In the Donbass eastern region of Ukraine, the soil behaves strangely. In some places it flows; elsewhere it “heaves” – bulging upwards, according to satellite data released this week. Before becoming a conflict zone, the Donbass had long been Ukraine’s coal country, and the land is riddled with hundreds of kilometers of tunnels under towns, factories and farms, many of them abandoned. Recently, these wells have flooded, causing the surface to shift and carrying toxic chemicals that now threaten the area’s water supply. One of these mines, site of a nuclear test in the 1970s, remains potentially radioactive. Ukrainian scientists have warned the risks to the region could be “deeper and more dangerous than Chernobyl”.
Since 2014, when Russia’s annexation of Crimea sparked fighting in the Donbass, the region has been the scene of a parallel ecological disaster. These are not only mines, but also toxic leaks from industrial installations that have fallen into disuse and contamination caused by bombardments and munitions. This is partly due to the chaos of an endless war: in a contested region, who should bear the costs of pumping groundwater from abandoned mines? At other times, the environment has been used as a weapon of war, such as when militants bombed stockpiles of chlorine at a sewage treatment plant, threatening to ruin local water supplies.
The health effects of these types of wartime incidents will likely be felt long after the physical conflict has ended, says Doug Weir, director of research and policy at the Conflict and Environment-based Observatory. UK. But for that same reason, they’re often overlooked, as the damage unfolds in slow motion, long after the bombs have stopped falling and the world’s attention has shifted. After eight years of conflict, last week’s Russian invasion will add to the environmental damage of the war in the rest of Ukraine.
“It’s an extension of what we’ve seen in Donbass, where you have conflict amidst this super-concentrated amount of heavy industry and this dark environmental history,” Weir says. Much of the fighting is now taking place in urban areas like kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol, where industrial facilities, military installations and radioactive waste dumps have come under Russian aircraft and artillery fire. These weapons have the potential to leave not just immediate destruction, but a longer trail of polluted air and water that will be felt by nearby residents long after the conflict is over.
Since the mid-1990s conflict in Kosovo, the United Nations has tried to reduce environmental damage in conflict areas and accelerate cleanup afterwards. But some countries, including Russia, have pushed back on putting in place safeguards, Weir notes. “They take a pretty fatalistic approach to environmental damage in conflict as a cost of doing business,” he says. As the conflict drags on – apparently longer than expected by Russian forces – Weir fears that as the Russian military grows increasingly desperate, environmental damage will not just be collateral, but a tool of force. against the Ukrainians.
Not that issues like pollution are front and center as air raid sirens sound across the country, notes Andriy Andrusevych, an environmental lawyer based in Lviv, Ukraine. The country is currently flying blind in terms of monitoring industrial emissions, he adds, because pollution monitoring systems are largely offline or unchecked. But as a heavily industrialized country, Ukraine already had a bad air base. “They were already one of the worst air quality areas in Europe before that,” says Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research in Stanford University School of Medicine. “If some of these industrial sites are targeted or accidentally hit and burned, that’s going to put a lot of toxic stuff in the air.”
This air pollution will be extremely complex, due to the nature of modern warfare. Missiles, bombings and tank shells corrode almost all of the built environment. Explosions throw a wide range of materials into the air, from heavy metals in industrial sites to concrete, cables and pipes in roads, and asbestos in buildings. (The material, which is linked to lung disease and cancer, was only recently banned in Ukraine.) And that’s not to mention the heavy metals and various carcinogens contained in the explosives themselves.
In other words, soldiers and civilians inhale a far more complicated variety of air pollution than, say, highway exhaust. “Every time you destroy something with the modern chemicals that we use, not just petrochemicals, but asbestos – all of these chemicals – there will be toxic substances released into the atmosphere, including lead and mercury,” says Neta C. Crawford, co-director of Boston University’s Costs of War program. “It’s a toxic stew that’s been aerosolized. And then, of course, some of that will end up in soil and groundwater. It certainly doesn’t help if war disrupts power generation across Ukraine, people may switch to diesel-powered backup generators, adding those fumes to the mix.