The Ukraine War and the Environment: What History Can Teach Us

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war is hell; it cuts into a nation’s people, wildlife and landscape and tears life to shreds. The human cost of war is so terrible to calculate, but how it affects the natural world is harder to quantify.

As the war waged by Russia against Ukraine rages on, there are already clear signs that both ecosystems and cities are being torn apart. It is not the first time that war has devastated nature.

From the WWI landscapes of Paul Nash’s Western Front to the napalm-clad rows of trees in Vietnam and burning oil wells in Iraq, we’re used to seeing the effects of war on Mother Nature. Here we will explore:

  • How the war has affected the environment around the world;

  • The immediate impact of Russian aggression on Ukraine’s environment;

  • The potential long-term effects that the current war could have.

Picture by Paul Nash

The history of the conflict and the environment

In modern history, how war damages the environment can be as important as how many people are killed and injured. In fact, in some cases, damaging local ecosystems can even be a direct act of war.

Here are just some of the environmental effects of war in modern times:

  • World War I saw ‘scorched earth’ policies and chemical warfare using heavy metals such as copper and lead present in the soil of battlefields 100 years after guns fell silent;

  • World War II was the first—and so far only—time that nuclear weapons were used, and even in the 1980s, ground radiation levels around Hiroshima were above normal background levels;

  • The Vietnam War had long-lasting human and environmental impacts after chemical defoliants were used to make it easier for air forces to locate Vietnamese fighters. These chemicals are still present in the soil more than 50 years later;

  • The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia tried to grossly alter the landscape with irrigation ditches to boost agriculture, but ended up cutting down trees and draining natural lakes. Subsequent wars have left land mines across the country, with clearance not expected to be complete until 2025;

  • The Angolan Civil War, which began in 1977, meant efforts to combat poaching were halted and warring factions even began slaughtering megafauna for sale – animal populations collapsed and 77% died, with long-term difficulties in restoring populations;

  • Mozambique’s civil war caused once-thriving national parks like Gorongosa to collapse and entire food chains to be decimated. This video by ecologist Sean B. Carroll shows the effects of the war and how the park was able to recover.

It is clear that war can damage soil, plants and animals immediately and for decades to come. The loss of the environment for animals can also devastate their populations, which may struggle to recover without intervention.

Which of these effects are we seeing in Ukraine and what can we expect in the future?

The current environmental impact of the Ukraine war

There are 49 nature reserves in Ukraine – the country is an ecological transition zone, covered by forests, wetlands and pristine steppe. One of these wetlands is the Black Sea Biosphere, which is home to over 120,000 birds this winter.

The current state of the reserve is unknown, but huge fires were visible from space in March. Reports on the current situation in the biosphere are patchy, but experience in Angola and Mozambique tells us it can take years for wildlife numbers to return to normal.

By Ig0r1982 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Yelanets Steppe Nature Reserve was the scene of active fighting. The steppe – or flat grasslands – is said to be protected in this area, but tank tracks cover the land and fires have burned through the grasses.

The image source

The impact on agriculture was immediate. Ukraine’s population is less than 40 million, but its fields produce food for over 400 million people around the world. Crops are left in the ground and fields are left fallow while farmers fight for their freedom.

The enduring environmental damage caused by the war in Ukraine

The war may not have started until the end of February 2022, but we can already see what is happening to Ukraine’s plants and animals. The future is much more difficult to predict.

There were already concerns about nuclear reactors across the country. Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors spread across four power plants, one of which was occupied by the invading forces.

With enough power, water and expertise, can these reactors stay safe? The memory of the Chernobyl disaster plays a major role in this question. Large parts of Ukraine remain uninhabitable and the effects on people and animals are not yet fully understood.

The future of agriculture is also a great unknown. Landmines were laid by the Russians, which could keep parts of the farmland out of use for years, as we have seen in Cambodia.

Finally, there is the ever-present threat of chemical warfare. We have seen how chemical weapons persist in countries like France and Vietnam long after the aggression has ended. If Russia unleashes chemical attacks on Ukraine, cleaning up and restoring the environment could take generations.

The war is being fought on many fronts. Programmers, software developers and hackers are fighting online – learn more about how to protect yourself from cyber attacks here – and soldiers are fighting on the ground.

The birds, plants and animals of Ukraine were engaged in combat. How they will emerge from the other side remains to be seen, but things are far from looking positive at the moment.

This article does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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