From war to ecocide in Ukraine: these are the global consequences
by Karl-Heinz Peil
[This article posted on 10/1/2023 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.telepolis.de/features/Vom-Krieg-zum-Oekozid-in-der-Ukraine-Das-sind-die-globalen-Folgen-9321361.html?seite=all.]
The war leads to the sellout of the country. In addition, ecological eternal burdens are looming. A peculiarity of the soil makes this a global problem.
Despite the ongoing war in Ukraine, the reconstruction of the country has been discussed several times at expert conferences, especially at the EU level. In the process, those responsible cite sums that exceed the EU budget several times over. In addition to the almost irreparable social and economic damage in Ukraine, however, the irreparable ecological damage must also be addressed.
According to media reports, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Selenskyj discussed funds for reconstruction with high-ranking Wall Street representatives during his recent visit to New York. Selenskyj promised potential investors, above all, good earning opportunities in agriculture, which has been in the process of selling out for some time.
Land grabbing and ecological destruction
Ukraine has been in economic distress with acute payment difficulties long before 2022, which is why, at the urging of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Development Bank, a law was passed in 2020 allowing the sale of large tracts of land to foreign investors. The chairman of the Ukrainian Smallholders' Association called this an extortionate ultimatum.
So far, 28 percent of arable land has been controlled by oligarchs, some of them individuals and large agribusinesses. The rest was previously farmed by more than eight million Ukrainian farmers. The largest landowners are a mixture of oligarchs and a large number of foreign investors, mainly from Europe and North America.
The NZZ am Sonntag, which reported on this, quoted the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences on the matter:
Today peasants are fighting and dying in the war. They have lost everything. The processes of free land sale and purchase are increasingly liberalized and advertised. This threatens the rights of Ukrainians to their land, for which they give their lives.
This portends that an industrial model of agriculture will prevail in Ukraine, based on large-scale monoculture farming and intensive pesticide use. To a large extent, this will take place on arable land that was previously considered to be of particularly high quality worldwide.
Ukraine as a granary due to fertile black soil
Ukraine was already considered a granary in the last century - also for Germany. During the First World War in early 1918, after the "Bread Peace" with the Central Powers, Ukraine was briefly seen as a lifeline for the precarious food supply of the German Reich. Later, Ukraine played a central role for Adolf Hitler in his ideology of the "Lebensraum im Osten". Today, the yellow stripe in Ukraine's flag stands for the cornfields as the country's symbol.
Ukraine owes this significance to the so-called black soil (chernozem), a black-colored soil with a high humus content and high proportions of phosphorus and ammonia compounds. This soil can provide permanently high agricultural yields due to its high water storage capacity.
Data: World Reference Base for Soil Resources (WRB). Image Naevius Varius / CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed / Editing: Karl-Heinz Peil and TP
Chernozems cover an area of about 230 million hectares. There are two "chernozem belts" in the world. One is the Eurasian steppe, extending from eastern Croatia (Slavonia) along the Danube (northern Serbia, northern Bulgaria, Danubian Plain), southern and eastern Romania (Wallachian Plain and Moldavian Plain) and Moldova to northeastern Ukraine through the central black earth areas of central and southern Russia to Siberia.
The other extends from the Canadian prairies in Manitoba across the Great Plains of the United States to southern Kansas. Because of these regional features, Ukraine and Russia are major international suppliers of wheat, corn, sunflower seed, and fertilizer. This makes the consequences of the Ukraine war, which is centered in this soil region, all the more dramatic.
Cumulative impact of war on the environment
Czech military expert Jaroslav Štefec recently summarized the cumulative effects as follows:
The ongoing fighting is leading to the destruction of vast areas of fields and native vegetation and to the contamination of the soil with heavy metals and other highly toxic substances released by the explosions of the munitions or the entire warehouses in which they are stored. [...]
Nor from the fires of destroyed combat equipment and the emissions of the hundreds of thousands of liters of diesel and gasoline burned in the operation of operational equipment.
Using data from European and U.S. satellite imagery, researchers estimated as early as early 2023 that the conflict had caused more than 6,000 fires that damaged nearly 5,000 square kilometers of land-mainly farmland, but also large areas of forest and, of course, urban areas. The report also notes that more than 70,000 homes were destroyed and more than 60,000 others damaged.
The Conflict and Environment Observatory (Ceobs) documented that numerous industrial sites - including fossil fuel, chemical and nuclear facilities - were also attacked, releasing large amounts of pollutants.
Nothing new in the East
The chairman of the Ukrainian parliament's agricultural committee, Oleksandr Haydu, quantified that more than five million hectares of farmland had already been rendered unusable by mines, contamination with explosive remnants or ongoing fighting. Instead of 7.7 million hectares as in the previous year, only 4.5 million hectares could be sown last winter.
Missiles, cruise missiles and mines destroy buildings and release asbestos. When storage tanks for heavy oil, refineries and industrial plants are hit, oil and chemicals seep into the ground and can contaminate groundwater. Ammunition also contains toxic chemicals, warn environmental experts such as Wim Zwijnenburg of the Dutch peace research organization Pax.
When an area is shelled every day for months, heavy metals from the fired munitions accumulate in the soil.
Zwijnenburg in conversation with RND
Even more serious and large-scale are the specific environmental destructions fueled by recent deliveries of weapons and ammunition from NATO countries.
Uranium munitions: large-scale and long-term contamination
Uranium munitions have extremely toxic effects via nanoparticles in the human bloodstream - despite the seemingly low levels of radioactivity. Large-scale contamination through their use is known from the Balkans and Iraq, which is still evident today, among other things, in genetic damage in newborns. In these regions, the incidence of cancer among adults is statistically many times higher.
The consequences of the use of uranium munitions have been systematically downplayed to this day, most recently in a response by the German government to a small question from the Bundestag on May 10, 2023. The reason for this question was that at the beginning of March 2023, the British government announced that it would supply uranium munitions to Ukraine. This apparently also took place in the following weeks.
It is known that on May 13, 2023, a huge munitions depot in western Ukraine was deliberately destroyed with an explosion cloud visible from afar. Regionally, increased radioactive contamination was measured afterwards.
Contaminated war: Are Ukrainians left alone with toxic uranium munitions?
In early September 2023, the U.S. also began supplying uranium munitions to Ukraine. The Russian side did not officially confirm the destruction of the ammunition depot with apparently existing uranium ammunition, but in mid-September there was a report that a - possibly further - depot with uranium ammunition had been destroyed. Not only British and U.S. tanks, but also German Leopard 2s can be equipped with the supplied uranium munitions.
Cluster munitions: decontamination as a century-long task
The USA has been supplying Ukraine with cluster munitions since July 2023. Cluster munitions are internationally outlawed for several reasons.
First, from a humanitarian perspective, it is reprehensible that it causes wounds that are difficult to treat as well as permanent mutilation of limbs.
Second, because of their poor targeting accuracy, no distinction can be made between military and civilian targets when they are used.
Third, because a large proportion of the minibombs (bomblets), five to 20 centimeters in size, do not explode but burrow into the ground as unexploded ordnance, the affected areas must be designated as exclusion zones. Duds from cluster bombs therefore have a similar effect to land mines, leading directly to the loss of agricultural land, particularly in Ukraine.
Experience from war zones such as Laos (during the Vietnam War) and Iraq, where they were used en masse by the U.S., shows that clearing them locally is a long-term task. Primarily in Laos, relevant areas, such as rice fields, are still affected by this after more than 50 years.
Risks of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant
In the nuclear power plant, which has been under Russian control since March 2022, the last reactor unit for power supply was shut down in September 2022. The plant has already been shelled several times by Ukrainian drones, damaging key power lines, among other things. At times, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was on site.
After the destruction of the Kakhovka dam, it was possible to ensure temporary cooling of the facilities, but there is still a latent risk if the only high-voltage power line functioning at the time is knocked out for a longer period of time by hostilities or sabotage, and if the supply of fuel to the diesel generators, which is necessary after some time, is also blocked by acts of war. Another significant risk is the possible damage to the cooling water storage tanks and the loss of cooling water.
The consequences of the dam blast at Kachowka.
On June 7, 2023, the important Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine was destroyed, causing widespread flooding. The dam blast near Kakhovka once again escalated the critical situation of the Zaporizhzhya NPP. The leakage from the Dnipro dam also severely affected its cooling water system, which is necessary despite the shutdown reactors.
At the very least, it is completely impossible that the cooling power required during normal operation, which was previously provided by the reservoir, will allow the nuclear power plant to be restarted.
The blown-up dam served not only to irrigate huge areas of arable land on both sides, but also, via a long canal system, to irrigate large parts of Crimea, which was permanently damaged as a result.
For the ecosystems on the banks of the Dnipro, the dam bursting means an ecological catastrophe. Apparently, 150 tons of oil were also stored in the destroyed power plant, which ended up in the water and on land with the flood. Chemicals from factories on the shore were probably also washed in. Millions of fish, birds and other animals probably perished in the floods. (NZZ, 8.6.2023).
It was Ukrainian President Selenskyj who immediately blamed Russia for the disaster and spoke of ecocide. The latter is undoubtedly true, but already applies to all the environmental damage that had occurred up to that point. With regard to the still unexplained authorship of the dam blast, however, the evidence points relatively clearly in the direction of Ukraine.
The ecological balance of the war in Ukraine can already be described as historically unprecedented, even if one disregards the totality of the direct and indirect effects of the accelerated emission of greenhouse gases.
The long-term loss of valuable farmland in Ukraine also has global implications. But even where agricultural production will still be possible, only large Western investors will determine what will be grown there: Lucrative production with high pesticide use on soils already contaminated by war and thus oriented to the needs of wealthy countries on the world market, but not to regional and global food security.
Destroyed infrastructure in war zones can be rebuilt in the short and medium term - contaminated soils are a burden for eternity. Therefore, the following applies: Reconstruction of Ukraine is only possible if the supply of environmentally destructive weapons and ammunition is stopped immediately. This also applies to German policy.