Abandoned Military Materiel

While the risks from abandoned explosive ordnance receive the majority of international attention they are just one of a wide range of potentially hazardous materials and substances discarded or abandoned by militaries during and after conflict. These can range from toxic industrial chemicals to damaged or scrapped military vehicles, to fuels, solvents, radioactive materials and insecticides. These materials may create health or environmental risks if improperly managed and disposed of. States recovering from conflict may lack the expertise and capacity to manage these complex tasks alone.


Case study: Abandoned SCUD missile storage facility Astana, Afghanistan
A UNEP investigator assesses dozens of storage vessels for the toxic, carcinogenic and explosive missile fuel dimethylhydrazine  that were abandoned by Soviet forces at the Astana site. Credit: UNEP.

A UNEP investigator assesses dozens of storage vessels for the toxic, carcinogenic and explosive missile fuel dimethylhydrazine that were abandoned by Soviet forces at the Astana site. Credit: UNEP.

In 2005, the UN Environment Programme assessed a former Soviet missile and warhead storage facility in Astana, Afghanistan after fears that the hazardous military substances abandoned there posed a risk to the environment and the local community.

They found that 500 litre SCUD missile fuel containers had been abandoned in shallow trenches. The fuel tanks contained dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) – a carcinogen, and had been abandoned together with dozens of barrels of fuming nitric acid. Leaking tanks had led to significant soil contamination and during periods of high rainfall the pollutants were spreading to the nearby river. Missile warheads were also present and had caused localised contamination from explosives and their degradation products. 

Local residents, who were reliant on the river for drinking water, had complained of ill health and there was considerable fear about the risks from the unmanaged site.

The site had also been an operating base for military helicopters and was scattered with spare parts. Radium, which has historically been used on fluorescent dials was also found at the site.

Key issues
  • Abandoned military materiel and properties can create pollution risks that threaten the environment and communities. By their definition these sites are typified by a lack of accountability and oversight.
  • Dealing with large volumes of hazardous chemicals or scrap poses technical, logistical and financial challenges that states recovering from conflict may be poorly placed to tackle.
  • Transparency and security issues can constrain efforts to locate, assess and manage sites containing hazardous abandoned materiel.
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