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Environmental consequences of war 

In December 2018, CRJ ran an article by Serhii Ivaniuta that examined the environmental effects of conflict and war in eastern Ukraine. Ivaniuta, who is a Doctor of Technical Science at the National Institution for Strategic Studies in Kyiv, sounded the alarm over how damage to critical infrastructure, mining operations, power generation and water systems all threatened large-scale pollution, flooding, degradation of nature reserves and forests, and how such damage could lead to deadly environmental and human consequences. In this article, he reports on the current destruction of the ecological balance and growing threats to environmental security in Ukraine as a result of Russian aggression.

Ivaniuta blog pic

Oil refinery in Ukraine after being hit by a rocket attack (Image: Adobe Stock)


Pursuant to Article 55, Paragraphs 1 and 2 of the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949 and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I) of June 8, 1977, care must be taken to protect the environment from hostilities, widespread, long-term and serious damage. Such protection includes the prohibition of the use of methods or means of warfare that are intended to cause – or are expected to cause – such damage to the environment and thereby harm the health or survival of the population. Harm to the environment as a retaliation is prohibited.

Principle 24 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development declares that war is inherently destructive to sustainable development. It calls for states to: “Respect international law, which ensures the protection of the environment during armed conflict, and, if necessary, also co-operate for its further development.”

Russian military aggression in Ukraine has caused large-scale destruction of housing and critical infrastructure, along with the injuries and deaths of hundreds of service personnel and civilians. Shelling is leading to large-scale human-caused disasters across the country. Numerous rocket attacks have led to fires at oil depots and the explosion of a gas pipeline. The seizure of the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plants, attempts to seize other critical energy infrastructure, the shelling and destruction of military and civilian infrastructure, environmentally hazardous enterprises that store chemicals and industrial waste, generally lead to growing large-scale threats to cross-border environmental security.

In eastern Ukraine, the risk of contamination of groundwater and surface water resources by highly mineralised mine waters, the presence of sulphates and chlorides, as well as high levels of iron and other heavy metals, is increasing significantly. There is a high probability of radioactive contamination owing to the impact of the Yunkom mine, located near the town of Yenakiieve, which was the site of a 1979 underground nuclear explosion. According to a 2017 report from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the water may already be contaminated by radiation. Allowing the mine to flood could therefore lead to an environmental catastrophe.  

Constant emissions of harmful substances into water bodies cause increases in zinc, copper, chromium, lead, cadmium and other toxic substances in the water. The main property of these elements is their ability to accumulate in the environment and living organisms. Dioxins, even in small concentrations, damage the body’s immune system. At higher concentrations they cause mutagenic, embryotoxic effects, adversely affecting human health, fauna and flora.
Currently, there is a need to review the existing methodology in Ukraine for assessing environmental damage, considering the scale of the consequences, and the negative impact of, military aggression upon environmental security.

List of dangerous events related to environmental risks

  • On February 24, 2022, during the invasion, Russian troops seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and other nuclear facilities in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Ukrainian employees at nuclear facilities were taken hostage. There is no longer any international control over the new safe confinement and shelter facility at the destroyed nuclear power plant unit. There are more than 22,000 spent fuel assemblies in the nuclear fuel storage facilities SNF-1 and SNF-2 in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. A significant amount of plutonium-239 could be turned into a dirty bomb, transforming thousands of hectares into a dead desert without life. If artillery or missile strikes destroy the nuclear waste storage facility, radioactive dust could cover the territories of Ukraine, Belarus and further afield in Europe. Click here for source.
     
  • On February 25, 2022, as a result of shelling by Russian troops, the oil depot in Kharkiv on Industrial Avenue was severely damaged. According to Yevhen Vasylenko, spokesman for the Main Directorate of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Kharkiv Oblast, the remains of oil products burned out and the tank collapsed. The intensity of the flames was significantly reduced and prevented from spreading thanks to a quick response. Click here for source. 
     
  • On February 27, 2022, Russian military forces fired rockets at an oil depot in the village of Kryachky of the Vasylkiv community of the Kyiv region. Aromatic hydrocarbon, which is formed during the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels, is a very powerful carcinogen, so the smoke from the fire at the oil depot was extremely toxic. When burning liquid fuels together with flue gases, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, gaseous and solid products of incomplete combustion of fuel, vanadium compounds and sodium salts all enter the air. Combustion of petroleum products is also accompanied by emissions of sulphur oxide, which causes ‘acid’ rains containing sulphuric acid, sulphites and ammonium sulphates. The ingress of petroleum products into the soil threatens to pollute aquifers, including in areas located far from the original blaze. Click here for source.
     
  • On February 28, 2022, Russian forces blew up an oil depot in the town of Okhtyrka in the Sumy region at about 12:30hrs. Detonation of hazardous chemicals at this depot caused significant damage to the environment. Wind scattered smoke and harmful substances from the fire throughout the region. Click here for source.
     
  • On February 28, 2022, an oil depot was blown up near the railway station in the village of Borodyanka, Kyiv region. As a result of shelling, the fire could not be extinguished for several hours. In general, large fires at industrial enterprises, particularly oil depots, are sources of pollution and lead to emissions of persistent organic pollutants, including dioxins, furans, ethylene chloride, vinyl chloride, chlorines and phenols, benzopyrene, and lead compounds with carcinogenic properties. Atmospheric pollution spreads across large areas and causes long-term pollution of soil, agricultural and forest lands. Click here for source.
     
  • On March 3, 2022, Russian troops fired on an oil depot in Chernihiv. As a result of the explosion, the tank group, with a total capacity of 5,000 cubic metres of diesel fuel, caught fire. Twenty-five personnel and nine State Emergency Service equipment units were involved in extinguishing the flames which, thanks to the co-ordinated actions of the Ukrainian military, civil servants in emergencies and concerned citizens, were extinguished. Click here for source.
     
  • On March 4, 2022, Russian tanks entered the territory of Europe's largest Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant and opened artillery fire on Unit 1 and office buildings. Later, the State Nuclear Regulatory Committee of Ukraine reported that the unit’s critical security systems were not affected, and no emissions of radioactive materials occurred. But now the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant is under the control of the Russian armed forces, five of the six power units have been shut down and have stopped producing electricity. Click here for source.
     
  • On March 7, 2022, two air strikes hit oil depots in Zhytomyr and Chernyakhiv. As a result, a fire broke out and a ten cubic metre tank in Zhytomyr was destroyed. Powerful fires at two oil depots threaten an ecological catastrophe for the entire region. The Zhytomyr Oblast Prosecutor’s Office has launched a pre-trial investigation into the commission of an ecocide – poisoning of the atmosphere that could cause an environmental catastrophe (Article 441 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine). Click here for source.
     
  • On March 10, 2022, a high-pressure gas pipeline to the Vuglegirskaya TPP gas distribution station in the Donetsk region was damaged by Russian shelling. According to the press service of the GTS of Ukraine Operator, the company's dispatchers recorded a significant decrease in inlet pressure in the system at 17:50hrs. This pipeline provides gas transportation to the Uglehirskaya TPP and the city of Svitlodarsk, which has more than 12,000 inhabitants. Click here for source.
     
  • On March 14, 2022, treatment facilities of the water supply and sewerage complex in the village of Verkhnya Krynytsia near the town of Vasylivka, Zaporizhia region, were damaged during shelling. Several important facilities were destroyed, including the sewage pumping station ?1 building, which supplies wastewater from Vasylivka to treatment facilities. The power line was also damaged. As a result of the destruction, untreated wastewater from the city entered the Dnieper River. Click here for source.
     
  • On March 21, 2022, shelling of the city of Sumy damaged buildings and a 50-tonne capacity ammonia tank on the Sumykhimprom plant that produces phosphorus chemical fertiliser. An ammonia leak affected an area of about 2.5 km and, because of wind direction, threatened the village of Novoselytsia. According to official information from the State Emergency Service, rescuers brought the incident under control and company employees began work to restore the technological process. Click here for source.
     
  • On March 22, 2022, on World Water Day, a ‘Tornado’ rocket hit the Dnieper River without detonating. Missile explosions destroy the unique ecosystems of rivers, lakes and seas, cause water pollution and spread toxins. This is a violation of the UNECE International Convention on the Protection and Use of International Watercourses and International Lakes, which Russia and Belarus are parties to. Click here for source.
     
  • As of March 24, 2022, owing to the actions of the Russian occupiers in the ecosystems of the Chernobyl zone, more than 30 fires across an area of more than 8,700 hectares were recorded. The affected areas included 5,000 hectares of fallow land and almost 2,500 hectares of forests, as well as swamps, fires from previous years and abandoned settlements. As I write this, fires continue to burn in the Lubyanka and the Kotovsky forests, both near villages and townships. Under certain weather conditions and with untimely detection and extinguishment, these blazes could turn into an emergency in the shortest possible time. The spread of fires in the Exclusion Zone, especially in areas with significant levels of radiation pollution and radioactive waste management facilities in the 10-km zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, is a particular threat. In general, the risk of spreading radioactive contamination to large areas outside the Exclusion Zone is increasing. Click here for source.
     
  • In the evening of March 24, 2022, in the village of Kalynivka, Fastiv district, Kyiv region, Russian troops fired on an oil depot. According to the press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, a fire broke out as a result of the shelling. At 06:25hrs on March 25, the remnants of oil products continue to burn although no threat of the fire spreading outside the oil depot was reported. Click here for source.
     
  • On March 13, 2022, Russian troops have been accused of using phosphorus bombs in the town of Popasna in the Luhansk region. On March 21, white phosphorus munitions were claimed to have been used on Kramatorsk, although some think that in fact, the weapon could have been an anti-personnel device that scatters napalm. On March 24, the Russian occupiers are said to have used banned white phosphorus munitions near the town of Rubezhnoye in the Luhansk region. If these claims are verified as true, thousands of tons of toxic substances could have contaminated the air, surface and groundwater, and soil. The UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons completely bans the use of phosphorus munitions in urban development. Click here for source.
     
  • As of March 25, 2022, almost 102,000 hectares of all types of landscapes in Ukraine have been damaged as a result of Russian aggression. Rocket fire and bombing are causing significant damage to protected areas. Most are experiencing forest and other landscape fires, large-scale destruction of biodiversity, nature reserves and the Emerald Network https://www.coe.int/en/web/bern-convention/emerald-network. According to remote sensing of the Earth by EFFIS satellites, as a result of Russian aggression in Ukraine, fires have already damaged almost 39 thousand hectares. Click here for source.
Editor's note: 

On March 3, 2022, just over 900 individuals and 156 organisations from more than 75 countries expressed their solidarity with the people of Ukraine in the face of an: “Aggressive invasion of their country by the Russian Federation in clear violation of international law and the fundamental right of the Ukrainian peoples to democratic self-determination.” 

In an open letter published by Environmental Peacebuilding, the signatories lent their support, saying: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has immediate consequences for human rights and human lives. These impacts will be magnified by the war’s potentially catastrophic environmental impacts, which themselves pose both immediate and long-term threats to human rights, health, welfare, and livelihoods.”  

But what of legal accountability? Writing for the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), Dr Rachel Killean, Senior Lecturer in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast, examines the issue in a piece subtitled: “The conflict reveals the limits of state accountability for environmental harm in war.” Killean notes that Ukraine is one of the: “Small number of states (including Russia) that have criminalised ‘ecocide’ through domestic legislation.” According to the Criminal Code of Ukraine, causing damage to the environment is classified under Article 441 Ecocide; mass destruction of flora and fauna, poisoning of the atmosphere or water resources, as well as other actions that could cause an environmental catastrophe.

However, in her article for CEOBS, Killean warns: “Outside the domestic context, possibilities for pursuing international criminal accountability for environmental crimes perpetrated in Ukraine exist but are likely to be somewhat limited.” She says it may be possible to frame environmental harms as: “Either a method or a result of other international crimes,” adding that in 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has: “Gone so far as indicating that the Office of the Prosecutor would give ‘particular consideration to prosecuting Rome Statute crimes that are committed by means of, or that result in, inter alia, the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land’.” 

The collection, processing and compilation of relevant materials and environmental impact of attacks is being undertaken by several organisations, including CEOBS . Killean writes: “It may also be possible to connect environmental destruction to crimes against humanity, which include ‘inhumane acts’ committed as part of a ‘widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population’.”
 
 
 

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