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Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources
VOICES

Opinion The war in Ukraine is also a war on nature

Ukrainian writer and journalist Polina Bashkina is living in Ireland while war rages at home – she looks at the impact the war is having on the environment.

IN RECENT WEEKS, as the Ukrainian army made welcome gains in the fight against Putin’s aggression, we have seen a worrying shift in the Russian leader’s tactics in this war.

There was the recent illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories and global concern that Russia was behind the damage to the Nord Stream gas pipeline. Most concerning is that Putin has also ramped up his language around the use of nuclear weapons. Then, after the destruction of the Crimea bridge, the Russian leader commenced a relentless campaign of strikes on Ukraine. Putin has been trying to mask his losses on the battlefield with other sinister plans. 

Recently, US President Joe Biden warned that Putin was not bluffing when he discussed the use of tactical nuclear weapons. It’s clear that he’s backed into a corner and from what we’ve witnessed in this horrendous war from day one, that makes him dangerous.

Nuclear terror

One would hope nuclear weapons will never see the light of day, but the fear of such devastation alone is enough to panic Europe and the rest of the world, something Putin no doubt understands.

We have lived for generations now on this planet with the knowledge that nuclear weapons exist and could be used, but convincing ourselves that no leader would ever be reckless enough to do so. Joe Biden was right on one thing – not since the Cuban Missile Crisis have we faced such a terrifying reality.

Nuclear weapons have no place in a civilised world and none in the natural world. They are an abomination. After the Trinity Test in 1945 in the US and the detonation of the first nuclear explosion, the man who became known as the ‘father of the atomic bomb’, J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted Hindu scripture, saying, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

How apt those words were.

Putin’s war is bringing with it human death and suffering on a grand scale but his war is also inflicting pain on the natural world. On 5 June of this year, while the war raged in Ukraine, the world marked the Day of Environmental Protection.

It’s not a holiday that can be celebrated, given the major challenges we now face with climate change. However, each year, the theme of World Environment Day is determined. For example, in 2019, it was “Beat Air Pollution”; in 2018 – “Beat Plastic Pollution”; in 2016 – “Zero Tolerance for the Illegal Wildlife trade.” I believe that next year’s theme should be “The impact of the war in Europe on the environment.”

War on nature

Russia’s aggression has already led to catastrophic consequences for the natural environment of the European region. It threatens the health and safety of the population of the entire European continent. If Putin was responsible for the damage to Nord Stream then he stands over unprecedented methane leaks.

mines-sign-in-kiev-region Kyiv Region, Ukraine - July 25, 2022 - The 'Mines' sign is pictured in the middle of a wheat field, ABACA / PA Images ABACA / PA Images / PA Images

On the ground, the damage to the environment during armed conflict leads to the deterioration of ecosystems and natural resources for an extended period, even after the cessation of hostilities. Usually, it affects more than one state and not just the current generation.

The war in Ukraine has brought untold horrors to the civilian population and has destroyed much of what has taken ages to create in minutes. In addition to human suffering, it also leads to the destruction of the environment.

Pollution and placing of mines in seawater and rising radiation levels due to the Russian occupation threaten not only the Ukrainian people but all Europeans. Moreover, according to the State Agency for the Management of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, the Russians stole 133 radioisotope sources from the laboratories of the zone.

At the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, work continues to eliminate the consequences of the occupation by Russian troops, which lasted 35 days. According to satellite images from NASA and the European Space Agency, the actions of Russian soldiers during the occupation of the Exclusion Zone near the Chornobyl nuclear power plant recorded fires in natural complexes and abandoned villages in an area of ​​13,989 hectares.

For comparison, for the whole of 2021 in the Chornobyl zone, 30 fires were extinguished in 38 hectares. During forest fires in the Exclusion Zone, aerosols are released into the air, which is harmful and may contain radiation-contaminated particles.

iaea-team-plan-to-stay-at-zaporizhzhia-nuclear-plant-ukraine September 2 IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi, briefs the international press and media after his five days official visit to Ukraine with the IAEA Support and Assistance Mission (ISAMZ) at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant DEAN CALMA DEAN CALMA

Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, for a long time, has been operating under occupation. The Russian military controls the station. There is a rotation of workers, but nuclear and radiation safety is under threat because, in the conditions of occupation, the station staff cannot calmly perform all their duties and are overworked.

During the fighting, the station staff was forced to work without interruption for more than a day. The shift should last eight hours. People who work without rest tend to make mistakes more easily – and, well known, one of the causes of the accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant was precisely human error.

“The problem is that an accident at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant due to shelling by artillery could be much worse than the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant,” explains Elena Parenyuk, senior researcher at the Institute for Nuclear Safety Problems of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

War on water

The situation at sea is not any better than that on land. Imagine: according to official data, the level of pollution in the Sea of ​​Azov has increased so much that it is no longer possible to catch fish there.

In addition, because the Russian invaders bombed the Azovstal metallurgical plant, there is a threat of complete extinction of the Sea of ​​Azov due to possible damage to the technical facility, which contains a concentrated hydrogen sulfide solution.

Leakage of this fluid would ultimately kill flora and fauna of the Sea of ​​Azov. Moreover, these dangerous substances could also get into the Black and Mediterranean Seas. At the same time, there is a threat of a mine explosion in the Black Sea.

russias-war-in-ukraine-daily-life-in-odessa July 7, 2022, Odessa, Odessa Oblast, Ukraine: Ominous red skull and cross bones sign warns ''Mines Danger'' on an empty beach in Ukraine's port city of Odessa on the black Sea. Thomas Krych Thomas Krych

Russian troops are attacking infrastructure along the coasts of the two seas and ships at anchor, polluting water and spreading toxins into the sea. Since the beginning of the invasion, Russian troops have attacked Ukrainian ports and ships flying various flags in the Black Sea. Not far from Odessa, two ships carrying fuel and chemicals were struck and sunk, causing a local spill and burning of fuel at sea.

This military action can directly affect marine animals, threatening their existence. Explosions cause a shock wave that can travel considerable distances underwater, stunning fish and killing other creatures. For example, the Irpen River near Kyiv was threatened with an ecological catastrophe due to the colossal number of fish carcasses  – they had died from air strikes.

more-viyna-0022

Explosions threaten marine mammals, including those listed in the Red Book of Ukraine and protected by many international conventions. In 2019, there were cases in the Baltic Sea where several porpoises (small cetaceans living in the Black Sea) died because of hearing damage caused by explosions while clearing World War II mines at sea.

Scientists have recorded cases of mass death of dolphins as a result of hostilities at sea. Off the coast of Bulgaria and Romania, dead and disoriented dolphins were found with injuries and burns resulting from explosions.

Black Sea dolphins are another innocent victim of this war. In September, the Odesa Regional Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal case of ecocide based on the mass destruction of dolphins as a result of the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine.

Examinations and autopsies of porpoises and white-sided dolphins found dead on the coasts were carried out. The selected samples were sent for research at the University of Padua (Italy) and a separate study of the structures of the inner ear of mammals at the University of Hannover (Germany).

more-viyna-0021 Ukraine's Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources Ukraine's Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources

Explosions of ammunition, fires of military equipment, fuel, and ammunition significantly pollute the atmosphere and soil. The downed planes and helicopters have fallen into reservoirs and the sea. Several Russian ships have been destroyed, including the large Saratov landing craft, which carried about 1,000 tons of fuel and ammunition.

According to the WWF-Ukraine, swamps, natural reservoirs, and wetlands have stopped dozens of tanks and heavy equipment belonging to the Russians.

Fossil fuel

Oil depots were also among the first to be attacked (they became the most common category of manufactured objects exposed to targeted shelling by the Russians). More than 60 oil depots and other storage facilities for fuel and lubricants have been affected so far.

To assess the scale and unprecedented nature of these events, it should be mentioned that in 2015 there was a fire at the BRSM oil depot, which experts evaluated as the second largest environmental disaster in Ukraine after the Chornobyl accident. And this is just one oil depot!

The second group of targeted shelling was warehouses of flammable substances (varnishes, paints) and large construction supermarkets. A fire engulfed Europe’s largest market, Barabashovo, in Kharkiv. The fire was so intense that it spread to several neighbouring apartment buildings.

Large-scale fires in infrastructure and industrial facilities lead to air poisoning from particularly hazardous substances. Winds can carry pollutants over long distances.

Russian troops attacked ammunition depots in Ukraine to deplete Ukraine’s stockpiles. Such explosions pose risks to human health and the environment due to releasing toxic components. In addition, during the hostilities in the cities and after the liberation of the northern part of Ukraine from the occupying forces, mass destruction of unexploded ordnance was carried out. There were even 500-pound bombs.

The impact of explosions on the environment does not depend on the purpose of their use – hostilities, training, or disposal. Damage to the environment during the disposal of unexploded ordnance is no less than during actual hostilities.

Damaged military equipment, ammunition, exploded missiles, and air bombs pollute the soil and groundwater with chemicals, including heavy metals.

Buildings destroyed

Russian soldiers have destroyed thousands of buildings in Ukraine. Earlier this year, President Zelenskyy estimated that the cost of rebuilding our country would be in the region of $600 Billion. The consequences for the environment in Ukraine will be felt for years.

Since the beginning of the year, the total area of ​​forests affected by fires in Ukraine has increased more than 100 times compared to 2021. The Russian military did not allow forest guards to access fires and did not provide opportunities to eliminate fires.

Preliminary estimates suggest that the fires damaged almost 2,000 hectares of forest and coastal ecosystems, resulting in the deaths of rare animal species and harm to Kinburn Spit’s unique sand habitat flora. Fires of this scale had not been seen on the Kinburn Peninsula since World War II. It will take decades to restore them.

According to preliminary estimates, the territory of military occupation and hostilities includes the territories of 900 objects of the nature reserve fund with 12406.6 square km (1.24 million hectares).

The Ukrainian government is documenting the Russian military’s crimes against the environment and will use every opportunity to bring Russia to justice. In May, Ukraine acceded to the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents.

According to Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, warring states must protect the environment from “large-scale, long-term and serious damage” and prohibit methods or means of warfare “which are intended or likely to cause such harm.”

It is hard to miss now that Russia is violating the Geneva Convention not only in how it treats prisoners but also in how it’s destroying the environment. Some day, hopefully soon, Ukraine will recover, rebuild and hold Russia to account for these crimes.

Polina Bashkina is a Ukrainian writer and journalist. Her book 12 Months. A Year
of Sense was published at the end of 2021. Previously, Polina worked in business
and political PR and marketing. She headed the press service of the General
Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine worked in the Ukraine President’s Administration,
and also on elections in three countries.

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