When War Stops, the Impact on the Environment Lives On

11/04/2011 03:11 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2012

Dead and wounded soldiers and citizens have always been the true currency of war. But another of war's consequences -- and sometimes its cause -- is the destruction of natural resources; the two go hand in hand. In 2001, the United Nations declared November 6 "International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict." It is a day to reflect on the massive damage done to ecosystems during war -- damage that can last well beyond the duration of the conflict itself.

Through our work in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, the Women's Refugee Commission is all too familiar with the serious, negative impacts of conflict and displacement on the environment. Conflict produces refugees, and when gathered together in large numbers they put extra strain on already stressed resources. The marginal, semi-arid lands where so many displaced persons' camps are located may have been able to effectively support their small dispersed resident populations in the past. However, sudden large concentrations of people living in the crowded camps that emerge during conflict or after natural disasters can rapidly deplete the land's carrying capacity and make it difficult for the environment to recover.

Safe, sustainable access to cooking fuel is of particular concern. Cooking fuel is not provided on any measurable scale in most humanitarian emergencies, and thus women and children are forced to forage for firewood on their own, which can have a devastating impact on the environment. For example, refugees fleeing the Rwandan genocide in the 1990's collected an estimated 1,200 tons of firewood each day, causing permanent deforestation in Tanzania and other host countries.

Years of collecting firewood and shelter material (timber and thatch as well as fired mud bricks) by both displaced and host communities in Darfur has also taken a visible toll on the environment, with few or no trees remaining in vast swaths of the region. To find firewood, women and children are forced to travel ever-greater distances -- as far as 10 miles outside of their camps -- which puts them at high risk of attack.

It is so dire in Darfur that in many cases women have resorted to digging holes in areas where trees used to be, in the hope of being able to pull up a root they can burn for fuel. In addition to the physical toll of such hard labor, this complete stripping of natural resources hinders the possibility for reforestation in the long run.

In Kenya, where forest cover has been reduced from 12 percent 50 years ago to 1.7 percent today, we've interviewed women who have lived in the Dadaab refugee camps for over 20 years and have watched trees disappear in an ever-widening circle. They are forced to travel farther and farther every year to find any wood. The massive influx of new refugees from the famine in Somalia is only exacerbating the problem.

Clearly a new approach is needed to protect the environment and the women and children at risk. The first step should be to support the direct provision of cooking fuel in emergencies -- including sustainably harvested firewood where necessary -- to help decrease the unsustainable and often unsafe collection of firewood. Non-wood shelter construction materials, such as unfired soil blocks, should also be promoted whenever feasible.

In the longer term, the environmental field should play a lead role in developing and promoting both fuel-saving devices, such as cookstoves, and alternatives to firewood, such as briquettes or gas-based fuels.

When firewood must be collected because alternatives do not exist or are not feasible, local environmental workers should ensure that it is done in the most sustainable way possible, by teaching sustainable harvesting techniques and introducing controls on the frequency or location of firewood collection. They should also develop and promote environmental protection and conservation activities, such as planting woodlots and undertaking reforestation programs in tandem with local governments and environmental authorities.

Taking these actions can play an important role in protecting women and children -- and the environment in which they live.