Drones — Dangerous for Humans and the Environment

This is a post by ESS interns Enrique Gutierrez and Kat Deng

Drone Strikes are a popular tool of countries, particularly the United States, seeking to neutralize suspected terrorists.  Even though the American public is divided on the issue and the Pakistani public, where U.S. drones have been used the most, is sternly against the use of drones, they remain the weapon of choice for our military.  Starting with the Bush Administration in the early 2000s, the U.S. government has attacked hundreds of targets in northwestern Pakistan alone.  Regardless of the moral or ethical questions, drone strikes and related munitions are having negative environmental and public health consequences.

Environmental Implications

In addition to destabilizing regional economic and political costs of drone strikes, the environmental costs are problematic in and of themselves.  The damage done by drone strikes is quite similar to the destructive outcome from manned aerial missile strikes.  During the 1991 aerial campaign in Iraq during the first Gulf War, the U.S. used approximately 340 tons of missiles containing depleted uranium (DU). [1]  The residue left from these attacks, along with benzene and trichloroethylene from air base operations, contaminated local Iraqi water and soil resources. Perchlorate, a toxic ingredient in rocket propellant, is one of a number of contaminants commonly found in groundwater around munitions storage sites across the world. [1] With the similar chemical components in both manned aerial and drone missiles, the frequent use of these munitions has greatly harmed the ecosystem.  An example of the negative impact left by residual chemicals in the atmosphere after strikes is on migratory birds: according to a report by the Earth Island Journal, the number of birds now flying over Iraq has dropped by 85 percent since the 1991 campaign. [2]

Public Health: Skin Conditions and Cancer

In addition to the agricultural harm from drone strikes, physicians have concluded that drone strikes and munitions also harm public health due to their chemical contents. In Waziristan, a mountainous northwest region of Pakistan where the U.S. has focused its drone strikes, the Global Research Press TV team noted various health impacts.  According to their report, many people developed skin and respiratory diseases after drone strikes. [3] An expert on the region, Safiullah Gul, believes he lost his own daughter to hazardous effects of drone strikes.  The 28-month old first developed a skin disease and a month later developed blood cancer.  Journalists, physicians, or other area experts agree that the pattern of skin and respiratory diseases seems to appear after the launch of a drone strike.  While the health impact of war-related environmental exposure remains contested, a 2010 study reports that cancer rates in Fallujah 2005-2009 were significantly higher compared to those in Egypt or Jordan where there are no drone strikes.  The infant mortality rate is 80 deaths per 1,000 live births, much higher than 20 in Egypt, 17 in Jordan, and 10 in Kuwait, although these health statistics are also no doubt related to poor public health care and poverty in Pakistan.

Pipeline Attacks and Oil Spills

Drone strikes also impose additional indirect environmental costs from the retaliatory terrorist attacks on oil pipelines.  In Shabwa, Yemen, Islamic terror groups did exactly that in response to U.S. drone strikes.  The destruction of oil pipelines is an environmental/health problem in and of itself; this was clearly shown in the first Gulf War in Kuwait and Iraq when burning oil wells accounted for much of the environmental impact.  On a broader scale, if the spilled oil comes into contact with agriculture or water, they could become contaminated, leading to more negative public health effects through the water and food supplies.

Other than the direct negative environmental impacts of oil spills, there are also economically-based environmental impacts to consider.  The Yemen Times reported that President Al-Hadi claimed that attacks on oil pipelines cost Yemen $15 million a day, which would amount to approximately $5.5 billion a year. [4]  The article states: “Government reports indicate that Yemen has lost approximately $2.5 billion after various pipelines and the Marib Gas Station were attacked.”  When human economic security is threatened, people are less prone to consider the environmental implications of the changes they make to survive.

A report from the UCI Darwin Center for Biology states Yemen’s environmental situation very succinctly: “There is a serious shortage of water in Yemen: there are very limited natural fresh water resources and inadequate supplies of potable water. [5] Other environmental issues in Yemen include overgrazing, soil erosion, and desertification.  The biodiversity of Yemen is being drastically reduced due to unchecked cutting of trees and forests for firewood, major declines in water tables, and massive erosion of the highland terrace ecosystems. Infrastructure development, especially rural roads and coastal construction, is also degrading the environment.”  All of these problems have the potential to be intensified by the poverty and economic stagnation of attacks on the oil industry in Yemen.  If drone strikes continue to occur and terrorist retaliatory strikes on pipelines follow suit, these problems will become worse.  People who lose their jobs due to these attacks will be more likely to overgraze, overhunt, overfish, etc. in order to survive.  They are more likely to cut trees down and to use water sources more intensely.

The government inadequacy in helping people during this crisis due to either indifference or inability due to decreased government revenue, can further exacerbate Yemeni indifference to environmental protection.  This can range from more intensive use of local bodies of water and contamination to outright overgrazing, overhunting, and water depletion.  These relatively small, negative environmental impacts can lead to deforestation or desertification, depending on the locale.  These overarching negative environmental impacts can leave Yemen much less resource-rich, which further entrenches the negative feedback loop of poverty and environmental degradation.

While drones and Hellfire missiles are the weapons of choice for striking terrorists who hide in inaccessible, mountainous regions, we must also consider their broader health, environmental, and socio-economic impacts.  Not only are drone attacks costly in terms of how many innocent civilians are killed and how much property is destroyed in collateral damage, but also   in their broader environmental impact.  Drone strikes have demonstrable effects on local public health ranging from skin conditions to blood cancer, and send off clouds of pollution into the atmosphere.  The cost and benefits should not only be assessed in terms of human and capital loss but also in terms of the long-term impacts on the environment.