Mitigating the environmental impacts of explosive ordnance and land release

Analysis / Humanitarian Action / Law and Conflict / War, law and the environment 11 mins read

Mitigating the environmental impacts of explosive ordnance and land release

© Sean Sutton/MAG

Environmental considerations are rightly gaining increased prominence and awareness. Environmental experts agree that unprecedented changes in climate and biodiversity are taking place, threatening nature and human livelihoods around the world. The humanitarian community increasingly understands the need to identify and assess how their operations affect the natural environment and to mitigate the negative environmental impacts wherever possible. The mine action sector is no exception.

In this blog post, and as part of the ICRC series on war, law and the environment, Alex Frost from Mine Action Review outlines the environmental impacts of explosive ordnance contamination and the impacts of survey and clearance of that ordnance, elements of regulatory frameworks and treaty commitments, and key mitigation measures for the sector.

The mine action sector has begun to recognize that in order to follow the humanitarian principle of ‘do no harm’ it must take action to mitigate the potential environmental damage that can occur during land release operations. ‘Not our concern’ no longer cuts the mustard. While an affected community clearly benefits from the removal of explosive ordnance from nearby land, long-term harm may also be caused during clearance operations. Environmental impacts were first reported by the mine action sector more than thirty years ago, and in recent years the sector has begun to engage ever more meaningfully with the topic.

Mine Action Review recently launched its new policy brief on Mitigating the Environmental Impacts of Explosive Ordnance and Land Release, as a resource for national authorities and their implementing partners in affected countries as they seek to identify and minimize their environmental footprint. It offers the mine action sector straightforward guidance which, it is hoped, will promote discussion and stimulate further research, including more systematic follow-up once land is safely released in order to monitor environmental impacts.

The environmental impacts of explosive ordnance contamination

There is not only a humanitarian and legal imperative to clear explosive ordnance[1]; there is also an environmental imperative because of the negative impact munitions can have on the natural environment. When an item of explosive ordnance detonates, it can cause soil degradation as the blast generates a crater in the soil which displaces the fertile topsoil, making it more susceptible to erosion, and causing compaction of the subsoil. The impact on soil is greater in dry, loosely compacted, and exposed desert soils and less severe in humid soils that contain vegetation. Soil is a living ecosystem and a finite resource; depending on the ecosystem it can take 1,000 years to generate just 3 centimetres of topsoil.

Explosive ordnance contamination also interacts with the environment when it detonates or degrades and hazardous chemicals are released, which can result in contamination of the soil or groundwater. The detonation of explosive ordnance can not only kill or injure animals, including protected and endangered species, but also cause forest fires that can spread to other areas, making it more difficult for fire fighters to extinguish the blaze because of the contamination. Furthermore, explosive ordnance contamination can deny communities access to productive land, such as farmland, and displace those people into more marginal areas, contributing to biodiversity loss as they are forced to hunt wildlife or destroy local habitats for shelter or fuel.[2]

Environmental impacts of land release operations

In addition to the environmental impact of explosive ordnance itself, clearing ordnance inevitably also has an environmental impact, but employing efficient and effective land release methods minimizes this impact by ensuring that assets are only used on contaminated land. According to the International Mine Action Standard (IMAS) on Environmental Management in Mine Action (07.13), the greatest environmental concerns come from mechanical clearance and bulk demolition. The most common types of machinery used in demining are equipped with flails, tillers, or rollers. These disrupt soil structure, which can accelerate surface run-off and soil erosion; cause loss of organic matter and fertility; and damage cycles of water, organic carbon, and plant nutrients. While open burning or open detonation (OBOD) remains a generally used explosive ordnance disposal method, it releases explosive residues into the environment, some of which are regarded as hazardous waste. The contamination risk is highest in bulk demolition sites, where repeated ‘second order’ demolitions occur, and in areas of substantial precipitation with sandy porous or loam soils, a shallow groundwater table, and that are adjacent to marshes, swamps, or estuaries.[3]

The environmental impact of clearance programmes goes beyond the clearance itself to encompass the establishment of worksites and temporary accommodation to house deminers and other operational staff, as well as from the repair, maintenance, and servicing of mine action equipment; the generation of waste during operations; soil erosion and habitat degradation from vegetation removal and ground preparation; and the use of resources and carbon footprint of clearance operators, national mine action authorities, and other partner organizations within the mine action sector.

Potential impact of climate change on land release operations

Over the medium to long term, climate change has the potential to impact mine action significantly, both in how tasks are prioritized and how mine clearance is conducted. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, climate change will increase in all regions as global temperatures rise, bringing more intense rainfall and associated flooding, as well as more intense drought and extreme heat in many regions. Flooding and landslides, for example, have the potential to displace landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO), meaning that previously cleared areas become re-contaminated; that mapping and minefield marking are made redundant; and that, as people are evacuated from their homes, they could be relocated to places which have not yet been cleared. Spiralling temperatures may interrupt demining operations in certain countries as it becomes too dangerous for deminers to work outside due to intense heat. High temperatures may also have an adverse impact on munitions, as intense heat can weaken munitions’ structural integrity, cause the thermal expansion of explosive chemicals, and damage protective shields. Although the exact causes are not known it is thought that hot weather was at least partly the cause of explosions in six different munition sites across Iraq in 2018–19.

Environmental impact of post-clearance land use

Post-clearance land use should be actively considered when planning clearance activities, particularly in areas where contamination can be protective of certain aspects of the natural environment. In contaminated zones where the threat to life is not as profound, areas may be prioritized for clearance for reasons of national, provincial, or local socio-economic development. Land release may therefore act as an indirect driver of deforestation and land degradation by allowing access to previously inaccessible land for agricultural expansion and infrastructure construction. Clearance of vegetation and soil structure disruption may follow. If land release takes place in environmentally sensitive areas and in proximity to protected areas of biodiversity, it may encourage agricultural encroachment into these areas and adversely affect local biodiversity.[4] In such instances, there is the need to ensure that post-clearance land use is protective of the environment.

Norms and standards

Certain limited environmental obligations are included in the relevant conventional arms disarmament treaties.[5] The Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (APMBC) and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) both require that requests for extensions to the deadlines for the clearance of areas contaminated by anti-personnel mines and cluster munition remnants, respectively, contain information on the environmental implications of that extension. In addition, the CCM requires that States Parties comply with applicable international standards for protecting the environment when destroying cluster munitions stockpiles.

Both the APMBC and the CCM further require States Parties to furnish reports on transparency measures being taken, which shall include reference to the applicable safety and environmental standards to be observed.[6] In reality, when the environment is referenced in extension requests it is usually very brief and only refers to how landmine or cluster munition contamination denies access to productive land and natural resources to local communities. In a positive step forward, the Lausanne Action Plan, adopted at Part Two of the Second Review Conference of the CCM in September 2021, contains several actions that refer to the environment and are relevant to land release activities.

In addition, States are also guided by the objectives of the Paris Agreement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as other relevant international law and standards, including international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and international environmental law. There is a strong normative framework that means the environment and mine action can no longer be akin to two ships that pass in the night.

National authorities overseeing clearance activities therefore have various responsibilities to ensure that they are carried out in a safe, effective, and efficient manner, including by minimizing impact on the natural environment through compliance with relevant standards. IMAS 07.13 is the only international mine action standard dedicated to environmental management. It is a stipulated requirement within IMAS 07.13 that national mine action authorities (NMAAs) should have an environmental management system. In accordance with IMAS 07.13, each NMAA should: establish, review, and maintain an environmental policy; identify and assess environmental obligations, relevant to the national mine action programme, contained in applicable national and international legislation; and define and communicate environmental obligations in national mine action standards (NMAS) and national mine action strategy.

An environmental impact assessment (EIA) is a management tool for predicting environmental impacts at an early stage in project planning and design; finding ways and means to reduce adverse impacts; shaping projects to suit the local environment; and presenting the predictions and options to decision-makers. While the EIA is a widely recognized tool for mainstreaming the environment into development projects and is often mandated by law it can, in some cases, take two years or more to complete. In addition to the EIA a range of more rapid environmental assessment tools have been developed for the humanitarian sector and it is good practice for organizations to incorporate at least a basic environmental assessment as part of the planning process.

Environmental Mitigation Interventions

Environmental protection measures should be mainstreamed and considered at each stage of mine survey and clearance operations: in planning, implementation, and post-clearance. Measures to mitigate negative impacts can—and should—vary in scale and scope and will depend upon the local context and resources available. These can range, for example, from national mine action standards and legislation, to organization-wide initiatives to reduce their carbon footprint, to the introduction of new technologies which offer less invasive approaches to mine clearance, and to more local initiatives in improving waste management practices. For example, The HALO Trust is working to reduce its carbon footprint in Afghanistan by installing solar panels that reduce the energy drawn from fuel-powered generators. While in Lao PDR, Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) has committed to improving its waste management systems by reducing the amount of rubbish it produces through minimising single-use plastics and re-using items where possible.

As these examples illustrate, even small changes can make a positive difference to the protection of the natural environment, and environmental mitigation measures may demand only limited additional resources.

[1] IMAS 04.10, “Glossary of mine action terms, definitions and abbreviations”, p.19. Explosive Ordnance (EO) (2018) interpreted as encompassing mine action’s response to the following munitions: mines, cluster munitions, unexploded ordnance, abandoned ordnance, booby traps, other devices (as defined by CCW APII), Improvised Explosive Devices (Note: Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) meeting the definition of mines, booby-traps or other devices fall under the scope of mine action, when their clearance is undertaken for humanitarian purposes and in areas where active hostilities have ceased.

[2] GICHD, “’Do No Harm’ and Mine Action: Protecting the Environment While Removing the Remnants of Conflict”, Geneva, 2014; and Berhe, “The contribution of landmines to land degradation”.

[3] Evans and Duncan, “Disposal of Explosive Ordnance and Environmental Risk Mitigation”; T. Jenkins, C. Vogel. “Department of Defense Best Management Practices for Munitions Constituents on Operational Ranges”, SERDP 2014.

[4] Conflict and Environment Observatory, 2020, “Landmines and the environment – can we do better?”, at: https://bit.ly/3DuTWY6; and UNDP, “Environmental and Social Impact Assessment for Clearing for Results (CFR) Phase III Project”, November 2016.

[5] The rules of relevant disarmament treaties indirectly contribute to reducing the effect of these weapons on the environment, while not expressly referring to environmental protection. See ICRC Guidelines on the Protection of the Natural Environment in Armed Conflict, Rule 24 (landmines) and Rule 25 (Minimizing the impact of explosive remnants of war, including unexploded cluster munitions).

Article 3 of Protocol V of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) requires parties to take into account the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS), which address environmental management.

[6] Art. 7(1)(f), APMBC and Art. 7(1)(e), CCM.

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