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Russia-Ukraine Crisis: The Unforeseen Environmental Cost

From attacks on high-energy nuclear power stations to sparking forest fires, the environmental damage of the Russia-Ukraine Crisis is worsening with every passing day. But, what exactly is at stake? And is there a way out?

Bombing Residential and Industrial Areas: The Real Consequences

A non-profit organization in the UK, Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), has closely monitored the situation in the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the effects of the Russian invasion.

Since most online monitoring stations have been taken down, researchers have been using satellite pictures and eyewitness accounts to assess the ground situation.

The Organization fears permanent damage by the bombardment of urban areas, including industrial sites close to where people work and like. According to the researcher, bombing in such places creates enormous health risks for the residents for many years to come, as witnessed in Chechnya.

A plume was formed during the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Centre in New York, which contained ground up cement, glass fibres, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and polychlorinated furans and dioxins.

With the destruction of entire cities and the bombardment of industrial sites throughout Ukraine, the impact on air quality may be greater.

Since 2014, the conflict in Ukraine’s Eastern provinces has been ongoing, and its effects are already visible. For example, a recent UNEP report cited by Action on Armed Violence indicates that 36 mines in Ukraine’s Donbas have flooded and are likely to have leaked methane gases and toxic heavy metals into local groundwater pools. This poses an irreversible pollution threat to essential water supplies.

Mariupol, currently under siege and experiencing heavy fighting, is a major concern. The city houses two large steelworks and over 50 other industrial enterprises that pose serious environmental threats if damaged.

As per the researchers of CEOBS, as a country with one nuclear power system, the environmental stakes are much higher.

Can Climate Governance Be Clocked Back in Ukraine?

In Ukraine, there is still a lot to investigate before the true extent of environmental damage is known.

The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program reports that, following past conflicts, 30 per cent of Chechen territory is contaminated and no longer meets environmental conditions for life.

The ground has been polluted with 20,000 tons of oil pollutants since 1994, making the majority of its agricultural land barren.

The challenge of restoring the environment in the Russia-Ukraine crisis grows when the bombs are silent.

“Environment remediation is very expensive and often technically quite challenging, and we find that often after conflicts, this isn’t done. There is no capacity, or money, or resources to remediate the environment.”

Doug Weir, Research and Policy Director

Although carbon emissions are a direct cause of climate change, the shift in economic priorities of certain countries, along with a breach in mutual trust, poses the biggest risk.

Russia-Ukraine Crisis: The Short Term and Long Term Consequences

Ukraine may face an increase in asthma exacerbations in the short term, and the elderly might experience more pneumonia and acute bronchitis. In addition, pollution brings with it an increased risk of respiratory infections.

Immune cells try to engulf those foreign objects in your lungs, so they are distracted from attacking microbes and instead attack air pollution. The immune system also uses these cells to fight viruses. Thus, the correlation between Covid rates and wildfires or air pollution exists. (Although the world is still mired in a pandemic, only one-third of Ukraine’s population is fully immunized.)

Over the long term, scientists believe that exposure to air pollution results in a shorter life expectancy. Experts estimate that chronic exposure might shave two months off one’s life in the US, but it can be as much as years in a heavily polluted country like Bangladesh.

There are a variety of long-term health impacts, such as cancers of different kinds. For example, symptoms of lung cancer include an increase in PM2.5 and neurologic problems. In addition, almost every organ has some negative impact from exposure to even PM 2.5. (Smoke contains particles of varying sizes; for instance, PM 10 is still inhalable but doesn’t penetrate as deep as PM 2.5.)

Russia-Ukraine Crisis: What Can be Done?

A total of 108 civil society organizations worldwide addressed the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi at the end of February, highlighting the serious threats the invasion poses to the environment and calling for support to monitor and address the risks.

A second open letter by the Environmental Peacebuilding Association demands an investigation of human rights and environmental violations and accountability.

The Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has announced an open investigation into crimes committed in Ukraine. Though the court has theoretically jurisdiction over the crime of “intentionally causing serious damage to the natural environment subsequently causing widespread, long-term, and severe damage”, it has never filed suit.

“By linking environmental destruction to attacks against civilian property (a war crime) or a widespread and systematic attack on a civilian population (a crime against humanity)”

Rachel Killean, Queen’s University Belfast

A longer-term solution could be to explicitly amend the ICC statute to include environmental crimes, as the Stop Ecocide campaign aims to achieve.

Action can also be taken domestically. For example, several Ukrainian security services, including the Prosecutor General’s Office, have already described the occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant as “a commission of an ecocide”, which requires criminal investigation. Furthermore, alongside Russia, Ukraine is one of the few states to criminalize ecocide with a law.