Along with the many costs of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, there could be devastating environmental consequences. Many observers are especially worried about the potential for nuclear catastrophes.
Some Russians are concerned about the environmental effects of the war, too. Oleg Anisimov, head of the Russian delegation at a closed-door U.N. climate conference, apologized for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Let me present an apology on behalf of all Russians who were not able to prevent this conflict,” Anisimov said, according to sources at the meeting and reported by The Washington Post and other news outlets.
Experts warn that if Russia targets Ukraine’s chemical plants, electric grid or industrial infrastructure, there could be widespread and long-lasting trouble. “Eastern Ukraine is full of industrial sites like metallurgical plants, chemical factories, power stations and run-down mines,” said Richard Pearshouse, the head of Crisis and the Environment at Amnesty International, as reported by Grist. “Fighting around these sites risks generating extreme toxic pollution, with severe health impacts worsening the already horrific humanitarian crisis for local people.”
Intentionally attacking civilian infrastructure is illegal under the laws of war, according to Pearshouse. But is Putin concerned about the laws of war? Probably not. Pearshouse asked military commanders to “take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects.” When fighting in crowded urban areas, stray artillery can easily hit vulnerable sites.
Ukraine has already suffered more than its fair share of environmental disasters. The 1986 Chernobyl accident is the most famous. A power surge destroyed a unit at a nuclear power station, releasing a massive amount of radioactive material into the environment. Thirty-one people died immediately, and the health and environmental consequences were far-reaching.
In Eastern Ukraine, the heavily industrialized Donbas area has tons of toxic waste from chemical manufacturing and coal mining. Since 2014, Ukrainians have been fighting pro-Russian forces in the Donbas War. The war has damaged Ukraine’s water infrastructure and polluted rivers. Untreated sewage has long flowed into the Donetsk River. Abandoned mines have contaminated the groundwater with lead, arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals.
“Donbas is on the precipice of an ecological catastrophe fueled by air, soil and water pollution from the combustion of large amounts of ammunition in the fighting and flooding at industrial plants,” Leila Urekenova, an analyst for the U.N. Environment Programme, said back in 2018, as reported by Grist. “There is an urgent need for ecological monitoring to assess and minimize the environmental risks arising from the armed conflict.”
Instead, the environmental problems are snowballing. As the armed conflict escalates, so does the toll on the land.
Lead image via Pixabay