Wartime contamination also happens indirectly, says Denisov. During normal operations, coal mines in Donbass, for example, have to pump water to prevent flooding. But when war interrupted this, rising waters corrupted local groundwater stocks. Not to mention the extensive damage to the water supply infrastructure itself, which cut off the supply of million Ukrainians.
Less obviously, the war has put pressure on the government to undo some of the environmental gains of recent years. Ukrainians have to look for other ways to heat their homes when the gas goes out, which increases the scale of logging, says Vasyliuk. Trees that are not incinerated during battles are cut down for fuel. This spring, the government suspended public access to certain types of logging data and canceled the so-called ‘silent season’, when loggers are prohibited from cutting during the animals’ calving season. of the forest. Both votes, long sought by forestry groups, were rejected despite protests from environmental groups. “Our state is trying to simplify access to natural resources as much as possible, and that’s bad news,” says Vasyliuk. “We can’t stop it.”
When the time for reconstruction comes, Vasyliuk hopes to see a reversal that would add more land to the country’s protected areas. The war has already rendered large areas of valuable farmland unusable, as it is now polluted with heavy metals and littered with unexploded bombs, but these areas could be added to Ukraine’s Emerald Protected Network, suggests Vasyliuk. It highlights the success of rewilding in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. “If nature is left alone, it will recover,” he says.
It remains to be seen how the government’s current attention to environmental damage will translate into reconstruction. Weir points to the current status of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, a massive industrial facility outside the heavily contested city of Mariupol. Before the war, the factory was the target of environmental organizations hoping to clean up the air in the nearby town, one of the most polluted in Europe. Some officials have suggested that the damage and disruption of warfare could lead to new, cleaner technologies or a reduction in operations.
But the settlement’s fate hinges on the wider conflict and the messy local politics of reconstruction. Maybe Ukraine will keep the area, in which case there will be the same old struggle between cleaning up the factory and preserving the thousands of jobs there. “It’s easy to say things to the media, but the reality is it’s going to be political,” Weir said. What if Russia holds this ground? “Will Russia invest the necessary amount of money in these areas? I don’t know,” he said. “It’s going to be a huge problem to deal with.”
One thing that could push Ukraine toward further environmental reform is the country’s ambition to join the European Union, which requires adherence to the bloc’s environmental laws as a prerequisite for admission. But financing this transition will be a challenge whatever the political situation at the end of the war. Initially, there was an impetus towards hold Russia responsible for the costs, including environmental damage. That would potentially be a task for the UN General Assembly, which could pass a resolution to freeze and reallocate Russian funds held abroad. But despite Ukraine’s calls for redress, this momentum seems to have decreased among its allies, Weir says, because some countries like the United States seem to recognize the precedent such an action would set.
This money can come from other sources, from international environmental groups or from the European Union, which is currently considering how to help fix the country. “There are discussions about this kind of Marshall Plan for Ukraine,” says Krzysztof Michalak, senior program officer at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, who watched the environmental situation. “There is a plan for a reconstruction fund, so a big prize pool.”
The question will be what to prioritize. Ukraine’s water, energy and transport systems are in shambles and need to be repaired urgently for the good of the people. And a post-war deployment of renewable energy must avoid potential drawbacks. For example, hydroelectric dams significantly disrupt river ecosystems. And you wouldn’t want to install solar panels or wind turbines in a way that would require cutting down even more trees. As a potential solution, Vasyliuk suggests prioritizing solar farming in contaminated areas.
But as the price of renewable energy deployment comes down, rebuilding a green Ukrainian economy is more feasible than ever. “Rebuilding green is always a good investment,” says Michalak. “It’s not as expensive as it looks.”