Is it becoming harder to rebuild war-torn countries?

Global problems are making wars more devastating, shifting responsibility for making nations whole again

International aid for post-war reconstruction is a hot topic in policy circles. Getty / The National
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In the aftermath of any war, an invaded or besieged nation is forced to begin the arduous task of reimagining and rebuilding the wreckage they are left with. This process will undoubtedly create philosophical questions that beg an answer before any foundations can be laid for regrowth, as a nation asks whether to recreate that which existed before, or to reimagine the spaces left by bombardment. How will Syria rebuild, or Yemen, Afghanistan and Ukraine? Will the process itself be philosophical, or will the immediate physical requirements take priority, leaving reminders of conflict across the landscape?

Discussions are already being had on how Ukraine will navigate this process when the ongoing Russian invasion finally reaches its conclusion. The resurrection of Ukraine is often discussed within the wider climate change debate, with reports usually focused around three themes: long-term environmental damage caused by war, the cost and workforce required to rebuild after war, and the ways that rebuilding can curate a lasting public memory of a war.

Any attempt to rebuild must be handled with delicacy, and tested against public opinion; does the rebuilding effort pay tribute to the previous landscape and make acknowledgement of recent conflict, or should it be designed in a way that prioritises the imminent needs of the populace, at the expense of local identity and historic landmarks? Is restoration of the lived environment to its pre-war state truly possible, either physically or psychologically, while the memory of war remains raw for the public?

The most likely factor to inhibit the rebuilding process is financial, with the expense of war draining national coffers and leaving black holes in local budgets. This will impact a nation’s ability to be resilient to the long-term effects of the environmental damage that will have been impacted due to the nature of urban warfare. While constant bombardment from shelling and artillery can transform the immediate appearance of a landscape, the environmental impact can be felt much more broadly.

Discussions are already being had over how Ukraine will be able to afford to rebuild. AP
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The resurrection of Ukraine is often discussed within the wider climate change debate

The presence of tanks, weapons and unusual concentrations of human activity (for instance, groups of soldiers) causes the pollution of air, earth and water. From exhaust emissions into the environment, to the seeping of chemicals from missiles into the ground and water, or simple human waste, these chemical changes inflicted upon nature can have devastating consequences, not only for humans but for ecological life at all levels. This can leave humans and animals without access to clean water, particularly where water infrastructure has been destroyed. Reduced soil quality can limit or eliminate the ability to grow food, while also causing potentially irreversible loss of biodiversity and wildlife, particularly in cases of chemical warfare where defoliants have been used. These chemicals strip the earth, as was seen with dioxin during the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Where there is no clear breach of the international laws of armed conflict, the contaminated nation typically bears the financial burden of decontaminating their land to make it safe enough to live in. But not all nations have the financial ability or desire to prioritise this type of specialist work. In parts of Afghanistan formally occupied by US forces, burning pits used to destroy waste have caused dangerous levels of air pollution for the local population, causing respiratory problems amongst other health conditions. The government has not yet cleared the remaining detritus of many of these pits, despite the known impact on public health and air quality.

Aside from the environmental impact of conflict, the physical destruction or mining of towns, cities and landscapes, particularly ancient heritage sites, can be truly devastating to a nation’s sense of historical identity, as we saw in Syria in 2017 when ISIS militants destroyed the ancient Roman trading city of Palmyra as a supposed attempt to recapitulate the early history of Islam in the area. The opposite can also be true; war can remove layers of history and memory from a place, but it can also add them.

In countries that bore witness to the battles of the Second World War, such as France, Poland and Japan, it isn’t difficult to find buildings peppered by bullet marks. In some places, historic buildings such as cloth halls or religious buildings have been reconstructed to look identical to their pre-war appearance – the Ypres Cloth Hall in Belgium is one such example. Though locals and tourists are often aware that these buildings no longer exist in their original form, they remain a vital part of the history, tourism and local pride in the area.

Another example of the impact the living memory of war was after the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), where attempts by Lebanon to rebuild Beirut were heavily criticised. Though the dramatic architectural transformation attracted foreign investment, which assisted with wider economic recovery, the public mourned the loss of layers of history from the ancient to the present, creating what the Lebanese-Palestinian journalist Samir Kassir once referred to as a “city without memory”.

The scars of war can help communities to engage with a rebuilt community. Communities will always find ways to commemorate those they have lost. From dedicated buildings to beautiful cemeteries, to statues and community memorial signs, humans continue to find ways to collectively remember the individual losses of lives given to protect their way of living. But while the history of a built environment can help to reinforce a strong sense of heritage within an area, it can also be used to manipulate public understanding of a war, and so the construction and physical manifestation of collective narrative remains a vital part of any reconstruction process. The destruction of environment will increasingly feature in future narratives of war.

With discussions of war being more prevalent in the public eye now, more than ever, our understanding of the impact of war is constantly evolving and improving. When the Russian invasion of Ukraine finally reaches a conclusion, we may see a stronger international public call for financial compensation for damage to the environment during war for the first time in history. Which legacies of war are we willing to accept?

Published: December 02, 2022, 2:00 PM