This past week, November 6, marked the UN’s International Day for Preventing Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. Between the war crimes, geopolitical instability, and invaluable loss of human life, an often unpublicised victim of war is the environment itself.
The ecological destruction by Russian forces in Ukraine carries consequences that ecosystems across Europe – and the world– may never be able to recover from. The stark reality is we have yet to see the full scope of the damage that this conflict will have on the environment, long after the missiles stop flying.
In a statement about the environmental harm Russia has caused in Ukraine thus far, Harri Moora, Environmental Management Programme Director at the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) stated:
“Important nature reserves have burned, with a presumably irreversible impact on ecosystems. All of it creates indescribable suffering for people and the natural environment. The dust and combustion gases have poisoned people and created widespread air pollution. Satellite pictures have shown wildfire areas and smoke clouds all over Ukraine. Ukraine has a lot of industrial objects and waste facilities, which can create wide and long-term pollution in Ukraine and neighbouring countries when destroyed.”
Countless stories have come out of Ukraine describing these impacts. In one example, the city of Bovary, 12 miles northeast of Kyiv, an “indescribable” odour is filling the air. This is because in March, Russian missiles destroyed a massive frozen food warehouse full of meat, dairy, and vegetables. Three months later, when Ukraine regained the occupied territory, Olena Sydorenko, a representative from Ukraine’s environmental agency came to test the water supply. The report was damning: the water supply was full of ammonia and nitrates, completely poisoning the local wells and leaving tens of thousands without drinking water.
Speaking of her work going around Ukraine to test these levels since the war began, Sydorenko said, “We have never seen such pollution.” Her work is part of the National Environmental Ministry of Ukraine’s effort to document the ecological obliteration to hold Russia accountable.
“The day will come when Russia will pay for all its crimes,” said Ruslan Strilets, head of Ukraine’s National Environmental Ministry, “including crimes against the environment.”
And, of course, the volatile situation in in Zaporizhzhya has been a ticking time bomb for the possibility of nuclear waste leaking into the Dnipro river, carrying radioactive toxins into the Black Sea. Earlier this year, Ukrainian officials reported that Russian tanks and vehicles travelling through the Chernobyl site also kicked up toxics in the soil, increasing radiation levels unseen there in decades.
Russia knows exactly what they are doing. On the day Russia declared their “special military operation” against Ukraine, they gutted what little environmental protections they had in place.
Russia’s environmental ministry also announced that they would be pushing back the implementation of their proposed Clean Air Act for the next two years.
Ukraine has since demanded that Russia pay for the environmental impact of the occupation. However, environmental destruction does not abide by country borders. In the coming months, it is possible that neighbouring countries will take up similar suits to hold Moscow accountable for the ecological destruction of their territories.
Next week, SARFAN will be publishing an investigative report on the environmental impacts we can expect to see in the countries surrounding Russia and Ukraine. Stay tuned, stay informed, stay safe.