Ukraine, 7th April 2022 – Four million people have fled Ukraine, a further 7.1 million others are internally displaced and civilian casualties are growing daily, but the brutal consequences of the war don’t stop there. Massive environmental damage – which started with the outbreak of hostilities in Donbas in 2014 – is already having an impact on the health of Ukrainians, and this is expected to continue for years to come.
Tetiana, a woman from Vasylkiv, has been tending small market gardens for her family to produce fresh fruits and vegetables for generations. She’s from Vasylkiv, about 30 kilometres from the capital Kyiv, but fled when her hometown came under heavy shelling as Russian troops tried to capture a local aerodrome.
“We left very fast in the morning, packing like we were going for the weekend – only absolute necessities, and went to stay with my friend in the town of Tarashcha, a few hundred kilometres away. The next morning, I learned that several missiles hit a fuel depot near Vasylkiv, and for several days firefighters could not extinguish the fire,” Tatiana recalls.
“My brother told me that even now, a month later, they can still smell the smoke when they are inside the house, although they keep the windows shut all the time,” said Tetiana.
She wants to go home when it’s safe, but doubts if she will ever be able to grow vegetables or fruit as the soil is likely to be severely contaminated.
The war brought about the first technogenic dangers, including the incident at Vasylkiv’s oil depot. The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine, together with local non-governmental organizations, had recorded 111 attacks against sites industrial, energy plants, water stations and gas pipelines. The Government qualifies these as “crimes against the environment”, causing an impact that Ukrainians will feel long after the war ends.
According to data provided by Ecoaction Ukraine, the most severely affected regions in terms of environmental damage are Kyiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk. The situation in eastern Ukraine was already alarming due to the fact that many industrial sites and coalmines were damaged by the armed conflict that began in 2014.
It became difficult to track and measure the ecological damage caused by the fighting, which has turned into a full-scale conflict a month ago. As they prepare to present their case to the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court, the Ukrainian authorities are determined not to overlook any incidents. They refer to the First Protocol of Geneva Conventions, which requires warring states to protect the environment against “large-scale, long term and serious damage.”
“During the first month of the war, over 1,100 missiles were launched on the territory of Ukraine, and about 4,000 units of military equipment of various types were destroyed,” says Yevhenia ZasiadkoEcoaction’s chief executive. “This will lead to the accumulation of carcinogenic waste as spilt fuel from exploded missiles contaminates the soil and groundwater with chemicals and heavy metals.”
Habitats of endangered and rare species also are being destroyed. According to the Ukrainian Conservation Group 44% of the most important areas of natural reserve fund are located within the war zone. The famous nuclear plant in Chornobyl, and another in Zaporizhia They were apparently mismanagedMoreover, wildfires in Chornobyl’s exclusion zone threatened to spread radioactive waste into the atmosphere.
Many people in cities, towns, villages throughout Ukraine feel the effects of the war on their air, water, and soil. The city’s air quality has declined as a result of heavy fighting around Kyiv. Residents were asked not to open windows or leave their homes without permission on 19 March as pollutant concentrations in the air were high. 27.8 times higher than the World Health Organization’s guidelines.
Civilians living in areas that have been heavily bombed are at risk of long-term exposure to fine dust particles from damaged buildings. These particles can often be mixed with toxic substances and heavy metals. These carcinogenic dusts can pose long-term health risks that may not manifest for many years or even decades.
On 21 March, shelling caused a chemical factory near Sumy to leak ammonia, posing a risk to the surrounding area. Such larger-scale hazardous leaks often leach into underground water – if there are no other sources of drinking water, this can cause immediate harm upon ingestion. Other risks, including the release of radioactive materials and toxic chemicals from nuclear power stations, could have a variety of adverse health consequences.
Health authorities warn that Ukrainians living in areas of intense hostilities may experience an increase or worsening in asthma, pneumonia, or acute bronchitis in the short term. Exposure to chemicals or hazardous materials can have long-term effects on the health of those who are exposed. These may include cancer, organ damage and weakening the immune system. This may take several months or even years to manifest. Ukrainians will need to consider these factors when deciding whether 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,” says Elizabeth Warn, Deputy Chief of Mission at IOM Ukraine.
“People returning to their homes after being displaced inside and outside Ukraine, will need to be provided with sustainable livelihoods, housing, jobs and health care to rebuild their lives and strengthen their resilience.”
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If you are affected by the crisis, and need support, please contact one of IOM’s Hotlines.
Written by Iryna Tyrmchyshyn for IOM Ukraine