War and ecology: why does nature fall victim to armed conflict?
Ever since the Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk regions were seized by russian subversive groups, the environmental situation in Ukraine has been deteriorating. It has become critical since the start of the full-scale invasion, as military operations have begun throughout Ukraine. Constant shelling and bombardment cause critical damage to the environment, including explosions, fires, destruction of industrial facilities, air, water and land pollution.
Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the russian military has launched more than 5,000 missile and about 3,500 air strikes against targets in Ukraine. More than 180,000 square kilometres of Ukrainian land affected by the russian occupiers need to be surveyed for mines and explosives. It should be noted that these lands could provide food for approximately 81 million people.
Diesel and fuel generators
Not so long ago, emergency and rolling blackouts were introduced in Ukraine, and massive rocket attacks led to blackouts. At that time, businesses and Ukrainians were forced to use alternative sources of electricity – diesel or petrol generators. In 2022, almost 670 thousand generators were imported to Ukraine.
The internal combustion engines used in generators pollute the environment with harmful substances (carbon monoxide, carbon monoxide, soot, nitrogen oxides and fine dust) that affect human health. Among the vulnerable categories are people suffering from acute respiratory diseases, people with asthma or heart disease. Fine dust can also penetrate the bloodstream, blood vessels, and lungs and can have a negative impact on the brain and nervous system, and contribute to the development of chronic diseases.
Attacks on industrial facilities
Ukraine is an agro-industrial country, so the destruction of industrial facilities has critical consequences. The shelling of the Sumykhimprom plant a month after the start of the full-scale invasion damaged an ammonia tank. Rescuers quickly eliminated the accident, but a gas leak still occurred. It is almost impossible to assess the extent of the impact of the destruction of industrial facilities, as most of them are located in the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine, which is the most destroyed because it is under the most intense shelling.
Detonation of ammunition
The detonation of rockets, artillery shells and mines produces a number of chemical compounds, including carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, water vapour, nitrogen oxide, nitrogen, etc. It also evaporates a number of toxic elements, such as sulphur and nitrogen oxide, which, when oxidised, can lead to acid rain. This can cause burns to plants, mucous membranes of the respiratory system of humans, birds, etc.
As of November 2022, more than 3 million hectares of forests were affected by the hostilities, accounting for almost a third of Ukraine’s forest fund. Last year, a fire in the Kherson National Park alone burned down about 80% of the island part of the territory, and fires in the Chornobyl forests could not be extinguished for several days due to the occupation of the territory. It takes about 10 years to restore forests, but some of them are lost forever. It is worth noting that many bird migration routes pass through Ukraine, and many animals from the Red Data Book live in protected areas, so they may die because of the fires.
Flooding of mines in Donbas
Ukraine’s coal region has been partially occupied since 2014. As a result of shelling, power grids are often destroyed, and pumps are shut down. When a mine closes or collapses, it is necessary to pump water out of the underground horizons. If this is not done, they will be flooded with groundwater. The danger is that the water in the mine may be contaminated with heavy metals. If contaminated groundwater gets into the surrounding soil, these areas become unsuitable for agriculture.
Pollution by agrochemicals
Water resources are also polluted by chemicals, including agrochemicals. In April last year, fragments of a downed russian missile damaged six tanks at a mineral fertiliser warehouse in Ternopil region. The hit caused a leak that contaminated the soil and the Ikva River, which is part of the Dnipro basin. A large number of fish died as a result of the substance entering the water body.
Shelling of dams
The destruction of dams and river overflows leads to the degradation of large areas and contamination of soil and water. The day after the start of the full-scale invasion, russian troops destroyed the dam separating the Irpin River from the Kyiv Reservoir. Within a month and a half, water from the reservoir flooded the Irpin floodplain for 10 kilometres.
The Siverskyi Donets River, which serves as a source of water for almost the entire Donbas, was in critical condition in 2018. In 2022, direct hits destroyed two water pipelines and the Siverskyi Donets-Donbas canal, and the Donetsk Filtering Station had to be shut down several times due to power outages. Due to the rupture of the pipelines, untreated sewage is flowing into the Siverskyi Donets.
Destroyed military equipment
Lubricants and fuel spills from damaged and destroyed military equipment get into the water, disrupting the chemical balance of the water. Metal impurities critically contaminate groundwater. The fuel remaining in the damaged military equipment leads to combustion, air pollution and, potentially, soil and water pollution. Equipment entering water resources is also dangerous, as metal oxidation leads to water pollution and fuel residues are carried away by the current.
According to the UN, more than 180,000 square metres of territory in Ukraine are mined. This area is almost a third of our country. It is estimated that more than 10 million Ukrainians are in danger. As of today, 350,000 explosive devices have been defused, but the scale of the tragedy is shocking. It may take decades to clear such an area of mines.
The explosion of any munition means the release of toxic compounds into the soil (carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, water vapour, cyanide vapour, nitrogen and other toxic organics). Chemicals can also penetrate the soil with precipitation. Ammunition fragments also pose a danger – toxic substances enter the soil, then groundwater, and then the food chain of animals and humans.
Burying the dead
Due to the mass graves of the dead killed by the russian occupiers, the areas of fierce fighting are turning into huge cemeteries. It is clear that it is strictly forbidden to grow crops on such land in the near future.
Movement of land-based military equipment
The movement of heavy military equipment leads to critical changes in the landscape. It also contaminates the soil with fuel and lubricants and other oil products. This reduces soil permeability, displaces oxygen, disrupts root nutrition of plants, and inhibits their growth and development. A slightly lesser source of pollution is burnt military equipment and other remnants of hostilities.
Scorched black soil
The formation of black soil in nature takes about 10,000 years. It can be destroyed in a moment when a rocket explodes. Most of the hostilities in our country take place in the areas where this unique and very fertile soil layer is found. The sulphur that settles in the soil after an explosion reacts with dew or fog to form sulphuric acid, which burns away vegetation, bacteria and worms – everything that forms the soil.
Who monitors environmental damage?
After the start of russia’s full-scale invasion, the State Environmental Inspectorate set up an operational headquarters to record all environmental damage. The institution was created to record and compile a list of environmental violations and calculate damages to bring russia to justice. Civil society organisations also monitor environmental damage caused by military operations, such as the Centre for Environmental Initiatives “Ecodiya”.
The global environmental community is no less concerned about the events in Ukraine, as a war of this magnitude is not a problem for just one country. Therefore, the issue of its environmental impact is regularly covered by the international media, and global experts conduct their own research and look for ways to minimise the impact of the war on the environment.
Given the damage that the hostilities are causing not only to Ukraine’s infrastructure and population, it can be argued that russia is committing ecocide on our territory. It is hard to imagine how long it will take to clean up and restore our land, water and air. However, it is already clear that the consequences of this war will be felt by every Ukrainian for a very long time. The environment and its impact on the health of every Ukrainian is one of the challenges of post-war recovery in Ukraine that requires joint efforts to overcome.
The material was prepared with the support of the International Renaissance Foundation within the framework of the project “Rapid Analytics for Transparent and Accountable Reconstruction”. The material reflects the position of the authors and does not necessarily coincide with the position of the International Renaissance Foundation.