The War in Ukraine: A Conflict and a Pollutant
By Lois Hargrove, Human Rights First Communications Intern
On June 6, Russian occupiers destroyed the dam of the Kakhovka Reservoir in Ukraine, causing it to lose 72% of its former water supply. Five populated areas were flooded, forcing residents to evacuate their homes. As a result, agricultural land, stripped of its water supply, will be unusable for years to come. Massive quantities of fish have died off. Landmines were swept away to unknown locations, forming lethal and hidden threats. And this isn’t the only instance of water contamination. Since the start of the war, the freshwater supply across Ukraine has dwindled. People dependent on this land have been robbed, and ecosystems have been destroyed.
In July of 2022, the United Nations declared that all people are entitled to a clean environment. They asserted that “As human rights and the environment are interdependent, a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, such as the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation and development, among others.” Unfortunately, it has become all too clear that the war in Ukraine is violating the Ukrainian people’s right to such an existence.
The war is causing a myriad of detrimental environmental repercussions. Due to the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, Russian forces have been targeting oil and gas production and transit sites. These attacks are resulting in massive environmental and public health risks. Oil spills harm the environment and local ecosystems. Fires from the attacks produce severe air pollution, which in addition to the immediate health risks, can pollute soil and water with hazardous materials that remain a threat to people and ecosystems for years. Additionally, many of the energy facilities targeted contain known carcinogens that can harm civilians when released into the environment. These attacks are more than military issues — they are threats to public health and wellbeing. While they may be intended to hinder the economy, they have the additional effect of poisoning the country.
Beyond this, urban areas are facing mass destruction. Several cities and towns have experienced widespread shelling, leaving some inhabitable. Not only does such ruination rob Ukrainian residents of a place to live, but it also renders these sites hazardous. Many Soviet era buildings were built with asbestos, a known carcinogen, so, when cleanup crews go to help salvage their homes, they face this dangerous exposure. People in Ukraine are left without homes and given a lethal threat in their place. Such threats to public health are bound to result in displacement and a litany of other consequences. Ukrainian people cannot be expected to live and thrive in a toxic environment.
Unfortunately, the environmental effects of the war do not end here. Nearly all the country’s land is jeopardized or affected in some way. Beyond just local ecosystems, the war is affecting the already at-risk ecologies of the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, and other estuaries and wetlands. Shelling and debris are turning once-fertile farmland into barren plots of soil. Forests are being demolished and used as hiding places and graveyards. In some cases, the land itself is now a threat, as it is littered with landmines. These obscured threats could kill people now, and for years to come. Not only that, but the heavy metals from these bombs can infiltrate the food chain, pollute soil and water, and cause cancer.
Some have compared this damage to that caused in World War II or the Vietnam War, simply in the scale of the bombing’s intense impact. If the environmental damage from this war is indeed anything like that of wars’ past, then the world ought to be frightened. The environmental damage from past wars is still being felt today, years later. For instance, researchers only recently discovered a German patrol boat that had been leaking heavy metal, arsenic, and other pollutants for more than 80 years. And in Vietnam, millions of people live in areas that are still exposed to toxic dioxins from the use of Agent Orange. This alone ought to be enough of a warning about the immense environmental harm that this war is causing.
In the cases of World War II and the Vietnam War, experts have stated that more could have been done to limit the environmental damage. With more sufficient information about the environmental effects of war, more accurate threat and vulnerability assessments, and a more active role of international law, the results could have been partially mitigated. While it is an unfortunate fact that Ukraine has already garnered some irreparable damage from the war, it need not suffer any more.
The people of Ukraine are, sadly, no strangers to human rights violations. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russian forces have acted unjustly and inhumanely towards people in Ukraine. Russian forces have bombed medical facilities, critically damaging Ukraine’s health infrastructure. Cities and towns across the country have faced illegal cluster bombing attacks, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people. People in Ukraine have been victim to a range of war crimes including torture, sexual violence, and more. The list of disastrous actions and violations towards people goes on and on. However, the environmental disaster resulting from the war, and the subsequent human rights implications remain largely uncovered by the media.
This war is not only a conflict but also a pollutant, one that is acutely toxic to the lives and livelihood of the people who live in Ukraine and deeply damaging to the surrounding ecosystems. Humans should be guaranteed the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, and it is obvious that the war in Ukraine is denying Ukrainians this right. If the people of Ukraine are to ever have the type of environment and home that all people deserve, then more must be done to prevent further harm, and to protect their rights. Yet before any action can be taken by humanitarian organizations, governments, or other entities, the public must be made aware of the severity of this situation. The war in Ukraine must be seen as not only a military issue, but as an issue of human rights as well.