Sadly, it’s a very unpleasant conversation about how Russia’s war against Ukraine has been destroying the Ukrainian (and perhaps European) environment for more than a year.
Without embellishments and self-satisfaction, this information must be accepted and understood, and everyone should seek a solution together. Because the question of how long it will take to restore the environment after the war is still being debated by ecologists.
We spoke in more detail with Tetiana Tymochko, head of the public environmental protection organisation All-Ukrainian Environmental League, an advisor to the Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine.
HARMFUL CHEMICAL COMPOUNDS ARE FORMED FROM THE DETONATION OF MISSILES AND SHELLS
- Ms Tetiana, how many crimes against the environment have been recorded since Russia’s full-scale invasion of our land?
- As of May 2023, more than 2,291 facts of crimes against the environment were recorded as a result of the war of aggression against our country unleashed by the Russian Federation.
The estimated damages amount to UAH 441 billion. Of them, UAH 901 billion – littering of land with waste; UAH 12 billion – soil contamination; UAH 994 billion – damage caused by air pollution (burning of oil products, forest fires, burning of industrial undertakings, vital infrastructure facilities).
The persistent shelling and bombardment by the Russian occupiers of industrial and energy facilities, residential buildings, forest fires, the detonation of oil depots, pollution of the Black and Azov seas, seizure and shelling of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant pose a threat of man-made disaster not only for Ukraine but also for Europe.
The question remains: what is the estimated time required to restore the environment of our country after the war?
Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the war amount to at least 33 million tons of CO2 equivalent (the global warming potential of any greenhouse gas, the amount of which is equal to the amount of CO2 with the same indicator – ed). It is anticipated that the restoration of destroyed buildings and infrastructure facilities will result in the emission of 49 million tons of CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gases.
The waste of destruction that was and is being created every day poses a grave threat, comprising thousands of tons of concrete, bricks, reinforced plastic and glass, facade materials, mineral wool, heat-insulating foam, as well as interior decoration materials, fragments of engineering networks, sanitary and technical devices, household items, wood, roofing materials, including resin, roofing material, and slate...
In hundreds of Ukrainian villages where war raged, not a single building survived, and dozens of cities were destroyed to the ground. When they say that there is the experience of European countries using waste from war for reconstruction, that is an entirely different story. This is because then (80–100 years ago) almost all buildings were constructed from natural materials. Over the past two decades, the construction sphere has undergone significant transformations, with the predominant utilisation of artificial materials.
Furthermore, the destroyed houses had things like appliances, refrigerators, air conditioners, televisions, and plenty of chemicals. People used these household chemical goods to clean their homes, and some houses had things like paint and varnish, etc. All of this, in substantial quantities, has entered our environment and is currently posing a significant threat to it.
- It is even more alarming that chemical and metallurgical plants, oil depots, and warehouses with hazardous waste have also fallen into the area of active hostilities.
- Naturally, the shelling of industrial facilities and infrastructure leads to fires, which cause additional air, soil, and water pollution. Combustion products that enter the air consist of toxic gases and solid particles.
When missiles and artillery shells explode, different chemicals are formed. These chemicals include carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), water vapour (H2O), brown gas (NO), nitrous oxide (N2O), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), formaldehyde (CH2O), cyanic acid (HCN), and nitrogen (N2) This results in soil and wood oxidation, water resources and atmospheric air pollution.
Due to the continuous emission of harmful substances into water bodies, the content of zinc, copper, chromium, lead, cadmium, and other poisonous substances in the water increases many times.
Dioxins can have a detrimental effect on the immune system, even when present in low amounts. Higher concentrations can have mutagenic, embryotoxic, and teratogenic effects (environmental factors that cause disruption of the body’s development), negatively affecting the gene pool of the population, animal, and plant life.
Benzopyrene is a strong carcinogen, which is formed during low-temperature combustion processes of petroleum products. All these pollutants will probably be a big part of the next biochemical cycles, which might have unexpected effects.
Benzapyrene is a strong carcinogen, which is formed during low-temperature combustion processes of petroleum products
- In which oblasts is it felt the most?
- In Donetsk, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, and Kharkiv Oblasts. There are critical infrastructure facilities, like factories, ports, and storages of dangerous waste, such as fertilisers, toxic pesticides, polyurethane foam, varnish, paint, and fuel and lubricants, in the areas of active hostilities.
Large-scale fires at industrial enterprises and oil depots are sources of pollution in a significant territory of Ukraine. They lead to the release of persistent organic pollutants into the atmosphere, such as dioxins, furans, ethylene chloride, vinyl chloride, chlorine and phenols, benzopyrene, lead and mercury compounds, which are very carcinogenic and harmful. The atmosphere is polluted across vast areas and results in long-term contamination of soils, agricultural and woodland areas.
FLORA AND FAUNA OF THE AZOV SEA MAY BE SEVERELY DAMAGED BY THE LEAD OF HYDROGEN SULPHIDE DUE TO AZOVSTAL DESTRUCTION
- How disastrous is the bombing of Azovstal for the environment?
- The Russian occupiers’ bombardment of the Azovstal plant in Mariupol has led to the destruction of a technological structure that houses tens of thousands of tons of concentrated hydrogen sulphide solution. A man-made disaster is possible in the Sea of Azov; dangerous substances can reach the Black and Mediterranean Seas.
- The threat of radiation danger is also terrifying. After all, the enemies entered the territory of the Chornobyl NPP while the Zaporizhia NPP is still under occupation...
- On the first day of the invasion, the Russian army took control of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant (3 April 2022 is the official date of the Chornobyl NPP de-occupation – ed.). The construction of fortifications, the soil movement and military equipment transfer led to the disturbance of the upper soil layer containing radioactive elements and the ingestion of radiation by the Russian military during their stay in the exclusion zone. There are facts about the deaths of the Russian military from radiation sickness.
Experts from the All-Ukrainian Environmental League have repeatedly stressed the importance of demilitarising the Zaporizhia NPP, which has been under occupation for over a year. The actions of the Russian military can cause a global catastrophe. All-Ukrainian Environmental League demands more decisive measures from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for joint actions in overcoming the aggressor and nuclear terrorist, which is the Russian Federation.
MANY ANIMAL AND PLANT SPECIES LISTED IN THE RED BOOK OF UKRAINE ARE UNDER THREAT
- In addition to destroying industrial, infrastructural and residential facilities, serious damage to forests and wildlife reserves is also recorded. How do environmental experts offer to overcome this?
- In Ukraine, a total of more than three million hectares of forests have been damaged. However, these are not merely the trees that grow – it is a natural potential for recovering the environment. Animals, birds, and various insects live there – all this is now being destroyed. Numerous natural areas that have been ravaged by Russian troops are the habitat of rare species and endangered habitats. The blow to our ecosystems is being made for decades ahead...
The blow to our ecosystems is being made for decades ahead...
Six hundred species of animals, 750 species of plants and mushrooms, including those included in the Red Book of Ukraine, have been under threat since the beginning of the Russian military aggression.
The Russian military aggression has caused at least three thousand deaths of dolphins in the Black Sea in Ukraine and more than 50 in the waters of other states.
The Black Sea dolphins generally got into terrible conditions. Their home – the sea – has turned into a battlefield. Shelling, oil spills, and chemicals entering the marine environment are all examples of this. The bodies of dolphins found on the coast were burnt and injured... Due to the use of geolocation devices on Russian ships and submarines, dolphins have lost their main unique ability – echolocation. When the organs responsible for navigation and hearing are damaged, dolphins are unable to use echolocation, resulting in a state of near-blindness. Having lost their orientation, animals have no acoustic control over their surroundings. These dolphins experience stress and panic, are unable to navigate in space, encounter various obstacles, including mines, and collide with rocks. And most importantly, such “paralysed” dolphins cannot catch fish and quickly get exhausted. The dolphins, blinded by the sonar impact, suddenly lose their immunity and become the target of self-infection by pathogens, which constantly live inside them.
- The data indicate that over two million hectares of our landmass were engulfed in fires in 2022, with approximately 300 thousand hectares accounting for forests.
- The All-Ukrainian Environmental League says that since the full-scale invasion started, the number and area of forest fires have increased critically. There are 2.4 million hectares of forest fires, and 330 thousand of them are engulfed in fire. This is 30 times more than the previous year when the maximum area of fires in Ukraine’s forests per year was 10 thousand hectares!
Eight nature reserves and ten national natural parks are currently under occupation. These include the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve (located on the territory and water area of Kherson and partly Mykolaiv Oblasts), the Askania-Nova biosphere reserve, the Azov-Syvash National Nature Park, the Oleshky Sands Park, and the Dzharylhak National Nature Park (Kherson Oblast). The Russian Federation entered 130 protected areas of Crimea in the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) as “Russian protected areas.”
All of us in Ukraine now – public institutions, including the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, the State Environmental Inspection, and the Prosecutor’s Office – are embarking on unprecedented efforts to document environmental violations in order for the Russian aggressor to be held accountable.
Destroyed sewage treatment facilities cause pollution of water bodies, soil, and groundwater
What concerns state’s initiatives, as part of the projects of the National Ukraine Recovery Plan, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine proposes to construct ten centres for the recuperation and rehabilitation of wild animals that have suffered or been wounded during hostilities, and which are currently housed in national parks.
- The list of crimes committed by the Russian Federation in Ukraine includes destroying sewage treatment plants. How significant is the damage, and what is the threat?
- Destroyed sewage treatment facilities cause pollution of water bodies, soil, and groundwater. Therefore, the entire ecosystem is affected for kilometres around, and damage is inflicted to flora, fauna, and human health.
Untreated sewage can introduce harmful inorganic (acids, alkalis) and organic (oil and oil products, detergents) compounds into water bodies.
Biological water pollution caused by the entry of untreated household sewage into water bodies can cause infectious diseases in people (cholera, typhus, hepatitis). Wastewater contains various microorganisms, fungal spores, and helminth eggs.
- Another big problem is the mining of territories...
- Yes, the areas that were mined will be unusable for many years after the war is over. The All-Ukrainian Environmental League’s ecologists and experts suggest that those mined areas, which will be unusable for decades (until the full demining process takes place), might require removal from commercial activities and be subject to land preservation. This can help mitigate the threat to humans while also giving nature a chance to regenerate on its own.
THE LONGER THE WAR GOES ON, THE MORE NEW MAN-MADE THREATS AND HEALTH RISKS THE NATION WILL FACE IN THE FUTURE
- The All-Ukrainian Environmental League gathers information about Russia’s environmental crimes in Ukraine. Can you specify which documents regulate the protection of the environment during hostilities?
- The aggressor is a violator of international law! Since war crimes against the environment are included in the catalogue of war crimes under the Rome Statute, these types of cases can be considered by the International Criminal Court.
Furthermore, it violates the 24th principle of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which states that war is inherently destructive to the process of sustainable development. Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 deals with protecting victims of international armed conflicts. This Protocol requires belligerent states to protect the natural environment from “large-scale, lasting and serious damage” and prohibits methods or means of warfare “intended or likely to” cause such damage.
Since the beginning of the war, the All-Ukrainian Environmental League hubs have been collecting facts about Russia’s environmental crimes. These reports will be important evidence in court proceedings and will help restore the Ukrainian environment.
- If one of our readers also wants to join in recording such crimes, where should they go?
- Every citizen of Ukraine can participate in recording crimes against the environment. For this, they need to contact:
- - the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine, at the hotline number “Mindovkillia na zvyazku” 0800500115, or at the address: 35 Mytropolyta Vasylia Lyokivskoho, Kyiv, 03035 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org – for legal entities, email@example.com – for citizen appeals).
- - the State Environmental Inspectorate of Ukraine at the address: 3 Novopecherskyi Lane 3, block 2, Kyiv, 01042, phone: 0445212038 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
- - the State Service of Ukraine for Food Safety and Consumer Protection at the 24-hour hotline number: 0443647780, 0502300428, or at the address: 1 Borysa Hrinchenka Street, Kyiv, 02000, (е-mail: email@example.com).
Or use online resources that can be used to report environmental crimes:
- - EcoShkodaBot;
- - EcoZagroza app;
- - Ecoinspector 2 app, which automatically generates appeals and reports environmental crimes to the State Environmental Inspectorate.
You can also contact the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights at the address: 21/8 Instytutska Street, Kyiv, 01008 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, hotline: 0800501720).
The collected materials will be useful in determining the degree of ecological contamination, identifying the requisite criminality, calculating the consequences of environmental crimes, identifying and bringing to justice the perpetrators, as well as collecting reparations from the aggressor state.
- Ms Tetiana, to conclude the discussion, I have a question that has been causing concern for everyone – is it possible to predict the improvement of the environmental situation after the hostilities end?
- Today, it is clear that Russia’s military aggression harms not just the environment and natural resources within the national borders of one state but also the environment in general, global objects and environmental balance.
The longer the war goes on, the more negative factors on the environment there are, and new man-made threats emerge, which will cause more pollution of the natural environment and risks to the nation’s health in the future.
Liubov Baziv, Kyiv