The Disposal Of Old Or Surplus Munitions

More weapons are destroyed than are ever used in conflict. While industrial demilitarisation is increasing, which can limit environmental emissions and allow materials to be recycled, this can be expensive and may not be practical in post-conflict settings. Open air burning and destruction (OBOD) is therefore still commonplace, even in peacetime, generating air, water and soil pollution.

Case study: Bjelasnica plateau, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Ammunition destruction crater, Bjelasnica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Credit: UNEP

Ammunition destruction crater, Bjelasnica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Credit: UNEP

The UN Environment Programme conducted an assessment of a site that had been used for the open air destruction of 220 tonnes of mixed munitions from the Balkans War. The site was assessed after civilians living nearby complained of illness and poor drinking water quality, which had forced the activities to stop before destruction was completed. Although the presence of explosive materials was not examined, high levels of metals, including zinc, copper and lead were recorded in drinking water sources and vegetation. Blasting had taken place on limestone, which had allowed the contaminated water to migrate.

Key issues
  • Because of its potential for environmental contamination, OBOD should be seen as the last resort. There needs to be a better balance between explosive risks and environmental harm.
  • Where unavoidable, OBOD should be undertaken with a full environmental risk assessment to ensure that the location and munitions involved will not place communities at risk of unnecessary exposure.
  • Best practice should be followed to ensure the complete detonation of energetic materials to limit their dispersal into the environment.
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