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The other war

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has inflicted collateral damage beyond the enormous human cost and destroyed cities. This is a major environmental catastrophe that is wreaking havoc in the region and could have major repercussions across Europe.

22 June 2022

The shrapnel from the war is reaching into domains that previously seemed impervious in any recently fought war. Perhaps because it can be followed almost instantaneously via social media or because the world has embraced a far more real commitment to the environment, the concerns expressed by different organizations about what might happen to water, forests, seas, plantations, and fauna, to name only a few of the ecosystems being impacted by military actions, is growing and very visible.

Doug Wier, the director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), warns that, “The environment is the silent victim of a war,” in eldiario.es. Weir adds that “Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction programs, if undertaken, will also involve significant emissions of gases harmful to the atmosphere,” according to the Cinco Días supplement of El País newspaper.

The environmental issue. To understand why the environment is of such concern one must take into account that tanks or fighter planes are between 65 and 75 times more polluting than cars, according to figures provided by the CEOBS. “Weir, who has been studying the effects of armed conflicts on the environment since 2005, is concerned about two things in Ukraine: its nuclear power plants and the fact that the population lives next to industrial sites that are being bombarded with heavy weapons,” reports eldiario.es.

A natural jewel. The war has brought to light this region’s environmental benefits to the world. “The wetlands, forests and marshes of southern Ukraine are a genuine natural refuge. Thousands of species make their home at the precious mouth of the Dnieper River, a protected area that had benefitted from very limited human presence. Now, however, the area is in the middle of the Russian offensive, and the missiles and bombardments have left their indelible mark,” according to a recent RTVE.es report. Restoring a damaged natural environment is not like rebuilding a house. We are talking about at least 20 years to return to the pre-war situation,” explains Yevhenia Zasiadko of the Ukrainian environmental organization Ecoaction. “In the first phase of the conflict the damage was concentrated in bombing of militarily important fuel depots and factories, which triggered the contamination of air, soil and drinking water,” Weir explains.

Journalist Daniel Berehulak has written in The New York Times that, “The Black Sea Biosphere Reserve on the southern coast of Ukraine is a sanctuary for migratory birds. More than 120,000 birds winter along its shores and a colorful variety of rare species (white-tailed eagles, red-breasted mergansers and black-winged stilts, to name but a few) nest in its protected waters and wetlands.We see what’s happening in Ukraine,” Thor Hanson, an independent conservation biologist and expert on how wars affect the environment, told the Times, “and we are shocked and appalled by the human cost, first of all, but also by what’s happening to the environment in that country.” 

Ukraine’s red zone. Ukraine’s industrial heartland is in the eastern part of the country. “Before the start of the invasion, there were 4,500 companies in the Donbas that were potentially dangerous for the environment,” according to a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). These include mines, refineries, fuel depots, and metallurgical or chemical plants, many of which have become the main target of Russian attacks as they attempt to reduce Kiev’s ability to resist. “The situation in this area is terrible,” says Heorhiy Veremiychyk, spokesman for the National Ecological Center of Ukraine. The OSCE for its part warns that the “main threat” to the environment in conflict situations is the impact of fighting on industrial plants.

The problem in Ukraine is that chemical plants, storage facilities, oil depots, coal mines, gas lines and other industrial complexes are ticking time bombs that could release huge amounts of pollution if damaged. The 15 nuclear reactors in four Ukrainian power plants are equally frightening. “Military actions near nuclear power plants could lead to large-scale radioactive contamination of vast areas not only in Ukraine, but also far beyond its borders,” Oleksandr Krasnolutskyi, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, told The New York Times.

History and the last word. These environmental concerns are not fanciful. Recent significant military conflicts have had huge environmental impacts. “In Iraq, for example, there was a lot of damage related to land devastation and air pollution, which impacts ecosystems, and also weakens agriculture. We see how conflicts push sustainability back, and that has big consequences for countries,” Weir tells eldiario.es. The expert points out that there is an international legal framework to protect the environment during a war, and this falls under the umbrella of humanitarian law. “It was put in place in the ’70s after the Vietnam War which had caused a lot of deforestation, and it stipulates that the environment is a civilian target and should therefore not be attacked.” To date there has never been a country accused of environmental damage resulting from a war, with the closest thing to a sanction being what happened following the 1991 Gulf War. “A compensation commission was set up and the United Nations alleged environmental damage from Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, but that could only happen because of the politics of the time and because a lot of Iraq’s oil money was going to other countries,” Weir says. Environmentalists, academics and authorities all fear that the environmental devastation in Ukraine could take decades to overcome following the eventual end of the war.