The war in Ukraine has already been a disaster for nature and the environment – and there is no end in sight.
Since February 24, 2022, the war in Ukraine has caused untold human suffering. It has also brought unprecedented and long-lasting challenges to the environment. With extreme violence still ongoing, it is too early for a comprehensive assessment of the environmental damage, yet there are already worrying indications of the nature and scope of the damage that is growing with each day of the war.
The environmental costs of the war include direct impacts on habitats and species; but also indirect ones in terms of pollution of air, land, and water, or diverted resources.
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Even before the war, Ukraine – like other countries – was facing significant environmental challenges, including crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. The country has already warmed by almost 1.5°C over the last 30 years, and the increase in annual mean temperatures could reach 3°C by the middle of the century. The impacts of these changes are increasingly evident, for example in decreased harvest yields.
The war is not only impacting an already stressed natural environment but also preventing efforts to improve the situation. Activities and investments to restore habitats, conserve species, improve protected area management as well as mitigate and adapt to climate change have been disrupted.
Europe’s Green Heart at risk
Ukraine has a high diversity of habitats and species. It is part of a broader region stretching across Central and Eastern Europe sometimes referred to as the “Green Heart of Europe”.
This includes rare steppe ecosystems, coastal wetlands, alpine meadows, ancient beech forests, and extensive peatlands. The country shares a part of the Danube Delta, the second-largest river delta of continental Europe and the largest reed-bed in the world. It includes vast pine, oak, and birch forests and peat bogs in the Polyssia region of northern Ukraine. The Carpathian mountains in the western part of the country are home to ancient beech forests and alpine meadows. Importantly, rare steppe ecosystems survive in the central and eastern parts of Ukraine.
The territory of Ukraine contains habitats that are home to 35 per cent of Europe’s biodiversity, including 70,000 plant and animal species, many of them rare, relict, and endemic. They include European bison and brown bears, lynx, and wolves as well as sturgeon, the world’s most threatened group of species.
Military intervention threatens these natural treasures. Movements of large-scale military vehicles and explosives are damaging habitats both inside and outside protected areas. Fires sparked by attacks have already damaged over 100,000 hectares of natural ecosystems, according to satellite data from the European Forest Fire Information System. The State Forest Resources Agency of Ukraine has already recorded 78 times more fire incidents than during the same period last year.
According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, at least 900 protected areas together covering 1.2 million hectares or 30 per cent of all protected areas in Ukraine have been affected by shelling, bombing, oil pollution, and military manoeuvres.
Some territories of the Emerald Network are under threat of complete destruction. According to Oleksii Vasyliuk of the Ukrainian Conservation Group, an NGO, a fifth of the country’s 377 Emerald network sites protected under the Bern Convention have been degraded by military action. These include many unique steppe habitats of the highest nature value as well as the dense forests growing along the Siverskyi Donets River, which provide shelter, food, and nesting sites for protected birds of prey. As troops concentrate here, they jeopardise the integrity of this biodiversity hotspot.
At least 14 Ramsar sites – valuable wetland areas that have been internationally recognized according to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands – are under threat of destruction. They include the expansive shallow marine lagoons and the biggest island of the Black Sea in Karkinitska and Dzharylgatska bays; the Dnipro river delta, a refuge for nature in a region known for its huge agricultural fields; and the bogs, meanders, and natural meadows of the Desna river floodplains in the Sumy region.
Adding to the damage is the fact that the conflict is taking place in the spring, when animals move in search of mates and food, and when they are rearing their young. In the spring, hundreds of thousands of waterfowl migrate along Ukraine´s sea coast and through the Polissya region in the north. Over 30,000 white storks and 1,000 rare black storks enter the country every year in search of nesting places. Bears are ending hibernation. Wild ungulates give birth and need peace and quiet.
The war also has significant indirect costs. As a consequence of the war, 24 protected areas have been forced to suspend their conservation activities in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zаporizia, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Kyiv, and Crimea regions. Where troops have withdrawn, as around Kyiv or Chernihiv, they have left behind park infrastructure and facilities that have been reported as damaged and will need to be restored.
Even those protected areas that have not been directly impacted by military actions have suffered. Many rangers and other staff have enlisted in the army or territorial defence and are no longer available for park administration and enforcement. Those that remain are affected by missile alerts, electricity blackouts, and food shortages, preventing them from doing their jobs properly. A number of protected areas are under pressure from significant numbers of refugees, putting strain on park facilities and resources. Synevir National Park, Carpathian Biosphere Reserve, and other protected areas in the western part of Ukraine have provided refuge for at least 15,000 internally displaced persons.
With much of the staff of environmental enforcement authorities displaced, conscripted, or unable to perform enforcement operations, increased poaching of protected species such as sturgeon and illegal logging is likely. According to the State Environmental Inspectorate of Ukraine, on April 27-28 the Fish Patrol of the State Agency for Land Reclamation and Fisheries of Ukraine revealed violations totalling 65,000 euros in five regions of Ukraine. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has had to suspend forest management certificates in armed conflict areas of Ukraine, increasing the risk of illegal logging and jeopardising many years of work to support sustainable forest management.
A legacy of heavy industry
Ukraine’s economy has been largely built on heavy industry, particularly in the east, so there are thousands of industrial plants, chemical factories, coal mines, and other facilities that produce and store toxic waste. Attacks on these locations could contaminate air, water, soil, and sea, posing an immediate threat to people’s health and longer-term environmental damage to water and soil.
There are serious concerns about the short- and long-term impact on water sources and freshwater ecosystems. The pollution of water resources is a reminder that water does not just come from a tap, it comes from freshwater resources – rivers, lakes, wetlands, and groundwater.
Destruction of power infrastructure and equipment can lead to flooding of abandoned coal mines that can contaminate groundwater with toxic waste, including heavy metals. When a mine ceases to operate, water must be constantly pumped out of the underground shafts and chambers to prevent them from flooding. Groundwater that does enter can become contaminated with heavy metals, which can then permeate underground aquifers and the surrounding soils, rendering them unusable for farming and human consumption. This has already happened with deserted coal mines in eastern Ukraine and will become even more severe as the war drags on.
Shelling of oil and gas depots and infrastructure such as pipelines can cause leaks that affect rivers, lakes, wetlands, and groundwater. Chemical waste from industrial plants and fuel storage facilities can lead to leaked substances and wastewater seeping into the soil or running into nearby streams, affecting surface and groundwater quality and local ecosystems.
Land mines, cluster munitions, and other explosive remnants of war do not only take human lives, but can also pollute groundwater with metals and toxic materials. The war is generating large volumes of military scrap that can contain a range of polluting materials, contaminating groundwater, while exposing those who work on it to acute and chronic health risks.
Destruction of water infrastructure and wastewater treatment plants not only cuts off access to water for people but also pollutes water sources. Damaged treatment facilities such as Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Rubizhne, and Popasna are spewing untreated wastewater into the environment and polluting water resources.
Damage to dams – particularly major hydropower dams – could cause catastrophic impacts, as well as long-term environmental damage. For example, if the Kyiv hydropower dam was breached, it would create a devastating flood as well as spread radioactive sediments from the Pripyat River, which flows through Chornobyl, that have accumulated behind the dam, potentially contaminating the river down to the Black Sea. A dam on the Siverskyi Donets River in the Donetsk region has already been damaged, impacting water quality.
Many of the issues mentioned also lead to contamination of land and soils. Abandoned coal mines, shelling of oil and gas infrastructure and chemical factories, and munitions and military scrap all produce toxic chemicals and heavy metals that pollute soils, including agricultural land.
Air pollution is another serious concern. Fires, smoke, and fumes caused by shelling, including fires in residential areas, have serious impacts on air quality. There have been numerous attacks on oil and gas depots and storage facilities and industrial plants and factories, causing toxic chemical fumes. An attack on a chemical plant near Sumy on March 21 released ammonia, while on April 5 an acid tank exploded near Rubizhne, releasing a toxic cloud of nitrogen acid.
The war also has significant opportunity costs, including investments stopped or delayed. Like other countries, Ukraine needs to take urgent action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Its updated nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, adopted in July 2021, aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2030, and includes climate adaptation targets.
Much of Ukraine’s renewable power capacity is located in the south and east of the country where active fighting is taking place. The Ukrainian NGO Ekodiya reports that more than half of Ukraine’s wind farms have already been shut down, along with other renewable energy installations. The war is not only destroying existing wind turbines and solar panels, but holding up further investment to achieve the country’s ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Conservation activities have also been put on hold. Almost all the wildlife conservation projects run by WWF-Ukraine have been affected in one way or another, and activities of other organisations have been similarly affected.
The outbreak of war has frustrated plans to translocate European bison from Poland to the Chornobyl Biosphere Reserve in Ukraine – part of a multi-year effort to create the largest free-roaming herd of bison in Europe on over 200,000 hectares of protected areas stretching from Ukraine to Belarus. Investments in improving the management of protected areas have also been suspended, including investment in park facilities and infrastructure. The process of granting official protection to over 10,000 hectares of virgin forest, which had been expected in 2022, is on hold.
Investing in the future
After the war, a thorough assessment of the overall environmental impacts will be needed to identify priorities and provide a basis for planning clean-up as well as restoration and reconstruction. The environmental impacts of the war will not end when the war ends – the legacy of the war will continue in pollution of water, land, and air if these are not addressed. The task of removing, let alone safely disposing of, these pollutants will be enormous, but essential. We depend on the environment for our welfare and well-being, so ensuring a healthy environment will be fundamentally important.
Unfortunately, the environmental impacts of the war will also continue through reconstruction. Rebuilding damaged buildings and infrastructure will require vast amounts of resources and produce huge amounts of greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution. This too must be added to the ledger of the war’s environmental costs.
At least these costs can be mitigated by “building back better” – by using circular economy principles in deciding what to build, how to build it, and what to build it with, by applying rigorous climate and biodiversity safeguards, and allocating sufficient funds for short- and long-term measures for monitoring and restoring Ukraine’s nature.
Ensuring this will be the responsibility not only of Ukraine’s government, but also of international donors and finance institutions. We call on the international expert and NGO community to support Ukraine in identifying and pursuing the most efficient and effective ways of achieving sustainable recovery from the impacts of war. WWF is committed to fully engaging in this process.
The war has already been a disaster for nature and the environment – and there is no end in sight. First and foremost, the war must end. But when it finally stops, we will need to “build back better” – ensuring that the investment that follows focuses not just on reconstructing what has been lost, but that it also invests in a better and more sustainable future.
This article, first published at WWF CEE, was co-authored by Andreas Beckmann, CEO of WWF-Central & Eastern Europe. It has been republished here with permission.
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