Assessing the environmental impact of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine

Alex Hough

Industrial city Donetsk, Vladimir Yaitskiy via Flickr 

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine reached a tentative ceasefire at the second Minsk agreements in February of this year, and yet shelling and military activity continue in Donbass and the eastern part of the country. Coverage of the conflict highlights the strange interplay between cultural and linguistic claims of separatists in Eastern Ukraine on the one hand, and the diplomatic brinkmanship of Vladmir Putin vis-à-vis the European Union on the other. It is diplomacy from a different era, evoking the classical age where generals sought to extend territory in order to gather booty and increase their glorium. The European Union, on the other hand, is by its nature more risk averse. It is principally an economic union and therefore its policy decisions seek a favourable economic environment above all, giving preference to stability and a positive outlook on the status quo. The current level of disorder is palatable for European markets, and thus its leaders are unlikely to act decisively to end the conflict.

However, the drawn out nature of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has significant costs to local populations, not just in the form of direct harm, but more saliently through destruction of local infrastructure and the degradation of the environment. These effects are pronounced in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (provinces), the country’s industrial heartlands which have hosted the majority of fighting since the annexation of Crimea last year. There were more than 5,300 industrial enterprises operating collectively in the two oblasts before the war began and of these enterprises rely heavily on a fully functioning infrastructure. Water supplies serve coolers that stop coal power stations from implosion. Electricity supplies maintain artificial ecosystems for miners working below ground. These are facilities operating with enormous energy inputs that sustain the intricate balance between huge energy output and highly toxic, pollutant chemicals.

Thanks to a report produced by the Zoï environment network last week, we can start to gauge the impact of the use of heavy weaponry in close proximity to industrial facilities, often directly against them. Since the conflict began in the region, electrical supply has been temperamental, systematically cut-off by heavy bombardment of key infrastructure. This results in the intermittent collapse of ventilation systems and water pumps in the hundreds of coal mines in the region. When the electricity stops and ventilators shut down, harmful gases accumulate and are released suddenly when systems restart. In March a release and explosion of methane in the Zaysadko mine in Donetsk killed 33 of the 200 miners underground at the time. While it is not the first accident to have occurred at the mine, the chair of the mine’s board attributed the incident to heavy shelling at nearby Donetsk airport. Similarly, flooding in mines damages installations and water-logs adjacent areas, causing groundwater to be polluted.

Air quality has also declined as a result of the conflict. Supply chains to coal power stations have been disrupted, and thus power stations have been forced to use lower grade coal which is much more polluting. Data from the only functioning air monitoring station, located in the town of Schastya in the Luhansk oblast (1) shows a marked increase in pollutants since the conflict began. However, peak concentrations of pollutants in the air do not correlate with periods of heavy combat, but rather with the reduction in the supply of high-grade coal for the Luhanska power plant. After a key bridge was destroyed, the Lunhanksa plant was forced to increase production while turning to lower-grade coal, manifesting in a clear deterioration in air quality. The impact of conflict, whether it be on persons or the environment, tends to occur more gradually, through the destruction of key infrastructure and the breakdown of supply chains. In the case of environmental damage, this has the added effect of diffusing responsibility and accountability.

This goes some way to explain why environmental concerns are obfuscated in diplomatic discussions about the conflict in Ukraine, and elsewhere. The damage to infrastructure and environment in Donetsk and Luhansk is unlikely to make headlines, and if nothing else it is this attitude that should invoke our concern. Modern warfare throughout the twentieth century has devastated environments. Take the oil fires in Kuwait started by Saddam Hussein’s forces as they fled the country, or the strategic deforestation perpetrated in Vietnam by the United States, that destroyed 4.9 million hectares of forest cover. Of course, what is taking place in the Ukraine is not on the scale of these incidences. Nevertheless, the assumption remains that nature is an inert resource that will continue to sustain the human species no matter how it behaves. And this in spite of all we know about climate change and the impact of human activity on environmental systems.

It is this assumption that leads to a strange situation where dropping bombs on huge industrial facilities – great cauldrons on toxic chemicals and energy – is considered to be without consequence. The immediate challenge in the Ukraine is mobilise greater analytical potential so that the impact of war on these facilities and on the environment can be measured.

Note: The Zoï environmental network paper on the subject was published on April 21st, 2015 by Sustainable Security at http://sustainablesecurity.org/2015/04/21/the-ukraine-conflicts-legacy-of-environmental-damage-and-pollutants-2/

(1) http://sustainablesecurity.org/air-quality-at-schastya-luhansk-oblast-in-summer-2014/

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