War, Peace, and the Sustainable Development Goals: The Impact of War on the 17 SDGs

In a world striving for sustainable progress, the shadow of war looms large, undermining our collective efforts towards a better future. There’s no doubt about it: in war, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) face their greatest adversary.

War is not just a breakdown of peace; it’s a systemic collapse of the very foundations upon which we can build a sustainable world. From ravaging economies to destroying the environment, from shattering lives to dismantling social structures, the impact of warfare is both deep and far reaching.

As conflicts sadly continue to rage around the globe, I wanted to write a post that delves into the profound ways in which war impedes each of the 17 SDGs, unravelling the complex web of consequences that reach far beyond the battlefield.

Let’s look at each SDG in order, and explore the ways in which war not only halts progress, but actively reverses the strides made towards a more sustainable and equitable world.

SDG 1: No Poverty

War shatters economies, destroys essential infrastructure and pushes communities into deep poverty. The loss of jobs, homes, and access to basic services means many find themselves in dire economic straits – sometimes for decades after the conflict ends.

SDG 2: Zero Hunger

War disrupts agriculture and supply chains, leading to food and water shortages. Fields become battlefields, and distribution networks collapse, resulting in widespread hunger and famine.

SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being

Wars not only cause immediate deaths and casualties but also long-term health crises. Destroyed healthcare systems, along with the spread of diseases in bombarded towns and crowded refugee camps, significantly deteriorate public health.

SDG 4: Quality Education

Conflict zones often see schools destroyed or repurposed, robbing children of their right to education. Displacement and insecurity also contribute to children dropping out of school, significantly impacting future generations.

SDG 5: Gender Equality

War exacerbates gender inequalities. It’s a fact that women and girls in conflict zones face increased risks of violence, exploitation, and loss of access to essential services, setting back progress towards gender equality. As an aside, did you know that women and girls are also more affected by climate change than men and boys? (Another post for another time.)

SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

Wars damage water infrastructure and pollute water sources. This deprives communities of essential clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, essential for good health and well-being.

SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

Conflict often targets energy infrastructure, leading to energy scarcity. This undermines efforts towards sustainable and clean energy solutions, impacting the environment, people’s livelihoods, health and well-being, and long-term prosperity.

SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Economic development stalls – or stops altogether – in war-torn areas. Destruction of infrastructure and loss of workforce disrupt industries, leading to unemployment and stunted economic growth, often for decades.

SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure

Transportation infrastructure, communications networks, industrial infrastructure… War damages all types of physical infrastructure and disrupts technological progress. This setback impacts industries and hampers innovation, essential for sustainable development.

SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities

Conflicts widen the gap between the rich and the poor. Disadvantaged groups – like women and children, and ethnic minorities – suffer the most, with limited access to resources and opportunities, exacerbating social and economic inequalities.

SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Urban areas often bear the brunt of warfare, leading to the destruction of homes and communities. This devastates the urban landscape, making cities unliveable and unsustainable. Beyond the physical wreckage, the social fabric of these communities is also deeply affected, with the loss of communal spaces and networks eroding the sense of belonging, mutual support and community that underpins sustainable city life.

SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

War disrupts production and distribution systems, leading to wasteful consumption patterns and inefficient use of resources, hindering sustainable practices. In the midst of the chaos and survival challenges of a war-ravaged area, responsible consumption often becomes a secondary concern, as immediate needs take precedence.

SDG 13: Climate Action

Wars have nothing other than a detrimental impact on the environment, contributing to climate change. Military activity involves heavy carbon emissions and leads to environmental destruction. The U.S. military alone emits more CO2 than many industrialised nations – 59 million tonnes in 2017 alone.

SDG 14: Life Below Water

Naval warfare and coastal conflicts harm marine ecosystems. Pollution and destruction of habitats threaten marine life, impacting biodiversity and sustainable use of ocean resources. Furthermore, rivers polluted from the ravages of war flow into the sea, further contaminating marine environments and disrupting delicate aquatic ecosystems.

SDG 15: Life on Land

Wars lead to environmental degradation, such as deforestation and loss of biodiversity. This damages ecosystems and threatens wildlife, undermining efforts to preserve life on land. Animals are often directly killed in conflicts, either as deliberate targets or as collateral damage, further exacerbating the loss of wildlife and biodiversity.

SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

This is an obvious one. The very essence of war directly contradicts this goal. Conflict undermines law and order, destabilises institutions, and perpetuates cycles of violence and injustice, often with decades-long consequences.

SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals

And here we are at the final goal, SDG 17. War can severely hamper international cooperation and resource allocation. It diverts attention and funds away from sustainable development, impacting global partnerships essential for achieving these goals.

The corrosive impact of war on the Sustainable Development Goals is undeniable and far-reaching. War disrupts not just the fabric of societies but also derails the global effort towards a sustainable and equitable future.

As I was researching each goal and falling further and further down the rabbit hole, one thing became increasingly clear: peace is not merely one of the SDGs; it is the bedrock upon which all other goals must be built.

In championing the SDGs, I believe our strongest ally is peace, and that our greatest enemy is war… and complacency towards it.

Our collective commitment should be fundamentally anchored in the pursuit of peace as a foundation upon which all other goals are built. Only with peace can we ensure a world in which sustainable development is not just a goal, but a reality for all.