The underscored role of water in the Russia-Ukraine armed conflict

The underscored role of water in the Russia-Ukraine armed conflict

It has been more than a year since February 2022 when the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine shook the whole world. The life of millions of people has changed forever and the global society responded in a loud voice about its atrocities. The only victim who remains silent is the Nature. Military actions led to a drastic pollution of soils, water and atmosphere, large-scale forest fires and far-going negative impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity of the region. Many of these impacts will have dangerous consequences that will be revealed at a full scale later, but the shortage in water resources was one of the first calamities that directly concerned many Ukrainians almost instantly.

Even though, I leave far away from my home city of Mykolayiv for many years, the environmental, and more specifically water resources problems, concerned me both personally and professionally. In April 2022, a 90 km long pipeline supplying  Mykolayiv with water of the Dnieper river was shattered leaving the city’s half-million inhabitants without tap water. People carrying plastic bottles with drinking water home from delivery vehicles and brine water from the Dnieper-Bug estuary became ubiquitous  on the city’s streets. Among them is my father, an old University professor, who cares about my bedridden mother, and, as many resorted to stay almost at a frontier. The supply of estuarine brine has replaced the tap water for household necessities after a month, even though presumably this measure will kill the entire water supply system in the city.

I am a freshwater ecologist, who, ironically, just before the war has coauthored a book chapter on steppe rivers in the monograph “Rivers of Europe”. Not surprisingly, that the problems of water resources, water infrastructure and ecosystem sustainability under threats of military actions attracted my attention and made me thinking if I could apply my professional skills to help my country. I had a long way to develop myself as a scientist. I graduated with a MSc degree in Ecology from the National University of Shipbuilding in Mykolayiv and a MRes degree in Renewable Energy from Glyndwr University (UK) sponsored by the scholarship of the Ukrainian Government. Then I was awarded an Erasmus Mundus Doctoral Scholarship of the EU to carry out my doctoral study jointly by the Free University of Berlin in Germany and  the University of Trento in Italy. After completing my PhD degree in River Science, I continued my research on fluvial ecology at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) in Berlin.

The beginning of the conflict also coincided with a transitional period in my life because presently I am working hard to continue my work in science and explore possibilities to establish my own research group. Nevertheless, I was determined to take an active part in the initiatives that my colleagues at IGB developed to help Ukrainian retired and young scientist. Through this involvement, I approached scientists and officials in Kyiv, Odessa, Mykolayiv, as well as from the USA, Spain, Belgium and Germany, including my former supervisor Prof. Klement Tockner, with a proposition to develop a data base of military impacts and to carry out their analysis. This work, which was often carried by me at night after a day in the field, has resulted in a joint publication, which was warmly accepted by the international scientific community.        

Although, during the work on this paper, I realized that the topic of water playing multiple roles in armed conflicts is not new, I became convinced that the case of Ukraine is certainly special. Unlike conflicts reported within the territories of the Global South, the water landscape of Ukraine is highly industrialized. It includes large multi-purpose reservoirs, hydropower plants, cooling ponds for nuclear power stations, water reservoirs for industry and mining, and an extensive network of water distribution canals for agricultural and municipal purposes. Damage imposed by military actions, either intentional or unintentional, can therefore lead to consequences that will go far beyond Ukrainian borders. For example, the waters of Kakhovka reservoir, left bank of which is not under Ukrainian control, are being used for cooling the largest in Europe Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and for suppling water into Kakhovka irrigation system, also the largest in Europe with a 1600-km long network of canals.

Because our team working on this topic included experts in freshwater sciences from Ukraine and western countries, we were able to assess and evaluate information coming from “inside” and “outside” sources of Ukrainian, Russian and international origin. Based on reports available in official governmental sources and media we have identified and analyzed 49 realized impacts and 15 potential - those that did not lead to irreversible damages, but had a high likelihood, during first three months of the war.

The results of our analysis demonstrate how diverse can be the impacts of military actions on water resources even during a relatively short period. We have recorded multiple interruptions in operation of water and wastewater treatment facilities, damages of water transfer pipes and canals, surface and groundwater water pollution, flooding of subsurface mines, flooding due to dam breach and danger due to nautical mines (e.g. Fig. 1). In the south of Ukraine military actions also threaten the extensive network of irrigation canals, while in the east, attacks have prevented the pumping of water in subsurface mines leading to the uncontrolled rise of polluted mine water, which has effects on ground- and surface waters. Although regions of intense ground military actions have been affected the most, impacts on water (mostly pollution) were recorded also far from active combat areas highlighting far reaching consequences of this war. Especially dramatic is increase in the number of people in Ukraine that are in need for safe water supply – between April and November 2022 it raised from 6 to 16 million.

 Fig. 1. Examples of the impacts of military actions in Ukraine. a) Flooded village Demydiv after the damage of the Irpin dam in late February 2022 (photo: Vincent Mundy); b) People in a line for drinking water in Mykolayiv in April 2022; c) One of the many damaged bridges in the Mykolayiv region (photo b, c: Novosti N).

Apart from direct and indirect effects on Ukrainian people and the state of ecosystems in the country, our study also highlighted many consequences for global sustainability. Among them – transboundary pollution (98% of rivers in Ukraine drain to the Black Sea and 2% to the Baltic), threats of radioactive pollution owing to potential damage to the cooling ponds of nuclear power plants, risks to global food security due to damaged irrigation systems and restricted regional agriculture, and multiple threats to biodiversity. Complete understanding of these impacts at the present moment is still difficult because of the restricted access to affected areas and potential biases in available reports. However, it is already time to consolidate efforts of scientists, politicians and global peace-making organizations in evaluating impacts of armed conflicts on water resources and infrastructure as well as their post-war rebuilding. Considering that water is a cornerstone of sustainability and in the view of increasing number of conflicts worldwide, more attention should be given to understanding the role of water in armed conflicts, impacts of military actions on water environments and the ways to minimize them.

I was working on this paper during summer 2022 while participating in a field experimental program on the Tagliamento river in the northeast Italy. This river has been the frontier during both WW I and II. On aerial photographs dated May 1945, that I have acquired from an archive, the area near a railroad bridge across the river on a 1 km wide braided floodplain is looking as a moon landscape with thousands of craters from aviation bombs. Many of them failed to explode and remained in the gravel riverbed of the river. Last summer, due to extreme drought and very low water, a large number of munitions was recovered and detonated in safety. However, the echo of that blast that we have heard from dozens of kilometers away reveals how long-lasting these impacts are and how long it would take for the Nature to recover.    


Further reading

Sukhodolov A., Shumilova O., Loboda N., Katolikov V., Arnaut N., Bekh V., Usatii M., Kudersky L., Skakalsky B. The western steppe rivers [Chapter 13] in Rivers of Europe (eds Tockner, K. et al.) 685–716 (Elsevier, 2022) 

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