The environmental impact of a single bomb falling in a field is disastrous – the crater opened into the earth, wildlife was destroyed, the ensuing immolation, the explosive release of heavy metals and toxic chemicals spreading through the landscape and atmosphere.
Now imagine thousands of bombs across one of the most industrialized countries in the world, exploding in cities and towns, in manufacturing areas and wildlife refuges.
This environmental nightmare is happening in Ukraine, where the Russian military regularly targets critical infrastructure and dangerous sites. As efforts to stop the war rightly focus on reducing the death toll and the continued displacement of citizens, an environmental catastrophe is unfolding that will last long after the last Russian troops leave the country and could harm communities. Ukrainians for years to come.
Environmental campaigners have called the situation “ecocide” and are trying to bring international criminal charges against Russia for the environmental destruction its military has already caused.
“Russia should pay for these crimes,” said Evgenia Zasiadko, head of the climate department at Ecoaction, a Ukrainian environmental group. “Not only for the people who have been killed and injured, not only for infrastructure and cities, but also for the damage caused to the environment.
“My worst fear is that the damage will be so huge that we cannot rebuild,” she said.
We will come back to the subject of crimes against the environment several times in our next publications.
What you need to know now is that this war is also a war against the environment.
Recognizing this is the first step towards bringing Russia to justice. / TO FINISH pic.twitter.com/Hxyq6OFZjL
— Ecoaction / Екодія 🇺🇦 (@ecodiya) March 29, 2022
Zasiadko worked with his colleagues to record the environmental crimes of the Russian invasion. They scour news stories, social media and have a dedicated Telegram channel to receive advice.
As of March 28, her team had documented 110 explicit environmental crimes — and these represent only a fraction of the total, she said. The incidents are large-scale and affect the country’s water, soil and air quality, as well as wildlife.
“The Pentagon database recorded 1,200 [precision] missiles, and all of these missiles, bombs and tanks contain junk,” she said. “Now and in the future, heavy metals will be in our groundwater and soil. We are an agricultural country, and when it’s not an active war, I don’t know how we’re going to rebuild anything because it will be polluted.
There have been at least 36 attacks on fossil fuel infrastructure, 29 attacks on power plants, 7 attacks on water supplies and 6 attacks on nuclear facilities, Ecoaction noted.
After an attack on the Sumykhimprom chemical plant in northern Ukraine, ammonia began to leak until it covered an area with a radius of 2.5 kilometers, Zasiadko said, threatening nearby communities by contaminating groundwater, soil and wildlife.
Forest fires caused by missiles near the Chernobyl nuclear facility caused radioactive materials to enter the atmosphere. Rockets fired by Russian soldiers at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant nearly caused a nuclear disaster.
Oil and gas facilities in Kharkiv have come under heavy fire since the start of the war, disrupting Ukraine’s energy supply and releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and other contaminants in the atmosphere that make it difficult to breathe.
Every day brings new reports of the Russian military destroying Ukraine’s environment with thermobaric bombs and other powerful weapons. Some cities, like Mariupol, have become so heavily bombed that they are now unlivable, due to both a lack of infrastructure and extreme environmental toxicity.
Wildlife sanctuaries are targeted and zoos have been attacked. Zasiadko said 44% of the country’s most vulnerable environmental areas are in active war zones, with bombs causing significant damage to various ecosystems.
Russia is also targeting the country’s food sector, destroying agricultural equipment and warehouses.
Ukraine struggled with environmental integrity before the war, Zasiadko said. The country was dependent on fossil fuels, had outdated infrastructure, housed a huge chemical industry and faced persistent waste management problems, with landfills catching fire and people dumping trash into bodies of water.
The Donbass region has long been a hub of industrial activity, accounting for nearly half of Ukraine’s greenhouse gas emissions. For years Donbas has been the scene of a Russian-led armed conflict, and the resulting pollution has created an ‘ecological disaster’ with more than 530,000 hectares of protected land ‘affected, damaged or destroyed’ , according to the United Nations.
All of these challenges have been greatly compounded by the war, and huge amounts of resources will be needed just to get back to the pre-invasion environmental base of the country. It will take years to eliminate pollution and toxic substances, and even longer for ecosystems to recover. The health effects of environmental damage could last for decades.
But Zasiadko insists that these challenges only underscore the need for a just transition away from fossil fuels and harmful industries.
“It is very important that Ukraine and the whole world rebuild the country in a sustainable, green and carbon neutral way,” she said.