Ukraine’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources has recorded at least 1,200 environmental disasters in the two-plus months since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion. Those disasters are not only undermining Ukraine’s efforts to preserve its natural environment, they’re introducing toxic pollutants that will pose health risks long after the war’s end. The war is also pumping new carbon into the atmosphere, continuing to exacerbate the global climate crisis.
During the first month of the war, Ukraine’s environment ministry calculated 79,169 explosive devices had gone off, 1,955 aircraft bombs had been dropped, and 567.4 kgs of explosives were neutralized in Ukraine. The aftermath of these explosives mean that chemicals like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and formaldehyde have entered the atmosphere, according to Oleg Rubel, professor of public administration at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and a scientist that is working with the ministry.
On Feb 27, the ministry reported that an oil depot in the city Vasylkiv was hit by a ballistic missile. As a result of the attack, 10 tanks of 2,000 cubic meters of gasoline and diesel caught on fire and the combustion caused air pollution in nearby neighborhoods. Later that day, it was reported that Russian troops blew up a gas pipeline in Kharkiv “which resulted in a massive explosion and shockwave, which damaged buildings in the residential areas of the city,” according to the ministry. Since then, authorities have noted that soot, sulfur, and aldehyde — pollutants with respiratory and cardiovascular consequences for humans, particularly those in vulnerable populations — have been released into the atmosphere.
As the invasion continues, events like the Vasylkiv strike are happening again and again, and the environmental hazards are as multifaceted as they are damaging.
The ministry isn’t alone in assessing the environmental damages the war has caused. Eco Action is an Ukrainian activist organization that works with politicians and to protect the environment. Before the war, they advocated a shift to clean energy in the country; now they’re documenting the attacks against the environment. So far, Eco-Action has counted 216 of these environmental crimes, which are essentially any intentional actions that cause irreversible effects of climate change or harm human life. Some environmental crimes Eco-Action has found include fires at oil depots, damages to gas pipelines and a forest fire that raged on for two days — workers couldn’t get to it because of constant shelling.
“These crimes can bring a huge damage to nature and would also affect [the] population in Ukraine,” says Yevhenia Zasyadko, head of Environmental Crimes at Eco-Action. “Because of this environmental damage, the number can raise from [the] A population who will feel a negative effect of this war, or even die.”
The chemicals released in warfare have numerous pathways into human bodies. They can be absorbed into the soil, and can contaminate surface waters with toxins like copper, which can be toxic for animals and humans, says Rubel. In one instance, a collection of surface water samples in the Ivka River showed contamination as a result of Russian missiles damaging a tank with mineral fertilizers. Rubel says that has made communities downstream lose access to clean drinking water. That is just one example of how water supply has been damaged because of the war: The ministry has calculated that currently 1.4 million people in Ukraine are without access to safe drinking water. The ministry also found that between Apr. 26 and Apr. 27, Russian troops on two occasions fired shells in the eastern city of Avdiivka containing phosphorus, a highly toxic chemical that burns rapidly, and can burn in the air for hours after it’s been exposed. Multiple fires broke out as a result and Rubel says several were injured from the gas, but there were no reported deaths.