Opinion: The Ukraine Invasion is Causing an Environmental Crisis

(Drone footage of a residential building being destroyed by Russian shelling, releasing dangerous air pollution, Photograph: Insider. )

The Russian invasion on Ukraine is causing ground, air, and water pollution that is incredibly detrimental to our environment and will leave the Ukrainians suffering long after the conflict concludes.

On Friday, the 4th of March, over 1,000 organisations released an open letter showing their solidarity with Ukraine and expressing their concern over the conflict’s severe environmental implications and human toll. 

Clearly, there is cause for concern, but exactly how much has the war heightened the potential of a serious ecological disaster?

Consequences of the Current Conflict

The Conflict and Environment Observatory unveiled a worrying pattern of environmental harm only 48 hours into the Ukraine invasion.  Within the first two days of conflict, Russia targeted several ammunition storage facilities that are near civilian areas, resulting in several fires releasing dangerous air pollution. These sites will also be subjected to soil and water contamination, putting the Ukrainian people at severe risk of carcinogenic diseases. 

One of the military sites that were most affected is Krasnopilla in the Sumy Region, with disturbing footage being posted on Twitter, which shows the site being targeted by Russia, and releasing dangerous pollution: 

(Credit: Military.Net)

Due to the nature of contemporary warfare, the air pollution caused will be highly detrimental. Explosions flinging materials into the air like missiles and shelling, as well as tank rounds are decimating much of the built environment, and in turn, contributing to the severe air pollution in Ukraine. Moreover, pollution monitoring systems are largely offline, or not being checked at all. 

Ukraine’s territory is being subjected to an ‘ecocide’, which is defined as unlawful acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of critical damage to the environment being caused by said acts. Russia’s occupation of Nuclear Power Plants and shelling of Kharkiv Technical institution, where nuclear parts are stored, are examples of said ecocide crimes.

History of Polluted Air

Unfortunately, Ukraine prior to this conflict was already a country subjected to incredibly polluted air. Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University School of Medicine, has said that:

“They were already one of the worst air quality areas in Europe prior to this.”

The Environmental Performance Index highlights this, with Ukraine having an overall EPI score of 49.5 (0 being the worst and 100 being the best). The report reveals that Ukraine ranks low on environmental indicators, such as air quality, water sanitation, as well as ecosystem vitality.

(Chart: Aidan Maxwell – Source: Environmental Performance Index- Created with: Datawrapper)

The region in Ukraine most associated with the country’s pollution is Donbas, due to its reliance on coal mining, and multiple chemical manufacturing facilities. A UNEP report paints a worrying picture, stating that 80 percent of Ukraine’s rural land is controlled by agricultural enterprises that are endangering the already 50 threatened mammal species. The conflict is creating further problems, having affected or destroyed ecosystems within an area of at least 530,000 acres.

Dr. Leila Urekenova, an Environment Programme Analyst for the UN, has shared concerns for the current state of Donbas, stating that:

“Donbas is on the precipice of an ecological catastrophe fuelled by air, soil and water pollution from the combustion of large amounts of ammunition in the fighting and flooding at industrial plants.”

It is clear that fears of environmental catastrophe are nothing new to Ukraine, with years of war having already polluted the country’s water supply, and the resulting conflict will only exacerbate this issue.

What is Being Done?

In regards to domestic accountability, Ukraine is a country that has criminalised ecocide, defining it as:

 “Mass destruction of flora and fauna, poisoning of water resources, and other actions that may cause an environmental disaster.”

This is found in Article 441 of the Ukrainian criminal code. Therefore, when domestic precautions eventually become possible after the conflict, the Article could be used to prosecute the Russian military for their contribution to the environmental crisis. 

In terms of International accountability, The International Criminal Court’s office has recently announced an open investigation into the crimes committed against Ukraine and has stated that:

“There is a reasonable basis to believe that both alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed.”

This provides some optimism if peace does return to Ukraine, as there will be measures to hold accountability and reparations for the damage done. However, Ukraine has already sustained drastic environmental implications at the hands of the conflict, and as it prolongs, it will get harder and harder to reverse its effects.

During this humanitarian crisis against Ukraine, it is important that we all do our part to help. Remember to use the hashtag #StandWithUkraine, and if you can, donate to the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal, in order to help provide food, water, and shelter for refugees.

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