An Environmental Perspective on the Impacts of the Conflict in Ukraine
By: Sarah O'Leary
On February 24th, Russia invaded Ukraine which soon escalated into the largest humanitarian catastrophe in Europe since World War II. So far, thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed, millions of Ukrainans have fled, and billions of dollars of infrastructure has been damaged. While the world should rightfully focus on the welfare of the humans in this conflict, there are also devastating environmental consequences occurring simultaneously which demand attention.
Ukraine is a highly industrialized country. For instance, Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors at four different power plants, steel plants, weapon factories, coal mines, oil depots, chemical facilities, a hydropower dam, and much more. Damage to any of these industrial sites will have major impacts on human and environmental health. For example, if the hydropower dam was breached, it would flood entire towns, drowning many people and wiping out ecosystems. Similarly, if one of the chemical facilities were damaged, a toxic waste spill could occur. A chemical facility near Toresk has two huge man-made toxic waste ponds that emit phenol fumes and gaseous naphthalene and formaldehyde. Iryna Nikolaieva, an expert in hazardous waste, conducted an audit on the facility and found that one of the dams in these ponds is holding back more than a quarter million tons of chemical sludge and that dam shows signs of instability. If Russia were to shell the facility, it could breach one of the storage ponds. This leak could spread into other surrounding pools which would overflow them, resulting in millions of tons of toxic sludge pouring into the Zalizna River. This tidal wave of toxic sludge will damage vital infrastructures and more importantly, contaminate drinking water for the region. Nikolaieva states that “people will die if it’s the only water that they can drink, maybe for one week [they will be] okay, and then your organs will be poisoned…”. Not only would this contamination of the water supply eliminate the most basic human need, but it will also destroy aquatic ecosystems.
Many of these dangers have already been seen. On April 5th, a photo of an “orange plume of smoke” was posted by the governor of Luhansk Oblast in eastern Ukraine, which was the result of a Russian strike on a nitric-acid-filled tank (which is used to produce ammonium nitrate which is used in fertilizer and TNT). Residents were advised to stay indoors, seal their homes, and wear a mask. Any inhalation of this corrosive acid can cause serious injuries and exposure to flesh will result in severe chemical burns. Experts explained that it would be safe to go out after the fumes were diluted by rain, but it is unknown how much was absorbed by the surrounding environment. On top of that, nitric acid manufacturers release nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas and is “265 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide”.
The governor of the Luhansk region of Ukraine shared this image on Facebook, warning residents to stay inside after a Russian strike hit a nitric acid tank.
As prevalent as Ukraine’s industrial sites are, Ukraine is also home to many wildlife reserves, such as the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve which is on the southern coast. This reserve is a haven for more than 120,000 birds and a variety of endangered species including the Black Sea bottlenose dolphin, as well as rare flowers, countless mollusks, and dozens of species of fish. Thus far, more than one-third of the nation's protected natural areas have either been trespassed by Russians or been a location for military operations. Some military actions have caused large wildfires to ignite, prompting concerns about habitat loss, wildlife deaths, pollution, and destruction of ecosystems. Soldiers will dig trenches, tanks will flatten vegetation, bombs will permeanately scar landscapes, explosives will start fires, heavy metals will leak into the ground, and weapons will release toxic gasses and particulates into the air. In addition, military actions near a nuclear power plant can lead to large-scale radioactive contamination in Ukraine and areas beyond its borders, causing severe health concerns in both humans and wildlife. This has already happened when Russian troops dug trenches into the grounds at the Chernobyl reactor (the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster), releasing radioactivity. Timothy Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina, states “We see dramatic declines in abundance and lower diversity of organisms in the more radioactive areas”. Animals like wolves, foxes, dogs, lynx, and boars all reside in exclusion zones but Russian takeovers of these areas are causing great disturbances and will likely push the animals away. Now Chernobyl remains uninhabitable for humans but nature has made a huge comeback in that area, which has been highlighted by the TV series, Our Planet. Nature is resilient but it takes time. This resiliency will be put to the test by the damage from the Ukrainian-Russian conflict.
The rare Przewalski's horse nearly went extinct a couple of decades ago. Now, their horse population has been increasing as they thrive in an area around Chernobyl.
While the majority of the environmental crises resulting from this conflict are happening in Ukraine, they are starting to spread to other countries including the United States. In early March, President Biden decided to ban the import of Russian oil to the U.S. which has caused prices to surge. The Biden administration is struggling with reconciling between citizens' distress with high gas prices and Biden’s pledge to reduce the use of fossil fuels. In 2020, Biden told voters in New Hampshire, “no more drilling on federal lands, period”. In order to address the high gas prices, the Interior Department said that it is planned next week to auction off leases to drill on 145,000 acres of public land in nine states. This decision is raising concerns with environmental activists and scientists because this additional drilling will have negative environmental impacts. Randi Spival, director of the public lands for Center for Biological Diversity, expresses “It’s as if [the Biden administration is] ignoring the horror of firestorms, floods and megadroughts and accepting climate catastrophe as business as usual”.
Richard Pearshouse, the director of the environment and human rights division of Human Rights Watch emphasizes that “It’s no longer sufficient to think of the environment as an afterthought to conflict”. This is a good reminder to all of us to keep in mind that beyond the human toll of this conflict, we will all be dealing with the environmental impacts as well.
(1) The New York Times
(2) Gerd Ludwig, National Geographic Image Collection
(1) Davenport, Coral. “Biden Plans to Open More Public Land to Drilling.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 15, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/15/climate/biden-drilling-oil-leases.html.
(2) Garza, Alejandro de la. “Russia's War Could Cause Environmental Disasters in Ukraine.” Time. Time, March 18, 2022. https://time.com/6158383/ukraine-environmental-health-risks-russia/.
(3) Pérez-Peña, Richard. “What Happened on Day 41 of the War in Ukraine.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 18, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/04/05/world/ukraine-russia-war#residents-are-advised-to-stay-indoors-after-a-russian-strike-hits-a-nitric-acid-tank-in-eastern-ukraine.
(4) “Ukraine Is Ground Zero for the Environmental Impacts of War.” Sierra Club, April 13, 2022. https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/ukraine-ground-zero-for-environmental-impacts-war.