The massive use of artillery and military aircrafts on battlefields can cause numerous fires and damage to the vegetation. But wildlife is even more threatened. In addition to facing harm from fires, wildlife also faces the threat of being poached by the military, the noise of military vehicles and combat.
Armed conflicts, in addition to inflicting suffering on the civilian population, also has the potential to cause permanent environmental damage. The Gulf War is an example of the greatest environmental disaster caused by war. Iraqi troops detonated more than 700 Kuwaiti oil wells, of which more than 600 burned for months. Crude oil ponds in the desert created from the damaged wells posed a threat to aquifers. With the intent to clog desalination plants, Iraq dumped between 6 to 11 million barrels of oil directly into the Gulf. The release of oil had lethal effects on migratory birds and created health effects on the local population.
At the time, UN Security Council Resolution 687 declared that “…Iraq…is liable to national governments and corporations, in accordance with international law, for any direct loss and direct damage, including damage to the environment and destruction of natural resources, and for any direct damage resulting from the unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait”. To this end, the United Nations Compensation Commission was established to manage the Compensation Fund and to assess claims arising as a result of Iraq’s actions.
It is certain at this time, that the UN Security Council will not be able to declare Russia responsible for the environmental damage it is causing in Ukraine’s environment, but the same time, other UN bodies – together with the international community – will have to work to restore all the environmental damage generated by Russian troops according to our colleagues report from the Ukrainian organization “Environment People and Law” (EPL).
Since the first days of the invasion, Russian troops began deliberately destroying critical infrastructure with both high-precision missiles and jet artillery. The goal of these actions has been to weaken fuel supply to Ukrainian cities, restrict resources for reconstruction and to cause maximum economic damage. However, some cases we have recorded indicate that the aim of some shelling is to worsen the environmental situation in cities and towns.
Damage to biodiversity
As of March 30, 2022, about 44% of the so-called “nature reserve fund” areas (nature and biosphere reserves, national nature parks) were in the war zone or under temporary occupation by Russian troops. In total, at least 3 biosphere reserves, 13 national parks and 4 nature reserves in the south, east and north of Ukraine are currently under temporary occupation.
The massive use of artillery and military aircrafts on the battlefields can cause numerous fires and damage to the vegetation. But wildlife is even more threatened. In addition to facing harm from fires, wildlife also faces the threat of being poached by the military, the noise of military vehicles and combat. These factors are especially dangerous now because many birds are beginning their spring migration. Many species will fly to nest on the coast of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, while fighting continues, it will be impossible for the birds to give birth to a new generation due to the conflict. Some birds will return to their nesting sites in Polissya, affected not only by the war but also by severe fires. Several million birds of various species will have to pass through Ukraine during their migration to return to their nesting sites in northern Europe. At this stage, however, it is difficult to predict whether they will be able to fly over areas impacted by conflict and fires. Therefore, for many species of birds, this conflict may lead to an overall population decrease across Europe. This also applies to globally endangered species. The construction of defenses, ammunition explosions and the passage of tanks through protected areas also leads to the destruction of natural ecosystems.
The release of chemicals from fires and explosions
According to preliminary estimates, since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, shelling has caused large-scale fires in at least 10 oil depots, more than 10 large warehouses of flammable and combustible materials, at least 6 hypermarkets of building materials in several cities have been burned (thousands of tons of building materials, including plastics) and several gas pipelines have been damaged.
The open-air combustion of petroleum products causes the release of carbon monoxide, sulfur and nitrogen oxides. The latter are acid gases which, when reacting with water, produce acids that can irritate mucous membranes when inhaled. In addition, many aromatic compounds, such as aldehydes and ketones are released, which are harmful to the human body. Likewise, the black smoke produced because of fires in oil depots and warehouses is a sign that significant emissions of soot microparticles are being released, which is the most dangerous carcinogen to be found in everyday life.
A Russian attack on a nitric acid tank has been reported in Luhansk. Nitric acid is used to produce ammonium nitrate, a major component of fertilizers and to produce explosives such as nitroglycerin and trinitrotoluene (TNT). This highly corrosive mineral acid plume caused the inhabitants in the town of Rubizhne to be advised to stay indoors, close windows and doors, and wear masks due to the risk of serious harm in case of inhalation. upon contact with flesh, nitric acid quickly causes severe chemical burns.
These are just a few examples of the environmental damage from the war in Ukraine. At the same time, the Ukrainian population is deprived of its right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as recognized by Human Rights Council Resolution 48/13.
Some of our proposals to address these damages include the creation of a Compensation Commission based off the model created for the Iraq case, the cooperation of NASA and ESA for a rapid professional analysis of the environmental impact of the war, or the establishment of an Environmental Monitoring Fund to develop a specialized methodology of environmental monitoring under conditions of war, including a rapid testing system implemented by certified laboratories.
Ana Barreira is a lawyer and founding Director of the International Institute for Law and Environment (IIDMA). LL.M in International Legal Studies (New York University) and in Environmental Law (London University).