15:35 17.03.2023

Ukraine is feeding the world, it is in the common interest to ensure that Ukrainian agriculture quickly gets fully operational - Executive Director of UNEP

9 min read
Ukraine is feeding the world, it is in the common interest to ensure that Ukrainian agriculture quickly gets fully operational - Executive Director of UNEP

Exclusive interview with Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme Inger Andersen to the Interfax-Ukraine agency

Text: Valerie Proschenko


According to UNEP, which areas of the environment have been most affected?

We have to look at it in its totality. We see six areas that we have to pay attention to (chemicals issues, destruction in urban centers and of critical infrastructure, damage to fuel and associated infrastructure, nature, agricultural sector, status of the waste sector). And our report (https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/40746/environmental_impact_Ukraine_conflict.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y) goes through each of these.

For example, Ukraine has a significant chemical industry and produces important industrial chemicals that are needed for modern society. But of course, someone would always be concerned about that. So in an area, if my house is next to something like this, that's my biggest concern. In an area, if my house is next to the forest that burned, then that's my biggest concern. In an area where maybe oil has spilled into the water, then that's the biggest concern.

What I'm trying to say here is that each of these is a priority to the people and the livelihoods of the people who are dependent on something that has been impacted and touched by this terrible war. And the report tries to tell the world these are the six areas which Ukraine would need support. These are the six areas that Ukraine itself is focusing on. And these are the six areas that will be critical to ensure rehabilitation to ensure restoration of the environment in the long run.

The Ukrainian Minister of Environmental Protection claims that the amount of damage to Ukraine’s environment from the russian aggression already amounts to 1,9 trillion dollars (https://www.kmu.gov.ua/news/rik-povnomasshtabnoho-vtorhnennia-rf-sered-zhertv-i-ukrainske-dovkillia). Does UNEP have its own data on the amount of damage?

No, that is not what we do. We support the environment and we do support governments to do environmental assessments, to understand the damage, and to understand what needs to be done to fix it. The government itself is very interested in understanding the costs involved.

How many years would it take to restore the pre-war state of the environment in Ukraine?

Ukraine is working incredibly hard right now, constructing, reconstructing impressively. we see power being affected, and then the next two days later, the electricity is restored. So I think the resilience and determination of the Ukrainian people are important.

But I have to say that some impacts will have long-lasting effects. Especially if you have places where you have heavy fuel, heavy oil, and fuels in the soil. That doesn't go away. And so that will be decadal in nature.

There are other areas such as the sad reality of debris management. And of course, where nature has been destroyed, forest fires, and so on.

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly called the actions of Russians in Ukraine ecocide. UNEP. How does UNEP look at this statement?

This word is not a word that the UN has a definition for. It does not exist in our vocabulary, but obviously, everybody can understand that it is a heavy word. What I can say is that protecting the environment in conflict is critical. And it is absolutely essential that we think about the long-term consequences for the people in any conflict situation.

And the truth is that the environment is never in a good situation after the guns irrespective of where and how. From the United Nations, however, what I can say is that we understand that war has very negative impacts on the environment. The only thing that can stop that negative impact is peace.

For 9 years we have been at war in Donbas. It’s the largest industrial part of Ukraine. We see heavy battles now every day. What will we see there when the guns will fall silent? From an environmental point of view

I can't speculate because I haven't been there. But I can only tell you that from other wars and other conflicts, we know that the more intense the fighting, the longer it takes to restore and rehabilitate.

If we take the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, where 600 oil wells were set on fire, where you had oil spills everywhere, that took decades. And that was just oil. It was not other things and it was not a protracted war. So, you need to understand that you can have pollution three meters down in the soil. And that will take a very long time.

So you have some plans for some areas, which will be held by the UN now, or maybe our government has asked you about something

The government here is very much working. We work with the Ministry of Environment. And here the primary issue is dealing with the training of the inspectors, inspectors who are throughout the country will be able to assess environmental damage, to make sure that they have the skills. That is our first objective. And that is what we have been doing. In October, we had the first team sent to Switzerland to move through the training. And now the team will come here and continue training.

Are they Ukrainians? I mean inspectors. And how many people?

Yes, they are Ukrainians. 25 people. It was the first batch, but in the country you will have hundreds. The ministry will give you the number because we will bring the trainers here. And that will be more effective.

Environmental problems in Ukraine may have a negative impact on other countries, especially Europe. In how many years will people face it?

We want to be very accurate. When you speak science, we don't want to give guesstimates. But obviously, transboundary impacts are a concern, whether it be transboundary waters, the air, obviously, air pollution, forest fires. This has impacts that are transboundary in nature, waterways, as well as subterranean water aquifers. If you get the pollution that settles into the groundwater, it can also have transboundary impacts.

I think each of these is precisely the area that we would wish to look at in greater detail, together with the relevant governments in the transboundary setting.

Besides inspectors, what else are you doing now with the Ukrainian government to help us?

We have just arrived. And so the largest thing that we need to do is to listen and to understand. We did not have a presence in Ukraine up until now. Now we do. So what we have done so far has been to support from afar. Now we will work very closely with the Ministry of Environment to help them get the kinds of skills that they need to deal with this very catastrophic situation. From an environmental point of view.

Ukraine has played an active role within Europe. Ukraine has signed most of the environmental agreements, whether it is on biodiversity and nature, whether it is on climate change, or whether it is on chemicals and waste. Right now, this is not the priority, the priority is the people and the health and well-being of the people of course. But what we have seen in other places of conflict is if you take your eyes off the environment, the environment is not going to heal itself.

In particular, it is important that reconstruction and construction be carried out using cleaner and greener methods to ensure that the environmental pollution that was existing prior to the conflict will be abated and not exist subsequently. So there's a lot of work also to be done to ensure that the right regulatory settings are in place as reconstruction happens. And that's an area that we will definitely be supporting.

So, the UN in the future may create additional programs there or give money for environmental issues?

What we bring is scientific knowledge, an understanding of the pollution dimension, in this case of environmental destruction, and how best to restore. Yes, we will definitely bring some money but that is not the most important. Because you need to understand the dimensions or pollution dimension and how they can affect the well-being of people. And that's actually very important when you go into a reconstruction mode.

We will expect to be here for at least four years and to have an office and a presence here. Then we will expect to be able to provide all of the technical support, and the technical know-how that the government will need to enable a sound and sustainable recovery. That's our job. And that's what we are doing in Iraq. And we did it in Kuwait. And we did it in the Balkans. And we did it in Haiti. And right now we are in Turkey because of the earthquake. And we were in Beirut after the port explosion.

Ukraine is a huge agricultural country. But the impact of the war on agriculture is already tangible. What are the biggest problems with our land despite mines?

I think it's important to say that, you know, Ukrainian agriculture is feeding the world. And it's important to say that it is in the world's distinct interest to support Ukraine, doing whatever it needs to do to ensure that agriculture very quickly gets fully operational. Why? Because Ukraine is feeding the world. And we've seen the importance of the grain initiative of the United Nations. That's point 1.

Point 2, of course, is once a demining story has been resolved, which will be a massive story. There are also aspects of what else might be an issue. Luckily, many of the big agricultural fields are far away from Industrial facilities. So that's very good because we're not necessarily seeing chemicals or other things in these vast fields. But there might be other substances that will need to be assessed that are the consequences of conflict. And so that will be a dimension that the government will have to deal with. But clearly, the priority has to be the demining.