Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is devastating the country’s environment and the harm must be recorded alongside the wider national tragedy, campaigners say.

The Zaporizhzhia power plant - the largest nuclear plant of its kind in Europe, sited in one of the most industrialised regions of the world – has become a symbol of the most toxic aspects scenes of environmental destruction in Ukraine. Fighting in and around the compound has seen multiple fires caused by shelling and led to warnings of the potential for nuclear catastrophe.

For the team at Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) - which works to reduce the harm to people and ecosystems from armed conflicts and military activities – the environmental cost of fighting at Zaporizhzhia (pictured below) and other sites across the country has been disturbing to witness.

A photo of Zaporizhzhia
A photo of Zaporizhzhia

“We’ve seen Russian soldiers digging trenches in the radioactive soil of the Red Forest near Chernobyl and drone strikes next to the six reactors at Zaporizhzhia,” Doug Weir, policy director at CEOBS, said. “It’s a high-intensity conflict in a heavily industrialised area, with the potential for environmental disaster.

“There’s always a lot of attention on the humanitarian cost of conflict but we now need to understand the environmental and climate costs as well.”

The UK-based team uses satellite imagery and open source intelligence like Twitter and Telegram to monitor and publicise data about armed conflict, mostly recently focusing on Ukraine.

They share intelligence with humanitarian organisations on the ground and with journalists to ensure the environment features in the coverage of war and is given greater consideration in reconstruction plans.

Throughout 2022, the CEOBS team has worked with journalists from around the world to report on the war, with many reports focusing on the environment.

They have worked with the Ukrainian Ministry of Environment, to support data collection which may ultimately support the government to hold Russia to account and seek reparations. They have also supported data-collection for the UN Environment Programme.

“One of the reasons we founded CEOBS is because the environment isn’t a high priority in conflicts. But unless we understand the environmental damage we won’t be able to develop policies to reduce harm and make sure the environment is addressed when it comes to recovery,” Doug said.

“Monitoring and the data we collect can inform post-conflict environmental studies and contribute to developments in law and policy that could help reduce environmental and humanitarian harm in the future."

Among other aspects of their work, CEOBS monitors other armed conflicts in areas including Afghanistan, Yemen and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and works to impel militaries to reduce the environmental impact of their operations whether domestically, during peacekeeping operations or wartime.

“We know we’re facing a triple crisis: climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution,” Doug (pictured below) said about the urgency of their work.

A black and white photo of Doug Weir, policy director at CEOBS
A black and white photo of Doug Weir, policy director at CEOBS

 “We have a clearer understanding than ever about people’s reliance on the environment and we know that conflicts are one of the most damaging things that can happen to the environment, not just in terms of the direct damage they cause but also the indirect consequences of conflict to the environment.  That damage has long term implications for human health, to livelihood and society.”

  • JRCT made a grant to CEOBS though the Peace and Security programme which support approaches to defence and security which prioritise peace, non-violence and human rights. The core funding was made to support CEOBS in work to ensure the environmental consequences of armed conflicts and military activities are properly documented and addressed, and that those affected are assisted.