Not so long ago, Ukraine was a beautiful land, with the emerald Carpathian mountains in the West, thick pine forests in the North, rolling steppes in the South, a Mediterranean coast in the Crimea, and stately oak forests and parklands in the centre. While over the last thousand years this land was the setting for the dramatic history of the Ukrainian people, the environment remained inviolable. The last two or three decades, however, have ushered in a devastating environmental crisis.
Up to 30% of the former USSR’s industrial and agricultural potential was located on Ukrainian land, which is mostly farm land. Solid waste output is now near 1.5 billion tons per year with over 10 billion tons now scattered on 230,000 hectares of fertile agricultural lands. Nearly 20 billion tons of toxic gases, dust, and aerosols are created annually.
The most dangerous environmental problems are in the South and Southeast of Ukraine. In its worker settlements people die from cancer because 30% of their food products are contaminated with toxic substances; 86% of children from these areas are chronically ill.
In other parts of the country, environmental hazards include:
Investigators estimated that radioactivity equivalent to 300 Hiroshima bombs was released. About 135,000 people were evacuated from the towns and villages located within 30 km of the destroyed reactor. About 1800 other villages in Ukraine and Belarus should have been evacuated. More than 4 million people still live in contaminated areas, 100,000 of them in areas where levels of radioactivity are considered dangerous for human life.
In the first hours after the disaster, a pine forest lay dead in the path of the radioactive cloud. Since then the area of the dead forest has grown due to chronic irradiation.
Inside the 30 km zone, monstrous forms of plants have appeared: pine needles and leaves of gigantic size, bizarre multiplication of elements in birch and pine trees. Outside, morphologically deformed animals began appearing toward the end of 1988: piglets with tumorous or blind eyes, eight-legged foals, calves with extra or withered limbs, and a goat with enormously long legs.
The human population continues to suffer from acute and sub-acute radiation sickness, thyroid gland dysfunction, inhibition of the immune system, cataracts, leukemia, and other kinds of cancer. For the children particularly, the prognosis is bleak.
What led to this grim situation?
The only solution is a complete transformation of values and attitudes on all levels of society. There have been some movements to this end:
Grassroots environmental groups mushroomed after the Chernobyl disaster, and in 1989 three hundred of them formed Green World (Zeleny Svit). With their motto “Survival, Democracy, Humanism” they have become the most influential environmental group in Ukraine.
During the past three years, Green World has organized public meetings, demonstrations, picket lines, rallies, seminars, and press conferences. It played a major role in stopping a variety of dangerous government projects, including the construction of additional power units at the Chernobyl site and new nuclear plants in Odessa, Kharkov, Chyhyryn and Crimea. Influenced by Green World, the government of Ukraine has decided to close the Chernobyl plant by 1993, and to resettle residents of contaminated areas.
Green World’s concerns about Chernobyl have led Greenpeace to open a diagnostic centre and a children’s hospital in Kiev. International aid, in the form of many tons of medicine and vitamins, has been shipped to the affected locations.
Green World continues to work for environmental responsibility in the now independent Ukraine.
Dr. Mishchenko is a zoologist, presently a visiting fellow at the University of Waterloo, and was from 1989-90 Director of Green World in Ukraine.