On 6 June, satellite images captured hundreds of craters made by artillery shells and a 40m-wide (131 ft) hole left by a bomb in fields around the village of Dovhenke, in eastern Ukraine. It is just one site left scarred by Russia’s invasion of its neighbour. And as the war continues to wreak a devastating humanitarian toll on the people caught up in the fighting, the conflict is leaving a far less obvious, toxic legacy on the land itself.
Amongst the pockmarked landscape and burned-out buildings of Dovhenke, heavy metals, fuel and chemical residues from ammunition and missiles have seeped into the soil.
Although the full extent of soil contamination in Ukraine is not yet known, there are concerns that the conflict will cause long-lasting damage to the country’s agricultural productivity. Ukraine is one of the world’s most important producers and exporters of cereals and oilseeds, including corn, wheat, barley and sunflower oil. The widespread pollution caused by the conflict also threatens local wildlife and the health of communities, who are at risk of eating contaminated crops.
The Ukrainian government has asked the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to help it assess the environmental damage being done by the conflict. Preliminary monitoring by the agency and its partners suggest that urban and rural landscapes could be left with a “toxic legacy for generations to come“.
Attacks across Ukraine have already resulted in the destruction of chemical factories or waste storage facilities, which is leading to a cocktail of pollution issues. The latest figures collated in January by the UNEP estimate that 618 industrial or critical infrastructure sites have been damaged or destroyed in the year since the war began. UNEP considers these to be conservative estimates that are indicative but far from conclusive. Actual numbers are expected to be substantially higher.
“Many reports can’t be verified,” says Andrea Hinwood, chief scientist for UNEP. “We don’t yet know which pollutants are in situ – at the moment, it’s not possible to access so many of these areas. Some remote technologies can be applied to give a visual overview but really it’s not until the conflict is over…that we’ll be able to actually test for specific contaminants.”
A special taskforce coordinated by the Ecological Inspectorate of Ukraine, is investigating environmental crimes such as attacks on water facilities, chemical factories and nuclear power plants. UNEP warns that this impact assessment could be “a colossal task given the scale and geographical spread of reported incidents”. [Continue reading…]