Ukraine, April 7, 2022 – Four million people have fled Ukraine, another 7.1 million are internally displaced and civilian casualties are rising daily, but the brutal aftermath of the war doesn’t stop there. Massive environmental damage – which began with the outbreak of hostilities in Donbass in 2014 – is already affecting the health of Ukrainians and is expected to continue for years to come.
For generations, women like Tetiana have been cultivating small vegetable gardens to provide their families with fresh fruit and vegetables. She hails from Vasylkiv, some 30 kilometers from the capital Kyiv, but fled when her hometown came under heavy shelling as Russian troops attempted to seize a local airfield.
“We left very quickly in the morning, packed for the weekend – just the essentials – and stayed at my friend’s house in the town of Tarashcha, a few hundred kilometers away. The next morning I learned that several rockets hit a fuel depot near Vasylkiv and the fire brigade could not extinguish the fire for several days,” Tatiana recalls.
“My brother told me that even now, a month later, they can still smell the smoke when they’re inside the house, even though they keep the windows closed all the time,” Tetiana said.
She wants to go home when it’s safe, but doubts she’ll ever be able to grow vegetables or fruit as the soil is likely to be heavily contaminated.
The Vasylkiv oil depot incident was one of the first technogenic threats created by the war. By the end of March, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine together with local NGOs recorded 111 attacks on industrial sites, power plants, water stations, gas pipelines and unique natural resources. The government refers to these as “crimes against the environment” with repercussions that Ukrainians will feel long after the war is over.
According to the Ukrainian NGO Ecoaction, the regions of Kyiv, Donetsk and Luhansk are most affected by environmental damage. The situation in eastern Ukraine was already alarming as many industrial sites and coal mines were affected by the armed conflict from 2014 onwards.
As it turned into full-blown war a month ago, it became difficult to track and measure ecological damage amid ongoing fighting. Ukrainian authorities are determined to document all incidents as they prepare to take their case to the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court, citing the First Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, which obliges warring states to protect the environment “large-scale, long-term and severe damage.”
“During the first month of the war, over 1,100 rockets were fired into the territory of Ukraine and about 4,000 units of various types of military equipment were destroyed,” says Yevhenia Zasiadko, the head of Ecoaction. “This will lead to the accumulation of carcinogenic waste as spilled fuel from exploded rockets contaminates the soil and groundwater with chemicals and heavy metals.”
The habitats of rare and endangered species are also being destroyed. According to a Ukrainian conservation group, 44 percent of the conservation fund’s most valuable areas are in the war zone. The infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant and another in Zaporizhia were apparently mismanaged, and wildfires in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone threatened to spread nuclear waste into the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, residents of many other towns and villages across Ukraine are already feeling the war polluting their air, water and soil. With some of the heaviest fighting taking place around Kyiv, the city’s air quality has plummeted. On March 19, residents were asked not to open their windows or leave their homes unnecessarily because of the concentration of pollutants in the air 27.8 times higher than the guidelines of the World Health Organization.
Civilians in and near heavily bombed areas are continuously exposed through inhalation of fine dust particles from destroyed buildings, often mixed with heavy metals and other toxic substances. This carcinogenic dust can cause longer-term health hazards with effects that may not materialize until years or even decades after the end of the war.
On March 21, shelling at the chemical plant near Sumy caused an ammonia leak, endangering surrounding areas. Such larger dangerous leaks often seep into groundwater – if there are no other sources of drinking water, this can cause instant damage if swallowed. Other risks, such as the release of radiation and toxic chemicals from nuclear power plants, are likely to have multiple adverse health consequences.
In the short term, Ukrainians in areas of intense hostilities are likely to experience increases in asthma, pneumonia and acute bronchitis, health officials warn. The long-term health effects for those exposed to hazardous materials or chemicals can include cancer, organ damage, and a weakened immune system that can take months or years to appear. Taking these environmental issues into account, public health risks and food insecurity will be crucial for Ukrainians whether they return home or not.
“The effects of this war will be long-lasting, it will take many years for displaced people to overcome the negative environmental and health impacts of the war, not to mention the psychological scars,” said Elizabeth Warn, deputy chief of mission at IOM Ukraine.
“People returning to their homes after displacement, inside and outside Ukraine, need to be provided with sustainable livelihoods, housing, jobs and health care to rebuild their lives and build resilience.”
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Written by Iryna Tymchyshyn with IOM Ukraine.