The lack of a functioning global response to the biggest single man-made catastrophe in Europe for decades demonstrates one thing: the world has no structured mechanisms to address either the prevention of ecological terrorism or to respond to modern warfare’s ability to cause huge environmental damage. The world has failed yet another “crash-test” of its resilience and demonstrated how weak are its emergency response capabilities.
The intentional destruction of the Kakhovka dam by Russian forces is the greatest man-made disaster since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the biggest in Europe for decades. The total environmental and humanitarian impact is yet to be fully determined but what was clear in the immediate aftermath is that 80 settlements and over 600 km2 of the land were flooded. The negative consequences of this terrorist attack on wildlife will be felt over an area of at least 5,000 square kilometers, an area twice the size of Luxembourg.
According to a statement by the Ukrainian Minister of Environmental Protection 700,000 people in both Ukrainian controlled and Russian occupied territories have only limited access to drinking water. The evacuation of the population from the territories on both sides was impeded due to shelling by Russian troops. Thirty per cent of southern Ukrainian national parks are at risk of disappearance, with 160 thousand birds and 20 thousand other wild animals likely to be lost.
Ukraine has already lost over 6.5 cubic kilometers of fresh water which will impacts about 70% of the Ukrainian population and directly undermine national water security. In comparison, Europe’s total annual economic activity consumes around 243 cubic kilometers of fresh water. Agricultural lands in southern Ukraine have been dramatically damaged, which places about 20% of global food security under threat.
The disaster has a transnational impact as the resulting massive water flow carries with it multiple chemical pollutants and landmines, dislodged from the Russian occupied territories, into the Black Sea. This is damaging the biodiversity and ecosystem of the Black Sea area and those coastal states that have recreational and fishery potential.
The lack of a proper response mechanism among international organizations and the world community at large is seen on multiple levels. From a legal perspective, the attack on the dam has been categorized as an act of “ecocide”, a term that is only vaguely defined in international law. Ecocide is almost impossible to prove, and a proper international mechanism for bringing eco-perpetrators to justice does not exist. Ukraine’s legislation contains such provisions but this is only enforceable under limited national jurisdiction.
The international community’s and specifically the UN reaction to-date has also been disappointing. That the UN Security Council (UNSC) was unable to render any results comes as no surprise, because of the Russian veto. The lack of understanding and short-sightedness of the UN was exemplified by the use of its official Twitter account announcing the celebration of the Russian language on the day that the Kakhovka dam was blown up. The outrage this generated among Ukrainians and their officials, convinced them of the absolute disfunction that now exists within the organization and its inability to tangible political assistance.
Even though the UNSC remains in deadlock in terms of safeguarding peace and security, one could hope that at least the humanitarian assistance framework could function properly. Yet, neither the UN, nor the ICRC are able to currently negotiate access to the occupied territories of the Kherson region, where civilians have been trapped for days without food, water or medicine.
Other UN bodies like the IAEA, UN’s atomic energy agency or UNEP, its environmental body, have failed to prepare meaningful contingency plans to deal with an event such as the dam explosion and its consequences. Last autumn Ukrainian authorities indicated that the dam had been mined by Russian forces which, if taken seriously, should have given plenty of time for global actors to prepare a response plan and use all diplomatic means to try mitigate or prevent the catastrophe.
The EU stopped short in following up its February 2023 resolution which recognized Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism and as a state that “uses means of terrorism”. While its Parliament called on the EU and its member states to put in place a proper legal framework that would add Russia to the list of terrorist states, this has not yet been done.
The world clearly needs a complete review of the gaps in its response capabilities to disaster, particularly during wartime. This, however, will require time which we currently don’t have. In the meantime, a set of resolute and bold political measures can be applied immediately to help those in need and put pressure on the perpetrator.
First and foremost, international aid relief organizations like the UN and ICRC enjoying open channels of communication with Russia should immediately elicit access to the occupied territories where people are held hostage under dire humanitarian circumstances. As a matter of political punishment, UN member states can take measures to initiate Russia’s suspension from various UN fora, including UNEP and IAEA. The latter is known of to have fallen under tremendous Russian influence because of a disproportionate number of Russians in its secretariat, including IAEA’s Deputy Director who formerly served directly with President Putin. The EU’s response, apart from developing a legal framework and finally agreeing on sanctions against Rosatom and Russia’s nuclear industry, could re-direct future Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) taxes from Russia to assist Ukraine’s green recovery.
Southern nations, in the meantime, should beware cooperation with Russia in energy projects. Ukraine’s experience demonstrates the risks of having another country possess full technical information and access to your critical infrastructure.
The Kakhovka dam is the first among dozens of Ukrainian critical infrastructure facilities now under Russian occupation. No doubt, Russia is closely observing the world’s reaction to the Kakhovka dam explosion treating it as a litmus test for its future actions. For example the Crimean Titan chemical plant is reported to be mined too which, in the event of an explosion would lead to the release of huge quantity of ammonia which would be spread in unknown directions.
If multiple international organizations and the civilized world fail this test the consequences will be even more disastrous.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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