Calculating the environmental cost of war 

The war in Ukraine has had a devastating toll, with tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers killed. But along with the human cost, there has been considerable environmental damage from the conflict, from chemical contamination of waterways to air pollution and deforestation.

Research led by Daniel Hryhorczuk, professor emeritus in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois Chicago, estimates that the war has caused $56.4 billion in environmental damage.

“Most of these environmental impacts threaten human health,” the researchers report in their recent paper, published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology.

To make these estimates, the researchers scoured academic, institutional and media publications for references to the environmental impact of the war, using search terms such as “Ukraine,” “Russia,” “environment” and “ecocide.” The team then analyzed each result, looking for details about the type of environmental degradation.

One of the most publicized events of the war was the June 2023 destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam. Both sides denied responsibility for the collapse, which “caused massive flooding downstream, which carried organic wastes, hundreds of tons of oil, landmines and unexploded ordnance into the Dnipro River Delta and the Black Sea,” the researchers write.

A map showing existing environmental damage and potential damage from the war in Ukraine. (Image courtesy of Daniel Hryhorczuk)

According to the paper, other examples of environmental degradation are less obvious, such as an increase in fine particulate matter and fires due to bombings. Military operations and a lack of firefighters have caused wildfires to spread. 

Also, the country has seen considerable landscape and habitat destruction. About 30% of Ukraine’s protected areas have been negatively impacted by the war, the study found, due to shelling, digging trenches, landmine placement and other destructive activities.

The study’s authors stress that international law requires that wars be conducted with due regard for the protection and preservation of the natural environment, and they argue for accountability. 

“There is also an opportunity for new rules to emerge from a common conviction that increased protection is required for the only environment we have,” the researchers write. They say that accountability for lack of restraint “would disincentivize aggressor states and establish better standards for the protection of human life and its dependence on a healthy environment.”

The other authors on the study are from Tufts University, Harvard University, the Ministry of Health in Ukraine and Third Horizons Strategies in Chicago. 

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