Explosive weapons and environmental impact

Destroyed buildings in Yemen   Destroyed buildings in Yemen © EPA

This article is a brief presentation of the report of Humanitarian Disarmament on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas

The report presents the connection between the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, namely towns and cities, and the impact of these weapons on the environment. 

The report is based on data collected by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), PAX, and Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS).

The environmental dimension of armed conflict is gaining more attention by the United Nations bodies such as the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), international organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Law Commission (ILC), States and civil society groups. However, this attention is not yet enough and there is a need for greater sensitivity on the environmental dimension of conflicts within the disarmament community and in particular by parties to conflict. Environmental damage has major implications for lives and livelihoods of people and protecting civilians first requires protecting the environment in which they live. Indeed, conflict pollution can provoke serious health risks, while damages caused by combats to critical infrastructures can hamper the access to clean water, facilitating, for example, the spread of communicable diseases. The environment deserves a larger role in the post-conflict reconstruction phase too since it can help build greener societies and de-escalate the tensions over scarce natural resources.

The report focuses on the specific impact of explosive weapons on the environment and highlights the need for better and more long-term data gathering in order to better understand the environmental impact of conflicts and consequent risks to civilians. As a matter of fact, there is little facts and significant knowledge gaps on the subject and where studies have been carried out, they are very case-specific.

The term “explosive weapons” refers to a broad category of weapons that produce blast and fragmentation around the point of detonation, while “a populated area” is widely understood as an area with a high concentration of civilians. “Explosive weapons with wide area effect” (EWIPA) are particularly dangerous for civilians since they have a large blast and fragmentation radius, they have multiple munitions, they are inaccurate or a combination of these characteristics. EWIPA can also damage critical infrastructure and destroy pipelines, power supplies, water reservoirs causing long term reverberating effects. According to data of AOAV, between 2011 and 2019, when explosive weapons are used in populated area, 91% of all casualties were civilians, compared to 17% in other areas.

The impact of military activities on the environment can be both direct and indirect. The use of explosive weapons in urban areas, which creates vast quantities of debris and rubble, producing air and soil pollution, is mainly considered to cause direct damage to the environment. The impact on the environment is both associated with the inherent characteristics of explosive weapons and with the context of populated areas. An explosive weapon will project blast and fragmentation around the point of detonation and because of the blast pressure, small particles will be released into the air and inhaled by civilians or clearance workers removing the conflict rubble. In addition, building materials potentially contain toxic substances like asbestos or metals which will be inhaled and be open in the environment. Damage to environmental infrastructure often result in the destruction of Water Sanitation and Health (WASH) facilities that are crucial for proper health condition. Moreover, when industrial sites are located in populated areas, attacks can lead to the release into the environment of chemicals and other toxic substances. There are some indirect effects associated with the use of explosive weapons too that are less visible, but more long-term. When explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, they risk leaving behind explosive remnants of war (ERW). These remnants such as lead, mercury or depleted uranium may leak into the ground or lead to direct exposure by civilians working with military scrap metal and to significant health problems.

The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) has convened multiple times to make a political declaration to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas because of their direct and indirect impact on civilians and their environment. This declaration is expected to be negotiated as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic slows down.

The report of Human Disarmament concludes stating that whether the environmental impact of EWIPA is direct, or indirect, short term or long term, the high presence of civilians in populated areas will make it likely that large numbers of civilians will be affected. Therefore, it urges states to include environmental considerations and concerns into the discussions, at all levels, about peace and security.


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Author: Leyla El Matouni

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