The wetlands, peat bogs, and forests of Polesia, as well as the mountainous, rocky regions of Carpathia, are home to some of Ukraine’s most beloved and cherished creatures. Lynx, wolves, bears, deer, bats, otters, and many other beloved animals have lasted countless generations within its alpine meadows, winding rivers, and endless steppes. Now, with the war in Ukraine, everything they’ve ever known is at stake. On International Day for Exploitation of the Environment in War, observed annually on November 6, we reflect on the environmental impact of the conflict and what can be done to mitigate its impact on the country’s ecosystems.
What Is Happening In Ukraine?
On February 24, 2022, Putin ordered Russian troops into Ukraine, giving them free rein to cause as much carnage and destruction as possible. Nearly 200,000 troops, 4800 armoured vehicles, and as many as 2,700 tanks were observed entering the country that day.
The mayhem that has transpired to this date can only be described as horrific. Entire cities have been reduced to rubble under relentless shelling and bombing; Ukrainian citizens have been murdered indiscriminately on the streets by Russian forces; and Ukrainian prisoners of war, soldiers as young as 18, have been abused and tortured in unspeakable ways.
During dire times such as these, the objectives of war often take precedence over the environment. However, we cannot completely ignore the environmental implications that violent and prolonged conflicts like the one in Ukraine have.
The Environmental Impact of the War
Along the southern coast of the war-torn country, in a once-protected locale known as the Black Sea Biosphere, the environmental cost of the war is assumed to be staggering, and perhaps at its worst. Many endangered species that live in this area, including the Russian desman (Desmana Moschata), the sandy blind mole-rat (Spalex Arenarius), and a Ukrainian species of snail (Vitrea Nadejdae), as well as varying species of rare plants and insects, are all under extreme threat now that Russian forces are conducting military operations in their vicinity, and may very well be driven to extinction, should the war persist.
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Over 120,000 birds, including seagulls, swallows, snipe, ducks and grouse nest along the beaches and wetlands of this coastal region, and over 250,000 common, mereswine, and bottlenose dolphins swim along the shorelines of the Black Sea Biosphere. Unfortunately, those very same shorelines are now being patrolled by attack boats, the beaches are covered in landmines, and due to the presence of the Russian military, all conservation efforts in the area have effectively ended.
The same can be said of many other protected locations across the country. In an article by The New York Times, Oleksandr Krasnolutskyi, deputy minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources in Ukraine, stated that Russian troops have already conducted military operations in over a third of Ukraine’s protected natural areas.
In a separate interview with The Guardian, Krasnolutskyi also said that almost 400,000 hectares and 14 Ramsar sites along the coastline and lower reaches of the Dnipro river are currently under huge threat.
Almost 31 years ago, on December 1, 1991, Ukraine joined the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (RCWII), delegating approximately 803,000 hectares as official Ramsar sites.
Ramsar sites – aptly named after the city of Ramsar in Iran, where the treaty originated – are designated as protected, ecologically important wetlands, in accordance with the framework set forth by the RCWII. Since 1975, four years after its original inception in Iran, the Convention has garnered support from 90% of United Nations member states, including Russia.
In spite of their commitment to the Convention, Russia’s military continues to aggressively encroach on these sensitive and vital ecosystems, placing the health of the species that live here at risk. The bombs, bullets, and other munitions they employ often contain high levels of toxic metals (lead, mercury and arsenic, to name a few) and other environmental pollutants, and their invading military vehicles – the troop trucks, armoured personnel carriers, and armoured tanks – weigh thousands of pounds and thus carve deep gouges into the sensitive peat bogs and wetlands that these conservationists have spent decades restoring.
Experts are predicting that the environmental cost of the war will be so severe there will be lasting consequences for not only Ukraine, but for all of Europe.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises a host of unique and potentially profound environmental concerns for not only the people of Ukraine, but the wider region” stated Carroll Muffet, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law in an interview with ABC News. “Those human impacts of the war take on a lot of forms and a lot of dimensions, and many of them last long after the hostilities have ceased.”
Some of the key areas of concern understandably include the associated greenhouse gas emissions of this entire war – which may prevent global climate goals from being reached, including the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting heating to 1.5C. However, Ukraine is also host to a number of chemical, industrial and more importantly nuclear facilities, all of which are very hazardous and thus extremely concerning.
“The conduct of active military operations in a country with four nuclear facilities and 15 active nuclear reactors poses extraordinary risks,” Muffett noted.
As many experts agree, should any of these facilities be destroyed, their toxic contents could leach into both the atmosphere and the soil, causing far-reaching damages that could take decades or even centuries to repair.
Take the disaster that occurred in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, also located in Ukraine, for example. The accident has left the surrounding area largely uninhabited, with soil still showing high levels of radioactivity nearly four decades later, meaning any surface-level disturbances will likely push radioactive dust particles into the atmosphere.
The fact that Russia is now mobilising large militaries in the proximity of destroyed nuclear facilities is raising alarm among experts. In fact, this could create radioactive “clouds” that can travel great distances, depositing nuclear fallout in neighbouring countries, and possibly even further.
“We now understand the environmental dimensions of war in ways that we didn’t decades ago,” stated Muffet.
Can We Help?
The war in Ukraine does not only cause unimaginable amounts of suffering, loss, and destruction but it also has catastrophic environmental implications. Though aid is truly needed in the humanitarian sector right this second, the rebuilding of Ukraine and its environment after the war is another avenue of investment that one could take if they still want to assist where one can.
The start-up project Let’s Get Ready to Rebuild Ukraine has already managed to accrue over US$27,000 towards the clean-up, rehabilitation, and restoration of Ukraine. The World to Rebuild Rural Ukraine is another effort garnering serious attention. Their goal is to help Ukrainian villagers rebuild their homes, farms, and eventually, their lives after the war in Ukraine has finally ended.
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