Biodiversity under siege: the environmental cost of russian war in Ukraine
February 4, 2024

Biodiversity under siege: the environmental cost of russian war in Ukraine

Authors: Nadiya Kasyanchuk, Anastasiia Kostenko, Ukrainian YEAs

The russian[1] war against Ukraine, beginning in 2014 and escalating into a full-scale invasion in 2022, has not only led to widespread death, destruction, and displacement, but also brought about a severe ecological crisis. Marked by extensive military operations, it has deeply affected the lives of millions, with at least 17.6 million people in urgent need of humanitarian aid and protection. Amidst this immense human suffering, an often-overlooked crisis is unfolding: the dire threat to Ukraine’s rich wildlife and biodiversity.

How does war affect Ukrainian and global biodiversity?

Since the beginning of the full-scale russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the environmental damage in Ukraine has been staggering. Over 2,364 instances of environmental harm have been documented in just a year, with losses estimated at a colossal 1.9 trillion Ukrainian hryvnias (approximately $52.4 billion). And the ecological impact extends beyond the immediate regions of war. About 35% of Europe’s biodiversity, concentrated in Ukraine, which represents less than 6% of the continent’s territory, is under severe threat. The conflict has endangered around 600 animal species and 750 plant and fungi species, many of which are rare and listed in the Red List of threatened species, facing potential extinction. For instance, several thousand dolphins were found dead not only in Ukraine, but also in  Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. 

The environmental toll of the war extends to Ukraine’s forests and protected areas. Over 2.4 million hectares of forests and 24 forest enterprises have been liberated from occupation and require restoration, while nearly 500,000 hectares and 21 forestry enterprises remain occupied, posing continuous risks. More than 20% of Ukraine’s nature reserves are affected by the war, with 812 protected areas in danger and nearly 1 million hectares of conservation land suffering. Ten national parks, eight reserves, and two biosphere reserves remain under occupation.

Amidst these widespread environmental impacts, the destruction of the Kakhova dam poses a grave ecological threat. According to ecologist Oleh Lystopad, the destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant will have devastating consequences for both people and nature. The resulting flooding has disrupted water supplies in nearby communities and is expected to pose long-term health risks due to the spread of infectious diseases from submerged waste sites. But on top of this, the destruction of the dam has led to the deaths of countless animals. The lowered water levels in reservoirs could cause the loss of invertebrates, molluscs, and crustaceans, and on the flooded lands, rare animal species that are unique to Ukraine could be lost. At the time of the dam’s destruction, the Kakhovka reservoir housed at least 43 fish species, of which 20 are of commercial importance. The ecological impact has already been observed, with massive fish deaths including both juveniles and adults. The Ministry of Agrarian Policy of Ukraine has said that the destruction of the Kakhovka dam could result in the loss of up to 95,000 tons of adult fishalone, valued at over $108 million. The total damage to all bioresources could be 2.6 times greater. The negative consequences of this destruction will be felt for years, even if the reservoir bed is refilled soon. Additionally, the exposed soils could lead to dust and sand storms in the region, further exacerbating the environmental crisis.

What is being done on an international and national level?

In 2022, for the first time, Ukraine showcased its pavilion at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP27, in Sharm El Sheikh, marking Ukraine’s commitment to global climate dialogue, even amidst the ongoing war. The Ukrainian pavilion was designed to highlight the detrimental impact of the war on global ecology, emphasising the urgent need for support. The installation at the heart of the Ukrainian pavilion, a funnel shaped like a shell crater, was filled with over 500 cubes of recycled material representing Ukrainian soils, symbolising the country’s immense agricultural potential and its importance for global food stability. This visual representation underscores the critical need to address the impact of the war on Ukraine’s rich biodiversity, including the threat to various species and the disruption of ecological systems.

Another important initiative was started by the Ukrainian NGO UAnimals, as they launched a global campaign, ‘Stop Ecocide Ukraine’, demanding accountability for russia’s ecological crimes with an international petition addressed to the UN and the European Parliament. The petition urges these bodies to condemn russia’s actions, promote the cessation of environmental crimes, implement additional sanctions against russia, and assist in restoring Ukraine’s ecological safety and environment. The campaign seeks not only immediate action but also support for the restoration of Ukraine’s ecosystem during and after the war, potentially including reparations as a tool for recovery. 

How can you help to recover the Ukrainian environment and biodiversity?

To aid in the recovery of Ukraine’s environment and biodiversity, individuals can take practical and impactful steps. One effective approach is to initiate or participate in educational initiatives within local communities. This could involve organising information sessions at schools, community centres, or even online platforms, discussing the impact of the war on Ukraine’s natural environment and the importance of biodiversity. Such initiatives raise awareness and can inspire collective action. Social media can be a powerful tool in this effort. By sharing credible information, news, and updates about Ukraine’s environmental challenges, individuals can keep the conversation alive and maintain global attention on the issue. Leveraging social media for advocacy also involves supporting and amplifying the voices of Ukrainian environmentalists, conservationists, and organisations.

Another action that can help Ukraine’s environmental recovery is engaging in fundraising efforts. Donating to reliable and established funds like UAnimalsHappy Paw, or Let’s Do It Ukraine is an excellent way to ensure that your contributions are effectively utilised. These organisations are deeply involved in various initiatives, from local clean-up days to wildlife conservation and protection of endangered species in Ukraine. In addition to supporting these well-known organisations, consider donating to small-scale local fundraisers. These initiatives, often spearheaded by local communities or smaller NGOs, can make a significant difference on a more grassroots level. They might focus on specific local needs, such as rehabilitating a particular natural area, supporting a local animal shelter, or planting trees in war-affected regions. Donating to these causes is equally important as it empowers local communities, fosters a sense of ownership, and addresses specific environmental challenges unique to certain areas.

The ecological crisis caused by the massive use of russian weapons will undoubtedly leave a bleeding mark on Ukraine’s territory. Ultimately, the battle for Ukraine’s environment it is not a local problem, but a major front in the struggle for war and peace. The fate of Ukraine’s biodiversity, the future of thousands of species, rests upon our collective response. By taking responsibility, building solidarity, spreading information and believing in the power of action, we will be able to overcome any challenges and keep working for a future in which Ukrainian life will bloom again, a testimony to the stability of nature and the resilience of the human spirit.

[1] We choose not to capitalise the country ‘russia’ or its adjective ‘russian’ as a way of showing support for Ukraine through written language. The atrocities committed by the russian regime and its supporters call for its non-recognition and isolation from the international community; hence, the symbolic choice to use an uncapitalised ‘r’.

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