destruction are on mankind. From the contamination of land and the destruction of forests to the plunder of natural resources and the collapse of management systems, the environmental consequences of war are often widespread and devastating.

The environmental impact of wars begins even before the war itself. Building and sustaining military forces consume vast quantities of resources. These might be common metals or rare earth elements, water or hydrocarbons. Military vehicles, aircraft, vessels, buildings and infrastructure all require energy, often oil with low energy efficiency. 

The CO2emissions of the largest militaries are greater than many of the world’s countries combined. The US Department of Defense is the world’s single largest institutional consumer of oil – and as a result, one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters.

The environmental impact of conflicts themselves varies. Some international armed conflicts may be brief but highly destructive. Some civil wars may last for decades but be fought at low intensity. Among the first and most vulnerable targets of attack in a military campaign are the enemy’s roads, bridges, utilities and other infrastructure. While these don’t form part of the natural environment, the destruction of wastewater treatment plants, for example, severely degrades regional water quality. 

High-intensity conflicts require and consume vast quantities of fuel, leading to massive CO2emissions and contributing to climate change. Large scale vehicle movements can lead to widespread physical damage to sensitive landscapes and geodiversity, as can the intensive use of explosive ordnance. The use of explosive weapons in urban areas creates vast quantities of debris and rubble, which can cause air and soil pollution. Pollution can also be caused by damage to light industry and environmentally sensitive infrastructure such as water treatment plants. 

As of yet, no toll of war was quite as great as that suffered during World War Two. The environmental effects of this war were seen across the globe, from forest fires in the United States to severe sand storms in North Africa. 

In 1945, nuclear weapons were applied to kill for the first time, in Japan. The first impact of the atomic bombings was a blinding light, accompanied by a giant wave of heat. Dry flammable materials caught fire, and all men and animals within half a kilometre from the explosion sites died instantly. The blasts caused air pollution from dust particles and radioactive debris flying around, and from the fires burning everywhere. Many plants and animals were killed in the blast or died later from radioactive precipitation. Agricultural production was damaged. Radioactive sand clogged wells used for drinking water, thereby causing a drinking water problem that could not be solved for a long time.

During the first Gulf War, Iraq was bombed with hundreds of tons of missiles containing depleted uranium. Studies show an increase in cancer rates in Iraq, which has been linked to the shells used by the militaries. The radiation from these weapons has poisoned the soil and water in the area, possibly making the environment carcinogenic. 

In October 2001, the United States attacked Afghanistan as a starting chapter of the ‘war on terrorism’. During the war, extensive damage was done to the environment and many people suffered health effects from weapons applied to destroy enemy targets. It is estimated that 10,000 villages and their surrounding environments were destroyed. Safe drinking water declined because of the destruction of water infrastructure and resulting leaks, bacterial contamination and water theft. Rivers and groundwater were contaminated by poorly constructed landfills located near the sources. 

Bombs threaten much of the country’s wildlife. One of the world’s important migratory thoroughfares leads through Afghanistan. The number of birds now flying this route has dropped by 85%. Pollution from the application of explosives entered the air, soil and water. One example is cyclonite, a toxic substance that may cause cancer. Numerous landmines left behind in Afghan soils still cause the deaths of men, women and children today.

Additionally, when warfare causes the mass movement of people, the resulting impacts on the environment can be catastrophic. Human displacement causes large environmental footprints, particularly where they are unplanned or lack essential services, like water, sanitation and waste management. Refugees turn to the environment to fulfil their basic needs. Widespread deforestation, unchecked hunting, soil erosion and contamination of land and water by human waste occur when thousands of humans are forced to settle in a new area. 

During the Rwandan civil conflict in 1994, a National Park in the country was opened to almost three-quarters of a million refugees; as a result of this refugee influx, local populations of animals like the roan antelope and the eland became extinct. Tones of wood were removed from the park every day for two years to build shelters, feed cooking fires and created charcoal for sale. By the time the conflict ended over a hundred square km of the forest had been damaged.

Another basic need common to displacement camps and urban areas experiencing conflict is waste management. Systems often break down during conflict leading to increased rates of waste dumping and burning, improper management and less waste segregation. Waste management systems are just one element of environmental governance that may collapse during conflicts. Local environmental laws and regulations may be ignored and local and national administrations may lose their capacity to monitor, assess or respond to environmental problems.

Islam regards war as a disliked and destructive activity. The Holy Quran describes war as a conflagration and declares that it is God’s purpose to put out such a conflagration whenever it erupts, meaning that when war becomes inevitable it should be so waged as to cause the least possible amount of damage to life and property.

Fighting is permissible only to repel or halt aggression. But even in the course of such fighting, Muslims are not permitted any transgression, as the Quran instructs:

وَقَاتِلُوۡا فِيۡ سَبِيۡلِ اللّٰهِ الَّذِيۡنَ يُقَاتِلُوۡنَكُمۡ وَلَا تَعۡتَدُوۡا ؕ اِنَّ اللّٰهَ لَا يُحِبُّ الۡمُعۡتَدِيۡنَ

“And fight in the cause of Allah against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. Surely, Allah loves not the transgressors.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.191)

When Muslims were compelled to defend themselves, they were bound by strict instructions given by the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa; these rules of engagement during a war were not limited to protecting only humans but went even further. The Holy Prophetsa instructed that during any battle, no trees were to be felled, no crops were to be destroyed and no animals were to be killed. Nor was any inhabited place to be ruined. Civilians and non-combatants were not to be harmed either. 

This guidance was given as a result of the beautiful teachings of the Holy Quran. In direct contradiction to these teachings, in today’s world, we find indiscriminate firing and bombardment regularly occurring in war. We find that well-populated towns and cities are being targeted, resultantly killing innocent civilians, destroying homes and dismantling essential infrastructure. Neither is the environment spared, with trees and crops being destroyed.

The threats of war are waged differently in our age, and its widespread environmental impacts last far longer than known before. Modern chemical, biological and nuclear warfare has the potential to wreak unprecedented environmental havoc. In a press statement concerning the Russia-Ukraine war, the Imam of our age, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa said: 

“For many years, I have warned the major powers of the world that they must heed the lessons from history, particularly in relation to the two catastrophic and devastating world wars that took place in the 20th Century. […] Unquestionably, the consequences of any escalation will be horrific and destructive in the extreme. And so, it is the critical need of the hour that every possible effort is made to avoid further warfare and violence.” (24 February 2022,

May Allah the Almighty protect us from the rising global catastrophes and may true and lasting peace in the world prevail.

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