The Environmental Impacts of the Russian Invasion Affect Us All

he Russian invasion of Ukraine has been devastating. As the war approaches its fifth month, tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers have perished and numerous Ukrainian cities and villages have been left in ruin. The World Bank estimates that the Ukrainian economy will shrink by 45% due to the Russian invasion, and according to experts, it will cost billions of dollars to rebuild Ukraine. While the damage to the Ukrainian people and their economy cannot be ignored, the impacts of the destruction of Ukraine’s agricultural sector and environment will have lasting implications across the globe if steps are not taken to address this crisis.

Globally, Ukraine is among the largest producers and exporters of agricultural products—earning it the nickname the “breadbasket of Europe.” This Eastern European state is home to some of the world’s most fertile land and the agricultural sector employs roughly 14% of Ukraine’s total population. As a result, Ukraine relies heavily on its arable land. In 2021, Ukraine earned $27.8 billion in agricultural exports—roughly one-third of its total export revenue for that year.

Russia’s war, however, has significantly impacted the Ukrainian agricultural sector. Since the invasion, Russian forces have captured and occupied territory in southern and eastern Ukraine. Additionally, the Russians established a blockade on the Black Sea and have prevented the export of Ukrainian agricultural products. Prior to the war, Ukraine’s grain export to countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa were roughly six million tons per month. According to The Brookings Institution, Ukraine is now only exporting one million tons of grain per month due to the Russian blockade—marking an 80% decline in exports. According to the United Nations World Food Programme, this has led to a global food crisis.

Other factors have also led to food insecurity in these regions. According to reports, Russia has been “stealing grain and other produce” from farmers in the occupied regions of southern and eastern Ukraine—estimated at hundreds of thousands of tons of grain. Videos of Russian soldiers setting fire to Ukrainian wheat fields have also been posted on social media. Russia’s “scorched-earth” policy has further contributed to the current global food crisis and transformed many arable territories into barren land.

In addition to the impact on Ukraine’s agricultural sector, environmental issues have resulted from the war. Take, for example, the effect of the Russian shelling of Mariupol. Known for its iron and steel factories, the constant Russian bombardment of the city has seen numerous buildings, factories, and electrical plants destroyed. Damaged sewage pipes have contaminated the city’s water supply. A continued bombardment of Mariupol will risk further contamination. When the Azovstal steel plant was built in Mariupol, a dam was constructed to prevent factory chemicals from spilling into the Sea of Azov. While the dam has deteriorated over time, the shelling of the city has contributed to its decline. If the dam bursts, toxins from the plan would contaminate the local water supply, the Kalmius river, and the Sea of Azov—destroying the ecosystem and contaminating food sources in this region. These negative environmental effects would go beyond Ukraine. The Sea of Azov is connected to the Black Sea, which then flows into the Mediterranean. Should the Sea of Azov be contaminated by various chemicals emanating from destroyed factories and plants in southern Ukraine, there is a serious risk that these poisons would be introduced to major European bodies of water. The exposure of chemicals in the Mediterranean Sea would impact fishing across the region. Furthermore, the consumption of contaminated wildlife would be harmful to humans. Eventually, the seafood in the Mediterranean could become inedible due to the associated health risks. The poisoning of these waters would also lead to the endangerment and extinction of wildlife residing in or around the Mediterranean Sea. In the extreme case, it could become a baren body of water.

The Russian invasion has also jeopardized Ukraine’s biodiversity. Like Azovstal, the Russians have bombed several other factories and chemical plants. The smoke emanating from these buildings is toxic—resulting in air pollution. Meanwhile, projectiles fired by tanks and other armored vehicles have led to wildfires and the destruction of forests. According to the United Nations, this will lead to the “degradation of [Ukrainian] ecosystems” and it will impact the environment of neighboring countries. The continued contamination of Ukraine will lead to the endangerment or extinction of many plants and animals—negatively impacting the biodiversity of the European continent. It would “raise the carbon footprint in the region” due to the pollutants entering the atmosphere as these carbon emissions would spread from Ukraine to its neighbors. This would put Eastern Europe at a “higher risk of climate change-related disasters,” something that would be both dangerous and costly. The globe has previously seen refugees flee their homes due to climate-related issues and it is possible that similar migration patterns could occur in Eastern Europe if Ukraine’s wildlife disappeared.

The invasion’s socio-economic and environmental impacts have taken a toll on Ukraine, its neighbors, and the global community at large. Citizens around the globe are facing hunger, Ukrainian soil has been contaminated, and millions of lives are at risk. It is imperative that the international community intervene and help mitigate the environmental situation in Ukraine. Otherwise, the harm to the Ukrainian environment and to global food supplies will last for decades to come.

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