Ukraine, April 7, 2022 – Four million people have fled Ukraine, another 7.1 million are internally displaced and civilian casualties are increasing daily, but the brutal consequences of the war do not stop there. Massive environmental damage – which began with the outbreak of hostilities in Donbass in 2014 – is already impacting the health of Ukrainians, and this is expected to continue for years.
For generations, women like Tetiana have cultivated small vegetable gardens to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for their families. She is from Vasylkiv, about 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, packing our bags as if we were leaving for the weekend – only the absolute necessities, and went to stay with my friend in the town of Tarashcha, a few hundred kilometers away. The next morning I learned that several missiles had hit a fuel depot near Vasylkiv, and for several days the fire brigade could not put out the fire, ”Tatiana recalls.
“My brother told me that even now, a month later, they can still smell smoke when they are inside the house, although they keep the windows closed all the time,” Tetiana said.
She wants to return home when it is safe, but doubts she will ever be able to grow vegetables or fruit as the soil is likely to be severely contaminated.
The incident at the Vasylkiv oil depot was one of the first technogenic hazards caused by the war. At the end of March, the Ukrainian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, together with local NGOs, recorded 111 attacks against industrial sites, power plants, water stations, gas pipelines and unique natural resources . The government calls them “crimes against the environment,” causing an impact Ukrainians will feel long after the war is over.
According to data from the Ukrainian NGO Ecoaction, the regions of kyiv, Donetsk and Luhansk are the most affected in terms of environmental damage. The situation in eastern Ukraine was already alarming as many industrial sites and coal mines were affected by the armed conflict that started in 2014.
As it escalated into a full-scale war a month ago, tracking and measuring ecological damage amid ongoing fighting has become difficult. Ukrainian authorities are determined to document all incidents as they prepare to take their case to the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, referring to the first protocol of the Geneva Conventions which obliges warring states to protect the environment of “large-scale attacks, serious and long-term damage.”
“In the first month of the war, more than 1,100 missiles were launched into Ukrainian territory and about 4,000 units of military equipment of various types were destroyed,” says Yevhenia Zasiadko, the boss of Ecoaction. “This will lead to the accumulation of carcinogenic waste as the fuel spilled from the exploded missiles contaminates the soil and groundwater with chemicals and heavy metals.”
The habitats of rare and endangered species are also destroyed. According to a Ukrainian conservation group, 44% of the most valuable areas of the nature reserve fund are located in the war zone. The famous Chernobyl nuclear power plant and another in Zaporizhia were apparently mismanagedand forest fires in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone threatened to release nuclear waste into the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, residents of many other cities and towns in Ukraine are already feeling how war is polluting their air, water and soil. While some of the heaviest fighting has taken place around Kyiv, air quality in the city has plummeted. On March 19, residents were asked not to open their windows or leave their homes unnecessarily, as the concentration of pollutants in the air was 27.8 times higher as the guidelines of the World Health Organization.
Civilians in and near areas that have been heavily bombed are exposed to prolonged inhalation of fine dust particles from destroyed buildings, which are often mixed with heavy metals and other toxic substances. This carcinogenic dust can cause longer-term health threats with effects that may not show up until years, or even decades, after the end of the war.
On March 21, shelling caused an ammonia leak at the chemical plant near Sumy, endangering surrounding areas. These dangerous large-scale leaks often seep into groundwater – if there are no other sources of drinking water, it can cause immediate damage if swallowed. Other hazards, such as the release of radiation and toxic chemicals from nuclear power plants, are expected to have various adverse health consequences.
In the short term, Ukrainians staying in areas where hostilities are intense are likely to see an increase in asthma, pneumonia and acute bronchitis, health authorities warn. Long-term health effects for people exposed to hazardous materials or chemicals can include cancer, organ damage, and weakened immune systems, which can take months or years to appear. Given these environmental issues, public health risks and food insecurity, it will be crucial for Ukrainians to decide whether or not to return home.
“The implications of this war will be long-standing, it will take many years for those who have been displaced to overcome the negative environmental and health impacts of war, not to mention the psychological scars,” said Elizabeth Warn, deputy head of mission. at IOM Ukraine.
“People returning home after being displaced inside and outside Ukraine will need to be provided with sustainable livelihoods, housing, employment and health care to rebuild their lives. and build their resilience.
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Written by Iryna Tymchyshyn with IOM Ukraine.