The Russian advance in Ukraine continues unabated and it is rapidly turning into a full scale invasion. This war not only has led to a humanitarian crisis, but also, in the long term, it would have devastating consequences for the Ukrainian territory and the neighboring countries.
However, there are many risks involved, like potential intentional or accidental attack to the nuclear power plants located in Ukraine, which has already happened on ninth day of conflict. There are four nuclear plants spread across Ukraine and they generate about half of the country’s primary energy supply. Therefore, an attack to the nuclear power reactors could pose a serious risk to the Ukraine’s energy supply. Moreover, in case of an attack, nuclear reactors could turn into open-cast radioactive mines and the radioactive debris could spread over thousands of miles, including part of the Russian territory. Fortunately, the Russian attacks by firing upon Zaporizhzhia, which is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and produces one-fifth of Ukraine’s electricity, caused no major damage: radiation at the plant remained within normal limits and no essential structure at the plant has been compromised. Yet, it barely avoided nuclear disaster, which would have been six times worse than Chernobyl, according to the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
A key area of concern is not only the potential tampering with the gas network- in which the two belligerent parties could be involved- and the fires that may consequently occur, but also and foremost the industrial sector, strongly developed in eastern Ukraine and characterized by metallurgical and chemical industry, power plants and disused mines.
Any clashes around these areas could lead to a high level of toxic pollution and hence, locals’ health could be severely affected. Ukraine Crisis Media Center has also highlighted the increased risk of forest fires caused by military firearms or explosions.
These concerns relate in particular to the Donbas region, an area that ever since the beginning of the 2014 military conflict, has been known as the country’s most polluted area: the management of toxic waste from coal mining, metallurgy and chemical production has always been a challenge for society. The war in Donbas has led to the closure of numerous factories, without however the factories being secured, thereby significantly increasing the risk of irreversible damage to the environment. For instance, in Mariupol, not only residents are forced to live under rocket attacks by Russian army, but also, they are constantly exposed to soot and smoke coming from the the two steel plants.
Even access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation has become a daily challenge since years of war have led to the degradation of water infrastructures in the area and rivers have been polluted as a result. Another problem concerns the abandoned mines, whose radioactive material has released hazardous waste in the environment.
In other words, Donbas was already in deep water in 2018, but the current conflict is very likely to drastically make it worse. Without taking anything away from the human tragedy brought about by the ongoing war and probably the worst that Europe has experienced in the last decades, the impact of armed conflict on the natural environment is not to be underestimated.
War is not only morally wrong, but it is also a threat to the environment, as history has thought us and as HuffPost reports, recalling the effects of the major conflicts of the previous century.
It is estimated that about 125,000 tons of chemical agents were used in World War I, and about 96,000 tons were used during the Vietnam war. The use of nerve gas was lethal for both people and animals, and due to the tactical use of herbicides by the US forces to defoliate areas and to deny cover to enemy troops, those forests have not been regrowing ever since and many species have gone extinct.
“According to a research conducted by Michael Lawrence, about 15 tons of oil were spilled in the Atlantic Ocean during the World War II. Today there are still traces of oil related to the World War II oil spill.”
“The 1938 Yellow River Flood created by the Nationalist Government in Central Cina during the Sino-Japanese War, has been called the largest act of environmental warfare in history”, causing irreversible damage.
During Rwandan Civil War numerous people were living in Virunga National Park. According to Worldwatch Institute, approximately 1,000 tons of wood were removed from the park every day, for two years: at the end of the conflict about 105 sq. km of forest got destroyed.
"It was estimated that 21,136000 gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed on South Vietnam, as many as 4,8 million people were sprayed, about 400,000 died and approximately 500,000 children were born with birth defects. […] In general, the military vehicles and the munitions cause air pollution and generate hazardous dust.[…] For instance, cancer, congenital malformations and other health issues are associated with the environmental pollution caused by wars.”
Since conflict pollution represents a major environmental challenge, the United Nations declared 6 November of each year as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. In spite of it all, and although the past years have thought us that the conflict in Ukraine could have huge environmental costs, it seems humanity never learns from history.
Translated by Iuliana Cindrea