For Wired, Gregory Barber and Matt Simon discussed the current conflict in Ukraine and the lesser-discussed environmental impact it’ll have on the country:
In the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, the ground has been behaving strangely. In some places, it is sinking; elsewhere it “heaves”—bulging upward, according to satellite data released this week. Before it became a conflict zone, the Donbas has long been Ukraine’s coal country, and the earth is riddled with hundreds of miles of tunnels underneath cities, factories, and farms, many of them abandoned. Recently, those shafts have been flooding, causing the surface to shift and carrying toxic chemicals that now threaten the region’s water supply. One of those mines, the site of a nuclear test in the 1970s, remains potentially radioactive. Ukrainian scientists have warned that the risks to the region could be “more deep and dangerous than Chernobyl.”
Since 2014, when Russia’s annexation of Crimea sparked fighting in the Donbas, the region has been the site of a parallel ecological catastrophe. It involves not only the mines, but toxic leaks from industrial facilities that have fallen into disuse and contamination caused by shelling and munitions. That’s partly due to the chaos of a drawn-out war: In a contested region, who should bear the costs of pumping groundwater out of abandoned mines? At other times, the environment has been wielded as a weapon of war, such as when militants shelled chlorine stocks at a wastewater plant, threatening to ruin the local water supply.
Things like air pollution and water contamination could lead to more asthma cases which, in turn, would affect the elderly and those in impoverished areas worst on top of that pandemic thingy that’s still around:
Pollution raises the risk of infectious respiratory diseases. When you get particulate matter in your lungs, immune cells try to engulf those foreign objects—basically, they get distracted attacking air pollution instead of microbes. “But we also use those immune cells for fighting things like viruses,” says Prunicki. “So that’s why you see an association with Covid rates and wildfires, or Covid rates and air pollution.” (Keep in mind that the world is still embroiled in a pandemic, and only a third of Ukraine’s population is fully vaccinated.)