War's environmental impact begins far before the conflict itself. The cost of constructing and maintaining military troops is enormous. Common metals, rare earth elements, water, and hydrocarbons are examples. Maintaining military readiness necessitates training, which requires funding. Military vehicles, planes, warships, buildings, and infrastructure all require an energy source which is often oil and unfortunately has low efficiency. The CO2e emissions of the world's largest militaries exceed those of several countries combined.
As Russian soldiers intensified their attack on Ukrainian cities, escalating a long-simmering conflict into a full-fledged invasion, observers warned that the latest round of violence could result in much more long-term environmental harm. Millions of residents have been forced to evacuate their homes as a result of Vladimir Putin's attack on Ukraine, with thousands more trapped under Russian shelling in cities such as Mariupol. The battle is also causing new environmental concerns, which may increase the war's human toll. Some of these environmental dangers, such as a radioactive spill from one of Ukraine's nuclear power facilities, might have rapid and catastrophic implications. Others, such as carcinogenic dust from bombed buildings, provide long-term dangers with even more long-term consequences.
After some critical thinking over 1,000 organizations and individuals from over 75 countries signed an open letter expressing their support for the Ukrainian people and their concern about the war's environmental and human toll. Toxic elements are released into the air, water, and soil as a result of crumpled structures, faulty sanitation systems, ruptured pipes, and damaged industrial facilities such as fuel and chemical storage sites. Experts fear that the war will escalate, with Russia targeting hydroelectric dams, toxic mine tailings dams, and hazardous waste storage sites in Ukraine.
The highly industrialized landscape of Ukraine makes the conflict one of the most perilous in terms of environmental consequences, including the threat of a nuclear meltdown. After an attack by Russian soldiers, a fire broke out at Europe's largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia.
Experts say that while a radiation leak was not immediately detected, a strike on the site could be disastrous, according to international officials. A Russian seizure of the plant, according to Nickolai Denisov, deputy director of ZOI Environmental Network, a Swiss charity that provides environmental analysis, might disrupt vital monitoring systems and restrict crew access to the plant, increasing the risk of accidents.
As heavy machinery passed through the area, radioactive dust from the 1986 nuclear catastrophe was blown into the air by Russian forces who had taken control of the defunct nuclear plant in Chernobyl, northern Ukraine. The dust has been suspended, which is dangerous for those in the area, but powerful gusts could transport it across a broad area with residents.
Attacks on military, industrial, and hospital sites can also release radioactive material. There are also concerns that Russia may be employing "depleted uranium weapons," which can pierce lighter iron and leave highly poisonous uranium particles when used.
Russia has targeted military sites like airfields, fuel and ammunition storage facilities in the first week of fighting. Massive fires emitted heavy metals and other hazardous elements as a result of the attacks. According to the Conflict and Environment Observatory, or CEOBS, a UK-based NGO that monitors and publicizes data on the environmental components of armed conflicts, fighting in Ukraine's Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO protected area, has resulted in flames that can be seen from space. CEOBS has developed a list of environmentally sensitive locations that were attacked during the invasion's first few days.
Pollution from Military Sites & Materials
Russia's bombardment of Ukrainian military assets, including those in civilian areas, has characterized the first two days of fighting. In Krasnopillia, Krivoy Rog, Dnipro, and Zhitomir, ammunition storage facilities were among them. Hostomel, Gostomel, Chuhuyev, Chernobaevka, Melitopol, Ivano-Frankivsk, Mykolaiv, and Millerovo (all in Russia) have airfields and petroleum storage tanks, as well as naval facilities.
As a result, fires have erupted, polluting the atmosphere. The civilian areas were engulfed in large plumes of smoke. These are made up of toxic gasses and particulates, as well as heavy metals and energetic materials, which were stored with conventional weapons. There will be significant soil and water contamination at these sites, and the extent to which these pollutants can migrate from military facilities will vary by site. Pollution from firefighting foams may be present in areas where flames were attempted to be extinguished. Naval sites that have been damaged have the potential to pollute the coast. This new pollution may add to existing military contamination in areas where facilities have been in operation for a long time. On a smaller scale, smoldering tanks, transportation vehicles, crashed aircraft, and other combat remains pollute the environment. Whether planned or unintentional, attacks on ships can endanger the marine ecosystem
Nuclear Facilities & Radiation Risks
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant was hit by fighting on February 24th. The decommissioning and decontamination of the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster is currently ongoing. The site was captured by the Russian military, and workers are being kept captive, according to "reliable accounts." This could increase the likelihood of a significant incident if routine maintenance decommissioning is halted.
As the invasion's first day came to an end, three sensors in the automated radiation monitoring system revealed excessive levels of gamma radiation in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The reported radiation dose was around 28 times the yearly limit. The reasons for this are currently unknown, however the IAEA suggests that it could be due to resuspended dust caused by tracked vehicle movements.
Experts claim that one of the purposes of this action by Russian troops was to prevent Ukrainian nationalists from entering the territory of the facility to carry out provocations with radioactive materials, according to the Russian media. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian parliament's speaker expressed concern that it could be used in a Russian false-flag operation. Chernobyl will very certainly remain a crucial part of the environmental propaganda war because of its significance.
Aside from nuclear-related sites, radioactive sources and materials can also be found in industrial sites, hospitals, and military institutions. Finally, there are valid concerns that Russian tanks may be equipped with 125mm depleted uranium ammunition, necessitating wreckage analyses.
Various industrial locations can be found in Ukraine. According to the Environmental Performance Index, even before the conflict, the country ranked low on environmental metrics such as air quality, biodiversity production, and ecosystem health. Because of its coal mining, metallurgy, and chemical-manufacturing facilities, the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine has long been regarded as one of the most polluted parts of the country.
The dangers of an environmental disaster in the heavily industrialized Donbas region have been a major source of concern for the past eight years. Communities and forces on both sides of the line of contact are aware of the dangers, but as the conflict escalates, the likelihood of an event increases, especially if the mostly static line of contact moves.
The abandonment of groundwater pumping from the region's coal mines may have already set the stage for a longer-term environmental catastrophe in the Donbas. The extent to which the ground has been deforming due to rising groundwater was revealed in a study. Mine drainage is generally contaminated with high amounts of salts and metals, damaging wells and drinking water sources, and subsidence can cause damage to buildings and infrastructure. The outflow from the Yunkom mine, which was the location of a nuclear test in the 1970s, is of particular concern.
A grain elevator in the city of Uman was damaged, in addition to chemical, metallurgical, and energy facilities. Ukraine and Russia are key grain exporters, and price rises are expected to have an impact on global food security, particularly in nations like Yemen. "The deepening of violence in Ukraine is likely to further boost gasoline and food prices, particularly grains in the import-dependent country," the World Food Programme said.
Fighting in densely populated regions, in particular, carries a greater risk of artillery accidentally hitting a vulnerable location. The prolonged violence has repercussions far beyond Ukraine, as the country is a significant supplier of crops to countries all around the world. More than 40% of Ukraine's wheat and corn exports go to the Middle East and Africa, countries that are already suffering from food shortages and might be further exacerbated by any disruptions. A major portion of these exports originate in the country's endangered eastern regions, and combat that extends beyond separatist-controlled areas might exacerbate food insecurity, according to the UN.
Environmental fears in Ukraine are not new, and they have been felt particularly strongly in the areas of the country most affected by the conflict, which began in 2014 and has so far claimed the lives of over 13,000 people. Eastern Ukraine, known as the Donbas, is heavily industrialized and was already regarded as one of the most polluted areas of the country before the war. It struggled to deal with toxic waste from a history of coal mining, metallurgy, and chemical production; after the war, many of its operational factories were forced to close, increasing the risk that they would harm the environment as they languished.