Nature suffering in Ukraine


The ‘silent victim’: Ukraine considers the cost of war for nature.

Smoke that is toxic, polluted rivers, poisoned soil, trees that have been reduced to charred stumps, and nature preserves with craters everywhere: A new map shows the environmental impact of Russia’s war with Ukraine, which was once thought to be unimaginable.

However, extensive investigations are currently underway by Ukrainian scientists, conservationists, bureaucrats, and lawyers to ensure that this is the first conflict in which environmental crimes are fully dealt with, allowing the aggressor to be held accountable for a compensation claim that currently exceeds $50 billion (£42 billion).

A hotline for citizens to report cases of Russian “ecocide” has been established by the environment ministry. To date, 2,303 cases have been reported, and the tally is updated weekly. In the most recent edition, it is estimated that:

– 320,104 explosive devices have caused the impact to be absorbed or neutralised in Ukraine.
– 174,000 square kilometres, or nearly one third of the country, remains potentially hazardous.
– From the 3,000 Russian tanks and other military equipment that were destroyed, 230,000 tonnes of scrap metal are included in the debris.
– 16 wetlands, two biospheres, and one hundred sixty nature reserves are in danger of being destroyed.
– Countless mines in the Dark Ocean compromise delivery and marine creatures.
– Eight hundred different plant and animal species are in danger of extinction.
– A third of the land in Ukraine is either uncultivated or inaccessible to agriculture.
– Up to 40% of arable land cannot be used for agriculture.

At a recent workshop in Kyiv, Oleksandr Stavniychuk, deputy head of the department of environmental control and methodology, estimated that the losses from pollution of land, water, and air totalled $51.4 billion.

It is almost certainly the most comprehensive record of environmental damage during a war. The use of defoliants from Agent Orange sparked outrage during the Vietnam War. The burning of oil wells received a lot of attention during the Gulf War. However, there has been nothing comparable to the breadth and scope of the current government, universities, and civil society assessments.

A young landscape ecologist by the name of Kateryna Polyanska travels the country collecting samples from bomb craters and photographs of environmental damage in national parks. The risks are extremely high. She came across a fox that had been killed by a mine on one trip. On another, she could hear the sound of adjacent shelling. But she believes it’s a risk worth taking.

“Last year, I started doing this investigation by computer using only satellite images, but I decided I needed to see it with my own eyes,” she said. “War is not just about direct impacts, it is also the destruction of our nature and environment.”

She initially resisted entering the craters, some of which are more than three meters deep. However, she jokes that she became an expert on craters after completing 20.

After being returned to a laboratory, the samples are examined for toxic chemicals such as white phosphorus. This is necessary to decide how to restore the land and whether to warn the locals to stay away from streams that could be contaminated.

Some areas, she said, were charred, while others looked like moon landscapes. Among the most shocking environmental destruction was the bombing of ancient chalk slopes, a unique ecosystem in the Holy Mountain national park. “When you see craters there, you know it will never recover. The chalk slopes were formed over 100m years and then destroyed in one year of war.”

The worst damage is not always visible. “It is not just the explosive material, it is rocket fuel and shrapnel and wire … All these little tiny pieces of pollution have a huge impact on nature. You can’t imagine the scale of the impact.”

The majority of her work focuses on determining damage and potential dangers to humans and the environment. However, rehabilitation and compensation also play a role.

The Environmental People Law organisation, which brings together scientists and lawyers, employs Polyanska. In accordance with article eight of the Rome Statute, which deals with ecological crimes, they are building legal cases against Russia in the international criminal court alongside other Ukrainian government and civil society organisations. Additionally, “methods or means of warfare that are intended to cause or may be expected to cause widespread, lasting and severe damage to the natural environment” are prohibited by the Geneva Convention.

By recognising “ecocide” as a crime against the living natural world, environmentalists and legal scholars believe Ukraine can advance international law. The British environmental lawyer Polly Higgins popularised this term, which has not yet been defined in international law. However, Ukraine is one of several former Soviet bloc nations that has passed ecocide legislation. This is as of now being utilised. 11 criminal cases are currently being processed by the prosecutor general’s office in accordance with Ukraine’s article 441 on ecocide in the criminal code. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine, told the G20 summit in November that ecocide recognition and environmental protection were two of the ten most important proposals in the Ukrainian formula for peace.

Conservation groups have mobilised and repurposed themselves independently of the government to gather evidence. Ecoaction, the largest environmental NGO in Ukraine, has compiled reports of more than 840 incidents and plotted them on an interactive “environmental damage map” with Greenpeace’s assistance. They have measured and highlighted the most significant physical effects using satellite images.

Benzopyrene, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and other toxic chemicals were released in billowing clouds during the attacks on industrial centres like Odesa, Donetsk, and Lviv. Large-scale forest fires have also been started by war, particularly in the Luhansk oblast, where 17,000 hectares of forest have burned.

The largest nuclear power plant in Europe, Zaporizhzhia, has suffered fires, damage to power lines, and now faces a threat to its cooling system from low water levels in the Russia-controlled Kakhovka reservoir. This is of the utmost concern for humans. Water systems have been damaged by both sides, but Russia was the first to take action and has gone much further by targeting residential areas and industrial facilities.

An appeal for international recognition of Russia’s environmental crimes was launched by Yuliia Ovchynnykova, a Ukrainian MP who serves on a parliamentary environment committee. This led to the Council of Europe adopting ecocide documents. She wants lawmakers from other countries to give her more support.

She expresses more than 2m hectares of woodland have been obliterated, destroying environments and endangering uncommon endemic species, for example, pearl cornflowers, which can be tracked down just on sandy steppes on the edges of Mykolaiv, or the exposed tree, which is fills in a thin region of the Stone Graves save in Donetsk. She claimed that the war had awakened a new appreciation for nature. Ovchynnykova stated that the country had a greater appreciation of the security benefits of places like the Polissia, which is Europe’s largest holdout of wild nature and is a natural protective barrier consisting of hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of forests, swamps, floodplains, lakes, and wet meadows. In addition, the Polissia provides ecosystem services such as fresh water, clean air, and fertile soil. In a similar vein, the detonation of a dam on the Irpin River acted as a swamp barrier against the advance of Russian troops on Kyiv early in the war.

There are also indirect effects. Industry and agriculture lobbyists are making use of the crisis in both countries to push for looser protections for nature and more land for development. Carbon dioxide and pollution are both caused by the production of missiles and other weapons, as are the fires and explosions they start. There have been 33 million tons of CO2 released as a result of the war, and it is anticipated that postwar reconstruction will produce an additional 48.7 million tons.

This contradicts the commonly held belief that nature gains from human suffering. That may have been the case in isolated no-go areas in the past. Wildlife has thrived in the heavily mined demilitarised zone between North Korea and South Korea and in the contamination zone surrounding the Chornobyl nuclear disaster up until the start of the Ukraine war. In any case, there is no such potential gain in a hot struggle. Even Chornobyl’s status as a sanctuary has been diminished. Concerns were raised when Russian troops dug trenches in the area, which may have exposed radioactive soil.

Most abuses of nature go unreported in the media. “Nature is suffering. The environment is the silent victim of the war,” said Olena Maslyukivska, an environmental economist. She is attempting to address this as a member of a working group to calculate compensation and believes that a restoration tax on Russian oil or Russian oligarchs should be included in any peace agreement.

For now though, the fighting, burning and polluting continue, as does the effort to measure the horror. The researcher Polyanska plans to get back on the road in spring, after the winter snows have thawed. When the war is finally over, she hopes reconstruction can be used to improve as well as restore Ukraine. “I hope we can do things in a more ecological way. We need more green technology in industrial centres and perhaps there are some dams that we shouldn’t rebuild. We need deep scientific study.”

Other campaigners are also looking forwards. Denys Tsutsaiev of Greenpeace said Ukraine needed mechanisms and resources for nature restoration: “It’s an essential part of improving the health of people who suffer from the war and getting back to normal life.”



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