Predicting the Environmental Damage of the Russian Invasion

March 21st, 2022 - by Down to Earth

Environmental Impacts
Of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Down to Earth

(February 24, 2022) — On February 22nd, Vladimir Putin declared two separatist Ukrainian regions Donetsk and Luhansk as independent, after years of conflict. The 1,50,000 troops that are lined along the Ukrainian border could result in the greatest war that Europe has seen in the past couple of decades. It could lead to thousands of civilian deaths, a potential refugee crisis and global economic downfall.

And this could also create irreversible damage to the regional as well as the global environment.

Biodiversity: Ukraine encompasses 6% of the European landmass but 35% of its biodiversity. There are over 70,000 species of rare and endemic flora and fauna. It is crossed by large rivers like the Dnipro, Dniester, Pivdenny Buh and Danube whose produce is an essential contributor to the food security of the country.

About 16% of the land is also covered by forests, since the sale of timber is one of the main economic activities of the country. As the tanks, rocket launchers and ballistic missile systems begin operating, wetlands (33 of which have a status of international importance) like the Eastern Syvash for instance, are going to get damaged first.

Explosions from the artillery will also increase the risk of forest fires, which already burnt 20,000 ha of the Luhansk region in 2020.

Groundwater Damage: Since the annexation of Crimea, the Donets Coal Basin or ‘Donbas’ has faced significant damages. It contains active and inactive land mines, which are pumped regularly so that the groundwater does not flood them. Amidst a strike, if the pumping stops, the floodwater could dissolve mercury, arsenic and lead…contaminating the groundwater permanently.

[Ukraine] had identified 35 sites where the pumping had stopped after 2014. Some of the sites were originally mined via nuclear detonations and the floodwater could potentially carry debris with radiation to different regions.

Nuclear Impact: While attacking, if the forces move across the Ukraine-Belarusian border, it could disperse radioactive particles from the soil at Chernobyl, which would become a point of no return.

If one of the 15 Ukrainian nuclear reactors are struck during the war, the radiation could reach thousands of miles — even in some parts of Russia. The impacts of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 can be observed in Ukraine even now.

Diseases: Previously, the war had damaged the waste removal and sewage treatment infrastructure, some of which started flowing into the Donetsk river, [causing a] surge of fecal coliform infections. Any damage to infrastructure begins a series of events, like a domino effect. This will spread infections, in addition to impacting the food security of the region.

Economic Impact and GHG Emissions: In addition to all of these, the weapons and armor used during a conflict will also shoot up the carbon footprint of a region, locking more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. This puts the country at a higher risk of climate-change-related disasters. Moreover, wars take a toll on economic activities.

For example, a forest fire will stop the sale of timber and collection of all produce from there. It also locks borders, which puts a grinding halt to all kinds of trade. A potential refugee crisis also puts the surrounding countries under threat, who want to protect their own citizens.

While the humanitarian impact of an imminent war is devastating enough, the ecological impact will affect people for decades to come.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.