The environmental consequences of war: why the east of Ukraine is turning into desert

    03 Jul 2021

    Let’s talk about the example of Ukraine, how hostilities can affect the environment. For the Gulf countries, where the echoes of the war in Iraq are still going on, and the war in Syria is raging nearby, this topic is particularly painful, and the analogies are obvious.

    Kateryna Norenko, an expert of the International Charitable Organization “Ecology – Law – Human“, spoke very well about the ecological consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian war. We will use her explanations.

    Kateryna calls the Russian-Ukrainian war its official name in 2014-2018 – “Anti-terrorist operation” (ATO). After the ATO in the east of Ukraine, the Joint Forces (JF) operation was introduced.

    Impacts on the environment from hostilities are rather different. First of all, its fires spread as a result of tactical arson, and by accident. They destroy huge areas. According to estimates by the NGO ELH from space imagery, 700,000 hectares of natural vegetation burned in Ukraine in the ATO zone in Donbas.

    Fighting and explosions mean the appearance of many metal fragments and many toxic chemicals that get into the soil and make these lands unusable for agricultural use.

    Due to the actual rupture of the shells, the concentration of toxic substances increases many times, as shown by observation stations in the Donetsk region. In August 2014, the concentration of, e.g., sulfur dioxin exceeded the limit by 8 times.

    The area near Savur-Mohyla, Amvrosiivskyi and Shakhtarskyi districts of Donetsk region is now under the control of pro-Russian militants from the Donetsk People’s Republic terrorist organization. Therefore, ecologists from government-controlled areas are exploring the area around Savur-Mohyla, dotted with funnels, with the help of open-air space images. That is, if you install Google Earth on your computer, you may see what this area looks like from space.

    In the photo it is easy to distinguish different types of funnels, the type depends on the diameter. ELH staff identified four types in this area, which cover 225 square kilometers.

    The first type is funnels with a radius of about 1 meter, which remain from the fragmentation and high-explosive mines of 82 mm caliber.

    The second type of funnels has a diameter of 2.5-3.5 m, caliber 120 mm, which remains from the shells of the jet system of volley fire «Grad».

    The third type of funnel has a radius of 4-6 meters, it is from the caliber of 152 mm of towed guns and self-propelled howitzers.

    The fourth funnels, seven meters in diameter, caliber 220 mm, remain from the «Hurricane» jet system of volley fire.

    Damage also depends on the caliber and the shells themselves. The funnel is no longer just a pit, which is enough to fill to use in the future. It contains various fragments of cast iron with steel impurities, which make up the shell of ammunition.

    There are a variety of emissions, some of which cannot be identified because they are different gases, the consequences of incomplete oxidation of toxic products. They get into the soil and into the atmosphere and poison all living things.

    128 thousand tons of such substances got into the soil in the Donbas in Ukraine.

    The composition of explosives can be roughly studied on the basis of what is most used in this war. If you take the caliber of 82 mm, you can say for sure that the explosive contains amatol, i.e. ammonium nitrate and TNT in a ratio of 1:1. If you take a caliber larger than 82 mm, it is a mixture of hexogen and aluminum powder. Accordingly, alumina is precisely formed from aluminum in the oxidation process. Amatol and hexogen, on the other hand, form an extremely large complex of substances in the oxidation process.

    In the north of the Donetsk region, near the Krasny Lyman city, environmentalists took soil and water samples. In the place of the funnel itself, they found a huge excess of heavy metals. For example, titanium alone exceeded the norms by 150 times. There was also an excess of vanadium and other heavy metals. This is easily explained because such metals are added to the explosive to improve the heat of the explosion. There was also an excess of sulfites in water and soil, 2.5 times higher than normal. This is logical, because sulfur overcomes the explosive because it improves the flash.

    The war could lead to the diversion of radiation industrial facilities and the use of tactical nuclear projectiles, which is not announced.

    How scary is that?

    230,000 hectares of forests were burned in Ukraine due to the war. This is 17% of the ATO zone. This whole area is historically steppes with a characteristic dry arid climate. All forests, as they are today, are planted artificially during the USSR period just to make the microclimate easier for human life, more humid, and softer. With the loss of these forests, people’s lives will inevitably deteriorate. And because this area is unnatural for forests, and given the current climate change. The climate in Ukraine has long been temperate continental. In eastern Ukraine, it is already sharply continental. These are difficult conditions for the restoration of these forests.

    In addition, there is a lot of surface sand underlying rock, there the plants are hard to fix. In the first year after planting, a third of the seedlings die. It will be very difficult to restore these forests. The microclimate will change even more because of the war, there will be many dry winds that will demolish all the last chernozem that is there. That is, due to the erosion of soil the east of Ukraine will turn into a desert.

    Flooding of mines

    Flooded mines are one of the biggest problems due to the fact that not everywhere in the combat zone there is electricity, pumps do not work. Mineralized mine water is highly toxic. Mines are flooded, water can come to the surface and seep into groundwater. One way or another, the poison gets into surface waters, in places of drinking water intake. This is harmful to humans, and nature also feeds on surface soil sources.

    Of the 400 mines in the ATO zone, 80 are already at the stage of flooding, when this process is already irreversible.

    As soon as the lowest level of the pump that pumps water higher to the horizon is flooded, the process is irreversible. When water enters the cavities in place of coal seams, they all subside. The soil level subsides by 3-5 meters. The level of groundwater in the region is just at this level. If you do not pump the will, this area in a few years can turn into a swamp or at most into shallow water. And the water there will be extremely toxic. This is mineralized mine water with the entire Mendeleev table.

    It is estimated that this will lead to the appearance of about 500,000 refugees each year. Settlements on 20,000 square kilometers of territory fall into the flood zone, and their inhabitants will become ecological refugees. The earth will collapse, ravines will be formed.

    Thus, we see in the examples that even a “hybrid” and small-area war, such as Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, leads to large-scale environmental disasters.

    Should we prevent wars? Yes, of course. But it is a question of a broader scale – how each of us can influence global politics.

    You may read about Iraq’s UNESCO marshes that are threatened by raw sewage and pollution here.

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