Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is causing an environmental crisis, and experts say it will take years to fully realize the impact

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupts air, land and water Pollution it will be long lasting.
  • In addition, contamination risks and health problems arise when nuclear sites are disturbed.

More than 1,000 individuals and organizations from 75 countries issued an open letter through the Environmental Peacebuilding Association on March 3 to express their solidarity with Ukraine in the face of Russia’s attacks – and their concern over the environmental toll and humanitarianism of war.

The letter says attacks on civilian and military sites cause air, soil and water pollution, especially in such a highly industrialized country, and that war threatens food security people in Ukraine and other countries who depend on its wheat and corn. exports.

Doug Weir.Courtesy of Doug Weir

“Every conflict has a unique environmental narrative,” Doug Weir, director of research and policy at the Conflict and Environment Observatory, an organization aimed at raising awareness of the environmental impact of activities, told Insider. military. “For Ukraine, this revolves around the number of technological risks posed by its major industrial and energy sectors and the increasing intensity of Russian military actions.”

In the short term, environmental emergencies could result from damage or disruption to energy or industrial facilities, he said. But in the long term, he added, the region could see weakened environmental governance and the environmental issues of the conflict may go unresolved as the government faces multiple issues.

“Cross-border disputes” over control of resources like water or the risk management of hazardous installations could arise if Russia permanently occupies more parts of Ukraine, Weir said. The environmental impact beyond the two countries could take years to be fully realized.

The country’s industrial sectors increase environmental risk on air and water quality

Ukraine is home to several industrial sites. Even before this conflict, the country ranked at the bottom of environmental indicators such as air quality, biodiversity production and ecosystem health, according to the Environmental Performance Index. The Donbass region in eastern Ukraine has long been considered one of the most polluted areas in the country due to its coal mining, metallurgy and chemical manufacturing facilities.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is causing an environmental crisis, and experts say it will take years to fully realize the impact
Ken Conca.Courtesy of Ken Conca

“Warfare in industrial areas creates significant risks of toxic contamination, given the concentration of power plants, chemical plants, metallurgical plants, etc.,” said Ken Conca, professor of international relations at the American University School of International Service and the author of the book “Environmental Peacemaking,” Insider said.

“These structures tend to be full of petroleum products, hazardous chemicals and combustible compounds which when released into the environmentcan cause considerable damage in the short and long term,” Conca added.

If Ukraine’s hydroelectric dams were to fail, it could cause “disastrous flooding downstream”, he said, adding that the targeting of such facilities should be recognized by the international community as a war crime.

Targeting nuclear sites also poses health and environmental risks

On February 24, Russia took control of Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear power plant where an explosion in 1986 sent radioactive material to nearby areas. The White House called the takeover of Chernobyl “incredibly alarming” because it raised radioactive dust and recently increased detectable radiation levels at the site.

“It would probably take a direct hit on the facility to create more than local radiological hazards, but there is a danger that continued monitoring of the area by Ukrainian scientists, which is still required 35 years after the Chernobyl disaster, be discontinued for an extended period,” Conca said.

The risk of nuclear contamination extends beyond Chernobyl, he added. Ukraine operates more than a dozen nuclear reactors, and several reports have detailed Russian strikes near nuclear waste facilities, increasing the risk of contamination and health problems.

“Many of the issues we see pose acute or chronic health risks to people, and people have a human right to a healthy environment,” Weir said, adding that it could also hamper contamination, disasters and efforts. environmental recovery.

The war could harm future climate policy initiatives

The environmental crisis in Ukraine could also affect future climate policy.

“We are already at a low point in terms of momentum for global environmental cooperation,” Conca said. “War diverts attention and diverts resources from governments around the world at a time when we cannot afford it.”

Last week, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report indicating that climate degradation is happening faster than previously thought and that parts of the world will become unlivable in the coming months. coming decades if no action is taken now.

While understandable, Weir said the release of the report was overshadowed by news of the conflict in Ukraine, which “demonstrates how our future increasingly depends on global cooperation and how political shocks from conflict can unfold. propagate, to the exclusion of other important matters”.

The scale, intensity and duration of the conflict are still unknown, as is the scale of the environmental crisis.

“Even if the physical, biological and chemical damage remains confined to Ukraine, the social and political effects will ripple far beyond,” Conca said.


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