Even those protected areas that have not been directly impacted by military actions have suffered. Many rangers and other staff have enlisted in the army or territorial defense and are no longer available for park administration and enforcement. Those that remain are affected by missile alerts, electricity blackouts, and food shortages, preventing them from doing their jobs properly. A number of protected areas are under pressure from significant numbers of refugees, putting strain on park facilities and resources. Synevir National Park, Carpathian Biosphere Reserve, and other protected areas in the western part of Ukraine have provided refuge for at least 15,000 internally displaced persons. 

With much of the staff of environmental enforcement authorities displaced, conscripted, or unable to perform enforcement operations, increased poaching of protected species such as sturgeon and illegal logging is likely. According to the State Environmental Inspectorate of Ukraine, on 27-28 April the Fish Patrol of the State Agency for Land Reclamation and Fisheries of Ukraine revealed violations totaling €65,000 in five regions of Ukraine. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has had to suspend forest management certificates in armed conflict areas of Ukraine, increasing the risk of illegal logging and jeopardizing many years of work to support sustainable forest management.

A legacy of heavy industry

Ukraine’s economy has been largely built on heavy industry, particularly in the east, so there are thousands of industrial plants, chemical factories, coal mines, and other facilities that produce and store toxic waste. Attacks on these locations could contaminate air, water, soil, and sea, posing an immediate threat to people’s health and longer-term environmental damage to water and soil.

There are serious concerns about the short- and long-term impact on water sources and freshwater ecosystems. The pollution of water resources is a reminder that water does not just come from a tap, it comes from freshwater resources – rivers, lakes, wetlands, and groundwater.

Destruction of power infrastructure and equipment can lead to flooding of abandoned coal mines that can contaminate groundwater with toxic waste, including heavy metals. When a mine ceases to operate, water must be constantly pumped out of the underground shafts and chambers to prevent them from flooding. Groundwater that does enter can become contaminated with heavy metals, which can then permeate underground aquifers and the surrounding soils, rendering them unusable for farming and human consumption. This has already happened with deserted coal mines in eastern Ukraine and will become even more severe as the war drags on.

Shelling of oil and gas depots and infrastructure such as pipelines can cause leaks that affect rivers, lakes, wetlands, and groundwater. Chemical waste from industrial plants and fuel storage facilities can lead to leaked substances and wastewater seeping into the soil or running into nearby streams, affecting surface and groundwater quality and local ecosystems.

Land mines, cluster munitions, and other explosive remnants of war don't only take human lives, but can also pollute groundwater with metals and toxic materials. The war is generating large volumes of military scrap that can contain a range of polluting materials, contaminating groundwater, while exposing those who work on it to acute and chronic health risks.

Destruction of water infrastructure and wastewater treatment plants not only cuts off access to water for people but also pollutes water sources. Damaged treatment facilities such as Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Rubizhne, and Popasna are spewing untreated wastewater into the environment and polluting water resources.

Damage to dams – particularly major hydropower dams – could cause catastrophic impacts, as well as long-term environmental damage. For example, if the Kyiv hydropower dam was breached, it would create a devastating flood as well as spread radioactive sediments from the Pripyat River, which flows through Chornobyl, that have accumulated behind the dam, potentially contaminating the river down to the Black Sea. A dam on the Siverskyi Donets River in the Donetsk region has already been damaged, impacting water quality.

Many of the issues mentioned also lead to contamination of land and soils. Abandoned coal mines, shelling of oil and gas infrastructure and chemical factories, and munitions and military scrap all produce toxic chemicals and heavy metals that pollute soils, including agricultural land.

Air pollution is another serious concern. Fires, smoke, and fumes caused by shelling, including fires in residential areas, have serious impacts on air quality. There have been numerous attacks on oil and gas depots and storage facilities and industrial plants and factories, causing toxic chemical fumes. An attack on a chemical plant near Sumy on March 21 released ammonia, while on April 5 an acid tank exploded near Rubizhne, releasing a toxic cloud of nitrogen acid.

Rescuers are looking for explosive devices in lake Blakytne in the village of Gorenka, which was at the epicenter of fires by the occupiers in Kyiv region © The State Emergency Service of Ukraine

    (To Be Continued)

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