Areas that once were crowded with people and animals become empty shredded ruins after a battle. Cities collapse and forests burn. Fires and explosions are the most common environmental war-related disasters, along with debris and waste accumulation on roadsides . Since last February 24, this has become the situation in Ukraine. And yet, it represents just the tip of the iceberg of the environmental impact caused by the war in Ukraine.
Ukraine received from the Soviet Union a heavy industrialized but strongly polluted inheritance. The Donbas area is indeed rich in quarries and mines. Up to the second half of the XX century, it was a rich mining hub of coal, salt, potassium, and rare-earth-metals . Between 2014 and 2022, the conflict in Donbas has presented significant risks to the environment and the public health of local people. Now, with the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is more difficult to understand and keep monitoring the real environmental risks.
Even before the beginning of the 2022 war, abandoned coal mines in Donbas were flooding with toxic substances. Cuts in electricity supplies and disruption from the conflict, which in Donbas started in 2014, led to the breakdown of water pumps in coal mines. This caused flooding and groundwater pollution, and an increasing risk of contamination for the Siverskyi Donets River, a source of drinking water for most locals .
Since the invasion started, the number of environmental hazardous accidents has raised. On 13 March a shelling damaged the coke plant – mainly for industrial purposes – and the thermal power plant in Avdiivka risking the release of harmful substances. In Sumy, another shelling led to ammonia leakage. Many other heavy industry factories have been suffering from war damage all over Ukraine.
Additionally, the breakdown of the waste management system raised a dilemma about all the waste storage and recycling facilities containing toxic waste. It was estimated that in Ukraine there are 465 storage facilities with over six billion tons of hazardous waste. Around 60 % of them are old and abandoned. Their proximity to water bodies and towns could lead to polluting Ukraine’s major rivers, which flow through Russia, Moldova, and Belarus .
Eventually, battles close to nuclear sites, like the ones of 9-10 March close to the dismissed Chornobyl Power Plant or Zaporiz’ka Nuclear Power Plant, raised concern of another nuclear disaster after 1986. Even if nuclear plants are under the protection of the Geneva Convention and they may not be made the object of a deliberate attack , there is still a high risk of incidental damage when these plants happen to be near the front line .