During the early days of the Russia-Ukraine war, the invading force was approaching the Irpin River and the gates of the Ukrainian capital. But the river waters suddenly rose, forcing the Russians to turn back and leaving a trail of abandoned tanks and military hardware. Kyiv breathed again and a wetland ecosystem was reflooded for the first time in more than 70 years.
Miraculous as it might have seemed, it wasn’t the hand of God that helped save Ukraine. “That’s warWilding,” says Jasper Humphreys, director of programmes for the Marjan Study Group in the department of war studies at King’s College London, which researches conflict and the environment.
“I woke up in the middle of the night, a few days after reading the ‘hero river’ story in the Guardian about how the Ukrainian army reflooded the dying Irpin River and its former wetlands to save the Ukrainian capital,” says the academic, of how he came up with the word. “And I just sat up in bed and whispered to myself, ‘It’s warWilding’.”
Humphreys coined the term to describe “the creation or even sometimes the destruction of habitat as a result of the tactical manipulation of nature”. Or, to put it more simply, “using nature in warfare”. The second W is capitalised to emphasise the importance of wilding, he says.
“The Ukrainian army’s tactical nous was to use nature to stop war, and the result was positive because the Russian advance was halted with the wilding of more land and water in the process, so it’s a classic warWilding event of historic proportions.”
While warWilding is a neologism, the strategic and tactical harnessing of nature is as old as war itself, says Humphreys, adding that the results may not always be positive. “Unfortunately, warWilding has a dark side. Saddam Hussein’s manipulation of nature for tactical reasons, for example, saw the draining of the marshes in central Iraq and the [ethnic] cleansing of the Ma’dan, or Marsh Arabs.”
He adds: “WarWildings are unpredictable beasts by nature, but if the strategic motives are creative and not destructive then warWildings harbour great opportunities for saving large tracts of wilderness while creating buffer zones in conflict areas and seeding long-term peace.”
The Ukrainian army’s flooding of the Irpin River has created the ideal conditions for a successful warWilding legacy, says Humphreys.
“The Irpin River flooding was a tactical warWilding of momentous proportions, in that it helped save the Ukrainian state, but in postwar Ukraine it could also become a unique biodiversity hotspot with the revival of a once-mighty river and tens of thousands of hectares of long-lost wetlands.”
Humphreys cites Gorongosa Park in Mozambique as an example of successful warWilding. “Ninety per cent of [the park’s] wildlife was decimated because of the civil war but thanks to coordinated efforts and investments at multiple levels, decimated populations of elephants and lions have bounced back, and the principle of using nature to prevent conflict was recognised with the Gorongosa being established as a ‘park for peace’.
“Similarly, a restored Irpin riverine ecosystem would be a monument to one of the most legendary warWildings in history, a biodiversity hotspot with safaris for tourists, and a wilderness barrier protecting Kyiv from invaders for hundreds of years,” says Humphreys.
US conservation biologist Thor Hanson, an expert on how wars affect the environment, says using warWilding as a new term sounds “catchy”.
“It’s not my term to define, nonetheless it could be useful in explaining certain environmental consequences of warfare,” says Hanson, co-author of the 2008 paper Warfare Ecology.
“There are also significant ‘wilding’ trends that can occur during the preparations of warfare, particularly on the large areas of land set aside for training troops and testing armaments. These are not necessarily intentional impacts; they have to do with the suspension of most human activities over large swathes of land,” Hanson says.
“It is less clear to me whether the term warWilding would be useful in such situations, which can occur very far removed from the context of the wars themselves. From the warfare ecology perspective, I see that term as relevant for the rewilding of habitat that can occur as a consequence of war. That could be tactical, such as the deliberate flooding of the Irpin River, but more often it is inadvertent, a product of dramatic changes in human behaviour and land use brought about by conflict. Regeneration of abandoned farmland, for example, or interruptions to extractive activities like commercial fishing, forestry or hunting.”
Referring to the Irpin River, Hanson suggests at least some of the reflooded areas of former wetland be preserved to promote “environmental peacebuilding” in postwar Ukraine. “Disputed border areas often become buffer zones that can help reduce conflict by lowering contact between aggressors,” he says.
“Reduced human activity in such areas can lead to recovery of habitat and associated wildlife. The classic modern example of this is the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, but there are many other instances throughout history… Including environmental considerations in peacebuilding efforts can provide both sides of a conflict with tangible benefits (water quality, wildlife reservoirs, flood control) while also reducing tensions by removing conflict over contested ground.
“I do not know all of the specifics of the Irpin situation, but it is conceivable that leaving at least some of that flooded land as permanent wetlands could achieve these goals. Strategically, permanent, impassable wetlands can also alter potential avenues for future attacks, an example of where military and environmental planning considerations overlap.”
Although the two academics may not yet completely agree on the full definition of warWilding, both say that because of the climate emergency, the continuing plunder of natural resources and rapid destruction of vital ecosystems, warWilding is likely to become more frequent.
“There is a strong historical pattern of increased conflict during periods of climate stress, so we do expect to see increasing tensions as the climate crisis unfolds. That will certainly create the context for warWilding events, tactical and incidental,” Hanson says.
“Policymakers, scientists and conservationists should be alert for opportunities where wilding can promote peace and security, through the creation of trans-border peace parks and buffer zones, as well as the long-term social and political stability associated with a healthy environment.”
Humphreys, who has commissioned the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group to conduct a study of the area’s ecological condition, suggests the Irpin River should, like Gorongosa, become a park for peace.
“Sometimes, rewilding isn’t enough on its own, but warWilding can create the perfect conditions for it on a large scale, and we need to seize these opportunities during war and in post-conflict phases,” he says.
“I see a future in which the Irpin is teeming with wildlife once again, with water buffaloes wallowing in impregnable marshlands, lynx stalking deep in the thick undergrowth and white-tail eagles soaring above it all.”