Oleh Bohdarenko, lawmaker and head of the Parliamentary Committee on Environmental Policy and Nature Management, has said that Russian occupying forces have committed deliberate acts of ecocide. Speaking in an exclusive interview with Kyiv Post, he said that leaks of radioactive substances from two nuclear plants, one of which has been occupied by the Russians for over eight months, pose the biggest threat. Bohdarenko also said that the world-renowned Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve in Kherson Region most likely no longer exists. He also spoke of the plan Ukraine has in the event of extreme situations, like an explosion at a nuclear power plant.
Does the war in Ukraine affect environmental security in the world? Which countries’ ecology might also suffer as a result of the war?
War in any part of the world is a threat to the environment. Because of the war, the ground, water and air are all polluted. This pollution is then transferred across borders and can settle anywhere.
First of all, our neighboring countries are put at risk: Romania, Poland, Slovakia, and the Black Sea region, may suffer. These countries can be affected by the spread of toxic or radioactive substances. The ecology of Belarus and the Russian Federation can also be affected, respectively.
What are, in your view, the most significant environmental risks and threats connected with hostilities?
Of course, the most significant environmental risk is radiation pollution and the uncontrolled leakage of radioactive substances from the Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plants. Everyone is apprehensive about the risks present at the Zaporizhzhya power plant and what might happen.
After the Russians seized the plant [in early March], I said back then that the Russian authorities did not understand what they were doing. If there is an uncontrolled nuclear reaction, even though an indirect hit to the plant that will cause an explosion, the radioactive cloud can cover the territory of Ukraine and the south of the Russian Federation, also Belarus, and the whole of Europe. It will affect a large part of the world.
Of course, there are other risks as a result of the war, such as significant air pollution due to explosions, the burning of gas stations and oil depots [targeted by Russian missiles] that can lead to significant air pollution in certain regions. The air would be so polluted with chemicals that it would lead to an environmental disaster.
The same pollution applies to soils, which cannot be plowed and planted for any crops – this can happen in any territory of Ukraine.
Have the Russian occupiers threatened to blow up the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station in Kherson Region? Would this also have environmental consequences?
Yes, it will have consequences, particularly halting the water supply in Kherson and Mykolaiv Regions and ensuring a large spillage of water. The bigger risk is the pollution of rivers due to chemicals entering them.
Is this due to hostilities?
Chemicals can get into the rivers due to the destruction of water treatment infrastructure, sewage, and water supply systems. All wastewater without sedimentation and deodorization can get directly into rivers and the sea. There is also a particular problem with industrial emissions, and drinking water in settlements downstream of a river may be either contaminated or of worse quality.
The same applies to the remnants of explosives, submerged enemy equipment, and tanks, all of which will lead to water pollution.
Recently, the governor of Kherson Region reported on the ecocide of the Dnipro River carried out by the Russians.
Are the occupiers deliberately causing harm to Ukraine’s ecology?
Of course, we see that the Russians are taking actions aimed at ecocide. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, 10 criminal proceedings on ecocide have been opened in Ukraine, and they are under the control of the Prosecutor-General’s Office.
Are the Russians causing this ecocide?
Yes. But the comprehensive of the concept of ecocide still has yet to be fully disclosed and studied around the world. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we do not have enough experience with such cases to investigate such a crime. According to Ukrainian legislation, ecocide is an action that causes an ecological catastrophe and leads to someone being made responsible.
We have seen the actions of Russian militants aimed at creating ecocide in certain areas. These sabotage explosions and direct strikes carried out on gas stations and oil storage facilities have caused uncontrolled oil leaks into rivers, soil and the air. These actions can be described as ecocide.
You mentioned such serious risks. Does the state have an action plan in the event of such an emergency?
All enterprises in Ukraine have a plan to deal with such emergencies. One of the activities of our Parliamentary committee is to protect the civil population. Also, the State Emergency Service is responsible for anticipating such situations, dealing with them successfully, and ensuring recovery. However, it’s impossible to predict all emergency events that could take place due to the Russian military.
What damage has the full-scale Russian invasion already caused to the environment in Ukraine? Are damage caused and their consequences being documented?
Currently, the damage caused to our ecology and environmental damage is being recorded by the State Ecological Inspectorate. There is a register of such damage once the data is passed to the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, which sums up and prepares documents for their submission to international courts. At the moment this process is still not completely systematic, and I have my own comments as head of there the parliamentary committee.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources recently developed methods on how to calculate such damage, which our committee will consider. The data collected by the Environmental Inspection Service has not been fully verified and confirmed by evidence obtained directly from the scenes [of such damage]. There are certain doubts if these documents and data will be suitable for seeking compensation in international courts for the ecological damage caused by Russia.
The concept of an international court [to handle the overall damages process] is still being discussed at the highest international level. Ukraine is working on creating a separate tribunal that will also include environmental damage caused by Russia.
There are many cases of environmental damage that we cannot record because it took place either in the occupied territories or there is no access to facilities because of hostilities. Total damage caused to the ecology of Ukraine can be discovered once all occupied territories have been liberated.
I am sure that illegal mining took place in Donetsk, Luhansk Regions, and partly Kharkiv Region, in Crimea. We still need to fully understand how this is calculated. Such estimated losses will run into trillions of hryvnias. The same applies to damage caused to forests. We still have a long way to go to calculate such losses.
Official losses to the country’s ecology currently run to 1.3 trillion hryvnias ($34 billion). There are 850 cases of ecological damage that are formally recorded in the register maintained by the Ministry of Environment and the State Environmental Inspectorate. The damage caused to forests in Ukraine alone comes to 14 billion UAH (about $ 370 million), and these losses will be specified in future.
Which region of Ukraine has suffered the most terms of ecology in this war?
If we’re talking about recorded cases, these are the territories occupied by the Russian Federation, and the longer that the occupation continues the greater the level of damage that will be caused. These are Kharkiv, Kyiv, Kherson, Sumy and Chernihiv Regions. However, the most significant pollution cases are in Donetsk and Luhansk Regions – flooded mines and potential contamination of soils and water – we have still to study what happened there.
A separate issue is the possible loss for Ukraine of certain facilities of environmental importance – the potential destruction of the Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve [in Kherson Region] and damage caused to the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve – these reserves probably no longer exist.
Such damage cannot even be calculated in accordance with any methodology. No methods in the world enable the calculation of a reduction in the natural reserve fund in such volumes. Biosphere reserves are being destroyed in hostilities, which is the most significant environmental damage for Ukraine.
And Crimea? The Russians have turned the peninsula into a military base. Does this, to some extent, harm the environment?
Yes, the creation of military bases on the territory of Crimea harms the environment as well as the so-called development of Crimea. According to the data that we have received, and it’s not official because the peninsula is still under Russian occupation, there has been destruction of vast amounts of the natural reserve fund for the “development of infrastructure,” and minerals have been extracted ruthlessly.
Unlike Ukraine, where European norms on restraining the disposal of natural resources are in place, Russia has no such mechanisms. The only mechanism they have is the law of the telephone, – using calls that prohibit or permit something to be done or not done at either regional or national level. We cannot even imagine what is happening, and what the environmental damages in Crimea are.
The same thing is taking place with the Kerch Bridge, which is presented as a massive achievement for the development of Crimea, and has contributed to a significant change in flora and fauna in the areas around the bridge, the fish fauna of the Azov Sea.
I see. This bridge is illegal, even from an ecological point of view. Thank you for this interview.