The risks of warfare are complex. Beyond the often-devastating immediate humanitarian implications of large-scale violence, warfare’s impact on the broader environment is multifaceted, posing environmental, social, political, economic, and human health risks. The ongoing violence in Ukraine precipitated by Russia’s invasion has brought to the fore, again, the specter of these broader risks and what warfare in highly industrialized areas portends both locally and beyond.
Complex risks have interconnected and rippling first, second, and third-order effects. They can be thought of as a system or chain of risks where any one realized risk (a negative effect or impact) can be a trigger for another risk or even a cascade of other risks. These effects can be realized in both the near term and long term.
The impacts of such a risk can be acute— concentrated with high impact such as breathing in highly polluted air from a burning oil depot resulting in respiratory distress and/or failure—or chronic—long-lasting at varying intensities such as radioactive waste released from the tailings of a processing facility contaminating the downstream water system. Acute and chronic effects can be experienced simultaneously and, along with other impacts, can have mutually-reinforcing effects.
A dam as an exemplar of complex risk
On February 26th Russian Federation forces conducted a missile strike on and in the vicinity of the Kyiv Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP). Built in 1968, the 288-meter KHPP is located just north of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. It sits on the Dnieper River, upstream of a succession of six other major dams: the cascades of the Kyivska, Kanivska, Kremenchutska, Seredniodniprovska, Dniprovska, and Kakhovska plants. Along the banks of the Dnipro are some of Ukraine’s largest urban and industrial production centers, as well as the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
Dams serve multiple functions. They control river flow rates, protecting against flood events. They can produce hydroelectric power, a renewable and consistent energy source. They can be used to create a reservoir that serves as a more predictable and reliable surface water resource for drinking water, industrial water use, and other needs. Destroy a dam, and you put all of these services at risk in addition to the infrastructure, communities, and ecosystems that lie downstream.
Had the attack on the KHPP succeeded, the first effect would have been a loss of power. The 20 turbines of the KHPP dam produce 420 megawatts of power when at full capacity. One megawatt of capacity, on average, can service between 400 to 900 homes depending on average household demand, efficiency of transmission, and other factors. So approximately 160,000 to 370,000 homes, businesses, or other end users would have lost the ability to heat their homes on these cold Kyiv winter days, keep their devices charged to communicate and stay in touch with the conflict, refrigerate and potentially cook their food, and a host of other essential activities for civilians caught in a warzone.
To offset the power loss, generators can be used for power, biomass can be burned for warmth, and other renewable alternatives such as solar panels can be installed. But fuel and new technologies are scarce, making this difficult. Also, biomass smoke and generator fumes add to an environmental complex risk by contributing to hazardous air pollution. In crisis situations, however, these longer-term environmental risks are rarely considered. For example, there is little debate in a choice between hypothermia and breathing in extra particulate matter, or in deciding whether to light lamps and power equipment such as a ventilator in a surgical ward treating civilians and Ukrainian military personnel injured in the fighting.
The new reliance on biomass and fossil fuels for distributed energy generation—i.e., energy not from the grid system—quickly reduces fuel stocks in the city, which are notably in high demand for defense purposes and for transportation as many try to evacuate the cities. Cutting off the power is a mechanism of control, disrupting a reliable, persistent service (hydroelectric power) to people and increasing their demand for a more finite and environmentally-damaging resource (biomass and fossil fuels).
Power shut-offs can also restrict or wholly inhibit essential environmental management services. Over the past few years, pumps for former surface and subsurface mining sites have been cut off in Eastern Ukraine. In response, rates of water contamination from heavy metals have increased substantially. Currently, power disruption to the Chernobyl exclusion zone and former power plant facilities is of major concern as there are still around 22,000 spent fuel rods on-site with several thousand of them in cooling pools along with other environmental hazard mitigation systems in place that require electricity. The latent risks of these sites can potentially be activated to disastrous effect.
As the power shuts off, the flow of water on the Dnieper River would turn on—or better put, rise up. The waters released from the KHPP, if the dam retainment wall were wholly destroyed, would unleash a surge wave from the water stored behind the dam walls. This surge would threaten the homes, infrastructure, and industrial sites along the Dnieper. More than 5 million people live in urban areas immediately along the river.
Also along the banks of the Dnieper River are sites like the Prydniprovsky Chemical Plant, where radioactive and other industrial materials were processed for over 40 years. It is now a highly contaminated site requiring active management and maintenance. Included on-site are tailings sludge ponds not far from the river’s banks. The combined risks are such that homes and infrastructure could be flooded, displacing people immediately along the banks. Contaminants could be released into these same homes and buildings while also polluting the water of downstream users. Displacement, contamination, and flood damage to infrastructure are complex, interconnected risks in this case study.
Each of the environmental risks of warfare has the potential to set off a cascade of effects. To examine only one aspect of such risks ignores critically important near- and long-term effects, and could have enduring negative consequences for affected populations. How far the latent environmental and social hazards will unfold in this conflict is yet unknown. However, it is clear that open warfare in densely industrialized contexts presents new and highly multifaceted risk complexes – ones that could have serious long-term effects that we have barely begun to explore. Countries with similar complex risks to Ukraine would do well to take note and add domestic environmental risk reduction and mitigation to their respective security agendas, especially as the world order shifts off-balance.