War’s Silent Victim: The Environment

War’s Silent Victim: The Environment

Efforts to address the environmental impacts of armed conflict have long been confined to academic and technical debates. New technologies can change that.


February 24 marked two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The devastating impact is painfully clear: hundreds of thousands killed and wounded, millions displaced, hospitals and schools catastrophically damaged, and rippling food and energy crises across the world. Yet, the Russia-Ukraine war has seen one of the largest efforts to communicate the massive environmental impacts of armed conflict.

A unique blend of factors brought the environmental toll of armed conflict to the forefront, including efforts to add ecocide, i.e., mass destruction of the natural environment, to the list of prosecuted war crimes in Ukraine, as well as a diplomatic push in the United Nations Security Council and climate change summits to convey the connections between the war and the climate crisis. The pivotal element of this shift has been the use of cutting-edge technologies to monitor the environmental fallout in conflict zones. These technologies can impact sustainable peace in Ukraine and beyond if appropriately used.


Since the invasion, the United Nations Environment Programme has been working with the Ukrainian government, using open-source investigative techniques, satellite imagery, geographic information systems, and remote sensing to monitor the environmental impacts of the conflict. This allowed them to accurately capture the “toxic legacy” of the war and conduct rapid ecological assessments, similar to the Kakhovka Dam Breach in the summer of 2023. Their findings are horrific and prove a once-hidden aspect of war: unprecedented poisoning of air, water, and land, forest fires, and acts of deforestation that threaten human health and livelihood, creating millions of CO2 emissions through the mobilization of soldiers, munitions, and refugees. According to Ukraine’s environmental inspections, this has cost the country more than $56 billion in environmental damage.

New technologies for monitoring the environment in conflict zones are rapidly transforming how experts gather up-to-date data. Breakthroughs in earth observation technologies have improved temporal and spatial resolution data, with small drones better equipped to capture live visuals. The International Review of the Red Cross published an article late last year noting how the latest developments have “spurred a revolution” in investigative efforts connecting armed conflict with environmental damage. These user-friendly developments have also allowed non-technical users to partake in the revolution, inspiring a growing community of open-source investigative experts, including those living in conflict zones who use their smartphones to shed light on the destruction of nature around them.

These developments help provide vast amounts of current data on conflict-affected zones. If you combine them with machine learning and artificial intelligence applications for data processing, the detailed insights you can gain are unprecedented.

This generated data is important as it creates new possibilities for peace, helping conflict practitioners design prevention and mediation efforts that are more climate-sensitive. The European Union and the United Nations are implementing integrated environmental peacebuilding approaches to maximize social trust and resilience to conflict. Collaborating on a joint novel project, they are building on-earth observation methods using remote sensing technologies to incorporate an understanding of the socio-economic aspects of local communities and their surrounding environmental systems in their climate-conflict analyses.

Just as new tech can facilitate processes that inform new possibilities for peace, they also pose serious risks capable of undermining these processes. Misusing the collected data and digital technology may fuel misinformation campaigns and an application as a weapon in hybrid warfare. Actors, including humanitarian organizations, may cause harm to conflict-affected populations in their efforts to gather data through unintended side effects of data protection and privacy violations or the mishandling of sensitive information.

These technological developments, inspired by the increased attention to the environmental cost of Russia’s invasion, have benefitted from millions of dollars of funding for establishing coordination mechanisms to collect and analyze data in Ukraine. If used in a risk-sensitive manner, they may serve as a blueprint to understand nature as the “silent victim” of conflicts around the world. The end goal? A precise and detailed account of the environmental toll of conflict, building a compelling case for accountability against ecological crimes. Once voiceless, nature can now speak through the language of technology.

Alejandro Martín Rodríguez is a Belfer Young Leader at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He has worked on environmental governance at the United Nations Environment Programme and was a Kenneth I. Juster Fellow at the UN Executive Office of the Secretary-General.

Image: Shutterstock.com.