Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme
The moment the guns stop the environment will take decades to recover
21.03.2023 22:20

Russia is not only killing Ukrainians with missiles and bullets here and now but also planting a time bomb that will slowly poison them for years to come after the hostilities end. The war is affecting the environment; its fragile system is collapsing, which inevitably affects the quality of people’s health and will take much time and effort to fix.

In an interview with Ukrinform, Under-Secretary-General of the UN and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme Inger Andersen spoke of yet another crime being committed by Russia and the efforts of international inspectors to help Ukraine tackle environmental challenges. She gave the interview last week, during her visit to Ukraine to support the country and gain a better understanding of Russia’s environmental crimes.


- Ukraine’s preliminary estimates say damage to the environment inflicted by the aggressor stands at over UAH 2 trillion, or more than $50 billion, that’s besides damage to the temporarily occupied territories.

These are tentative figures because the mechanism for accurately assessing the real damage is only being designed. Is it possible to simply employ the previous experience of the UNEP in assessing the impact on the environment based on other armed conflicts, for example, in Afghanistan, in Kongo, and the Balkans?

- We need to step back a little bit and be aware of what the mandate of the United Nations environment programme is. We do not assess; that is not what we do. That is not our job, nor our mandate. We take care of the environment, so our mandate is to ensure that when there is a disaster or conflict, or another situation that has led to environmental damage, the government has the skills and analytical tools to be able to understand what it means for restoring that space, for the environmental impact on people and the health of the population.

So, assessing the environment is about understanding what has happened to the environment and how we can restore it. That is what the UNEP is doing and that is why we are here, we are working with the environmental inspectors, training them in laboratories, in understanding, diagnosis, and analyses of debris, and soil contamination, and in understanding water pollution, and impacts. Because only by understanding those impacts, you can begin to fix them.

- So, this is what your cooperation with our government looks like: you help them assess the damage and provide them with tools, right?

- Yes, we support governments across the world in rehabilitation and in assessing where damage has occurred. For example, you will recall the explosion in the Beirut port in Lebanon. We were there assessing the environmental impact of that catastrophe - а very big catastrophe for Lebanon - but not assessing the economic damage, nor if there were criminal dimensions to that. That becomes an issue that is handled domestically by the country. It is not a UN job.

- And it was also the purpose of your visit if I understand you correctly? Whom have you already met in Kyiv?

- My purpose here was really to engage with the government – at the request of the government, of course – to get a deeper understanding of the environmental impacts of the conflict. Accordingly, I have had meetings with members of the Parliament, the Office of the President, state’s environment inspectors, and the Minister of environment, as well as with UN colleagues here in Kyiv and the donor communities.

Today I also had the opportunity to visit the outside of Kyiv where I went to get an understanding. I visited Kozarovyсhi on the Irpin river, where we saw the Dnipro dam, and Kamyanske and Lytvyniske forests, where we saw the damaged forests. There have been two weeks of forest fires at Lytvyniske forest. We also visited Borodianka in the Bucha district to have an understanding of the destroyed infrastructure. All of that – the water damage, the forest damage, and the housing damage – gives us and me personally a better understanding of the destruction and the impact.


- Could you elaborate more on the UNEP preliminary report on the assessment of the environmental consequences of war? The first point was the chemical risk in highly urbanized areas…

- That is correct. I have to say that Ukraine is a country that has significant chemical factories. It is a highly developed and sophisticated industry. Before the war, 3% of the GDP was derived from chemical production facilities. Of course, if at the same time we find human settlements close to chemical infrastructure, that is always a concern, especially if there is a war or a natural disaster.

So, that risk is one that we highlighted in the report and one that now we are working on with the environmental inspectors for them to better understand, to do the toxicology, diagnostics, so to speak, understanding the chemical compounds that may be in destroyed infrastructure, so that they can protect humans.

- Damaged fuel and related infrastructure have a significant impact on people, but I’d like to ask you about its impact on the environment.

- From other wars and other conflicts, we know that when oil, gas, or other fuel-related infrastructure is destroyed, you see a massive leakage from pipelines, from oil depose into the soils of the environment. For example, in Chechnya, in Iraq, and certainly in Kuwait, we saw oil fires. When oil wells were set on fire in Iraq, we saw a massive impact on these soils. You can get so much pollution in the soils, and in the waterways; that can have a significant, long-term impact on the environmental health, of the people, as well as on the productivity of the land.

So, it is too soon to say here, but the report highlights this as an area that needs to be much more investigated so that we can ensure that if there is water damage, this water is not used in domestic consumption. If there is soil damage, what will that do to agricultural activity? If there is run-off into the ocean, what about fish? We need to understand that to ensure that people are not consuming food chemicals with hazardous impacts on them. That is a part of the work that lies ahead and that we have to do.

- A bit of a naïve question: you don’t have the access to the occupied part of the Donetsk region, Mariupol, do you?

- Correct. That is the reality of war. One has to begin where the government has access. We work with the government, and so the reality is that it works only where it has access. We are working with inspectors, who are out in the various places where they can be present, and preparing them for the day, when they can be present throughout the Ukrainian territory, to help them ensure that they have the skills and the knowledge when the day comes.

- Do you utilize any information from media or other sources about the occupied territories? I’m asking this because the situation in Donetsk and Mariupol is close to a catastrophe.

- I understand that. What we did in the report was we used published scientific sources as well as media reports. We made it very clear. We also used published resources that would tell us if there had been a similar facility in another war or another country that had been destroyed – was it by war or whatever – with similar content. The report highlights what happened in that country and makes some assumptions about what might or have happened in this Ukrainian context. That is the best one can do when one cannot actually do and assess it directly.

- During your visit you pointed to the destruction of urban centers and infrastructure facilities. It was also pretty much felt by citizens as most of them spent the winter without electricity. But how does this influence the environment?

- Obviously, when you have areas that have been damaged, flattened, or destroyed, you have a lot of building debris lying there that needs to be removed, so that people can rebuild. Where do you put it? What will you do with it? If it is, God forbid, a whole apartment block that has been flattened it composes a whole kind of things: metal, concrete, and toxic materials, maybe. There can be mercury and LED, which we know have a very negative impact on the environment. And we need to understand that many of the older roofs in this country have asbestos; about 90% of the roofing material has asbestos in its content. Therefore, that becomes critical, how to deal with it.

The government is already working on sorting some of that debris. They have a number of crushers that will essentially crush so that you can use it for concrete to produce roads and other materials. But disposal of debris is a challenge in the situation of destruction. It is a challenge if it is an earthquake, and it is a challenge in a war. That is what we are trying to work with the government on to support them in this regard.

- Is the issue of disposal most critical close to the frontline areas or is it an issue for the whole country?

- It is an issue whenever you have destroyed infrastructure. It is an issue in peacetime when you tear down a building, but there you do it under controlled settings. In a disaster or a conflict situation, it becomes a much more urgent issue.

These are not the normal skills the environment inspector has. This is not what you do at your daily job or what they have been trained to do. They have been trained to do other things. All of a sudden, they faced this challenge. So, working with them and ensuring that this is an issue that they have the competence to deal with is very, very important.


- Nobody can be prepared for the war, unfortunately. The next topic is a separate one, which is of grave concern for Ukraine and all its neighbors. I’m talking about the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. What about the current impact on the environment there?

- I am not qualified in nuclear aspects. We have another UN agency – the IAEA and my colleague Rafael Grossi. They have been here and have been very engaged. That is within his competence.

But just like you, I read, and we are all concerned about ensuring the safe operation of the NPP. We are all concerned and reading my colleagues’ reports about the absolute imperative that there is access to this plant and his absolute insistence on this safe operation. That is something he has insisted on. We can only echo.

- But is another global risk – the draining of the Kakhovka Reservoir – in your focus?

- We all know enough to understand that you need water to cool a powerplant. If there is no water to cool it, you are in trouble. This is why, I think, Rafael Grossi has insisted on access and safe operating of the powerplant, which, obviously, includes access to cooling water.

- The problem of mine contamination is not within the scope of your competence, right?

- Again, I deal with climate, pollution, and nature. Each of these three links to energy, destruction of infrastructure, and natural infrastructure. It is often overlooked, because people focus, of course, on the most important human impact, but it is often the one that will take the longest time to repair itself. You can build a house, but if two meters of your soil right down are polluted, you cannot fix it. That is why understanding the environmental impact is important.

The respect of the mines is a different part of the UN, but it is disturbing to hear what I have learned during my conversations here from colleagues from the UN about the perceived extent of this problem and it will have to be demined to enable full agriculture to take place. But it lies outside of my area of competence.


- Neither atomic energy nor emissions or chemical substances in air nor water know to any border. Is there an understanding in the world and, first of all, among our neighbors that the ecological implications to Ukraine will definitely affect them, too, and have a long-term effect on the whole European ecosystem?

- That is a thing; you are absolutely spot-on. The environment does not understand borders, because borders are a construct of human beings, not of the environment. Forests go across the border. Water flows into the next country. Aquifers are connected underground and the marine environment is where it wishes to be. Winds blow the way they blow. I think there is an understanding of this, not least because transboundary impacts are obviously a concern in a number of countries directly adjacent to Ukraine.

Beyond that, pollution whether it is in the Black Sea, in the Dnipro River, or in the air should be a concern to anybody on the line that can potentially be impacted, which is why we – the UNEP – will work with friendly countries to look at transboundary impacts where we can to ensure that we can better map what might be happening in the air, the water and underground waterways.

- Is the UNEP ready to become a kind of ambassador of Ukrainian interest in the world, including in those countries that have doubts and are in no hurry to firmly condemn Russian aggression?

- What we do is work with member states. Ukraine is a member state of the UN. We will do science, evidence, and the data that will underpin the assessments of the impact of this conflict. We will support the government to do those assessments. That is our job. We have done it in many other countries. The science and the data will stand for themselves, and they will tell a story that this conflict is having devastating environmental consequences. They will tell a story – as any war tells a story – that the moment the guns stop the environment will take decades and decades to recover. That is what the data tells us already and that is what we will deliver and continue to tell.

Ivan Kosiakin, Vladyslav Obukh, Kyiv

Photo: Ruslan Kaniuka

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