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Wasteland Warfare: the Soils of War

Toxic legacy for Ukraine’s forests and farms


Fri 03 Mar 23

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There are trees and whole areas of woodland destroyed by shelling and bombs that will take decades to grow back. Their ecosystems will need years to recover, robbing people of an important life-giving resource.

Survival is under siege in the Ukraine.

“Environmentalists insist that the beauty of nature also has value. People have lost places for recreation, where they spent time with their families and they can’t just be rebuilt like, for example, a supermarket,” says Hanna Hopko, a Ukrainian activist and politician who is part of the campaign for environmental accountability.

“We need generations to see 150- year-old oak trees grow back from first planting,” she said.

“Even my daughter will never see this destroyed nature fully restored, probably only her grandkids.”

And there are the shell craters in the forest that contain clues to the deadly long-term legacy of even those munitions that did not kill or injure anyone.

“Toxic materials remain in a crater after an explosion,” Hopko said.

“The soil is doomed.”

Hanna Hopko… we need generations to see 150- year-old oak trees grow back from first planting.

According to the FAO, Ukraine has around 9.7 million ha of forested land, which constitutes 16.7% of the total land area. Only 60,000 ha (0.6%) is primary forests, while 4.7 million ha or 49% are naturally regenerated forest, and more than 50% or 4.9 million ha are planted forest.

Scientists and environmentalists have launched a campaign to catalogue the damage and future risks from toxins left by shells in agricultural soil to chemicals leached into groundwater after bombings and fires, and from ancient woodland torn apart by modern weapons to rivers tainted by sewage after waste treatment sites were bombed.

Russia’s invasion has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians and destroyed homes and entire cities … an ‘ecocide’ that activists worry is going largely unrecorded amid the broader national tragedy.

They hope to use their investigations to bring an international lawsuit and force Moscow to pay clean-up costs and compensation.

As the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its second year, the remarkable resilience of the Ukrainian people continues to amaze the watching world. One of the most striking aspects of Ukraine’s fight back against Russian aggression has been the prominence of the country’s women. From frontline soldiers to unofficial ambassadors, Ukrainian women are playing a key role in the struggle to defeat Vladimir Putin.

Some farm and forest areas are so mined and physically transformed by craters and trenches that, like some World War 1 battlefields, they may never return to full production.

In Chernihiv, Russia’s military used almost every weapon in its arsenal, from long-range missiles to short-range shells. Their twisted remains are stored at an old industrial site on the city’s outskirts, along with the almost unrecognisable fragments of a fighter jet shot down in the area.

When Ukraine recaptured Kherson in November, farmers returned to find their grain crops in ruins. Tractors were missing, most of the wheat was gone and hundreds of buildings used to store crops and machinery were bombed and burned.

Farms and forests bear the scars of Russian shelling and unexploded ordnance riddles the fields but it’s the less visible damage to Ukraine’s famously fertile soil after a year of war that could be the hardest to repair.

Scientists looking at soil samples taken from the recaptured Kharkiv region in north-eastern Ukraine found high concentrations of toxins such as mercury and arsenic from munitions and fuel are polluting the ground.

Using the samples and satellite imagery, scientists at Ukraine’s Institute for Soil Science and Agro-Chemistry Research estimated that the war has degraded at least 10.5 million ha of agricultural land across Ukraine so far.

That’s a quarter of the rural land, including territory still occupied by Russian forces, in a country described as the bread basket of Europe.

Shelling has also upset the delicate ecosystems of microorganisms that turn soil materials into crop nutrients such as nitrogen while tanks have compressed the earth, making it harder for roots to flourish.

Before the conflict, Ukraine was the world’s fourth-largest corn exporter and fifth-biggest wheat seller, and a key supplier to poor countries in Africa and the Middle East that depend on grain imports.

Footage courtesy of @MongabayTV

After Russia’s invasion a year ago, global grain prices climbed as the Black Sea ports that usually ship Ukraine’s harvest closed, exacerbating inflation rates around the world.

The war damage could cut Ukraine’s potential grain harvest by 10 to 20 million tonnes a year, or up to a third based on its pre-war output of 60 to 89 million tonnes, the Ukraine Soil Institute says.

Besides the damage to the soil, Ukrainian farmers are struggling with unexploded shells in many fields, as well as the destruction of irrigation canals, crop silos and port terminals.

Andriy Vadaturskyi, chief executive of Nibulon, one of Ukraine’s biggest grain producers, expects demining alone to take 30 years and said urgent financial help was needed to keep Ukrainian farmers in business.

Ukraine’s most fertile soil, chernozem, has suffered the most. Chernozem is richer than other soils in nutrients such as humus, phosphorus and nitrogen and extends deep into the ground, as much as 1.5 m.

The war damage could lead to an alarming loss of fertility. Increased toxicity and reduced diversity of microorganisms, for example, have already reduced the energy corn seeds can generate to sprout by an estimated 26%, resulting in lower yields.

A working group of soil scientists created by the Ukrainian government estimates it would cost $15 billion to remove all mines and restore Ukraine’s soil to its former health.

That restoration can take as little as three years, or more than 200, depending on the type of degradation.

If studies of damage to land during World War 1 are anything to go by, some areas will never recover.

Naomi Rintoul-Hynes… fears the conflict in Ukraine is doing similar, irreversible damage to the environment, similar to World War 1.

Naomi Rintoul-Hynes, senior lecturer in soil science and environmental management at Canterbury Christ Church University in England, studied soil contamination from World War 1 and fears the conflict in Ukraine is doing similar, irreversible damage.

“It is of utmost importance that we understand how bad the situation is as it stands,” she said.

“Lead, for example, has a half-life of 700 years or more, meaning it may take that long for its concentration in the soil to decrease by half. Such toxins can accumulate so much in plants growing there that human health may become affected.”

Removing mines and other unexploded ordnance, which cover 26% of Ukraine’s land according to the government, will likely take decades, says Michael Tirre, Europe program manager for the US. State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal.

There’s another long-term problem for Ukraine’s agricultural sector, which accounted for 10% of its gross domestic product before the war – the damage to roads, railways and other infrastructure estimated at $35.3 billion and counting.

Many farmers can survive this year, living off the income of a bumper year just before the war, but more than half will have severe financial problems if the conflict drags into 2024.

The future is from grey to dark, at the moment.

  • With extracts from reports by Reuters, Rod Nickel in Bilozerka and Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv, Ukraine.
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