Exploring the links between COVID-19, Chornobyl wildfires, Carpathian flooding and record high temperatures

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The year 2020 saw many dystopian fears come true: wildfires, flooding, the highest temperatures recorded on Earth and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. But was there a causal relationship between them? In this blog we explore the connections and seek to connect the dots from the perspective of UNDP’s work in Ukraine.

In launching the 2020 Human Development Report, UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner said it was remarkable that such a tiny virus was able to humble the entire human race, “threatening to reverse decades of development.” He added that COVID-19 is but a chapter in a bigger but lesser-known saga, “marked by humans becoming the dominant force shaping the Earth,” in a new era now known as the “Anthropocene.”

Scientists generally believe that we are exiting the Holocene, the previous geological epoch, which began about 12,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age. For the first time in our planet’s history, its surface, structure and biodiversity are now being shaped by one of the species inhabiting it. The Anthropocene Epoch is a geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, changes in the planet’s climate with a consequent increase in extreme weather events.

Indeed, natural disasters by extreme weather events can create serious challenges for countries trying to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. These events, especially when we are unprepared for them, can increase the vulnerability of communities and bring about social, environmental and economic losses – not to mention untold suffering. When they happen during times of war or conflict, the weather extremes can push a fragile situation past the tipping point and into a negative spiral of compounded crises.

This situation is getting worse as climate change exacerbates the frequency and severity of storms. According to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), there has been a sharp increase in the number of disasters in recent years.  According to their records, in the period 2000 to 2019, there were 7,348 major recorded disaster events claiming 1.23 million lives, affecting 4.2 billion people (many on more than one occasion) resulting in approximately US$2.97 trillion in global economic losses.  They say this is a sharp increase over the previous twenty years when 4,212 disasters were linked to natural hazards worldwide during the years 1980 and 1999, claiming approximately 1.19 million lives and affecting 3.25 billion people and resulting in about US$1.63 trillion in economic losses.

High risk exposure in Ukraine: Fires and floods

Ukraine is highly vulnerable to the changing climate due to its economic structure, anthropogenic impacts, and geographic features. Of particular concern is the growing incidence, spread and magnitude of forest fires. These constant conflagrations are often caused by the drying and dying forests that can turn any smoldering matchstick or agricultural burn off into a major firestorm. They pose severe threats to natural ecosystems, agricultural systems, air quality and human settlements. The direct and indirect economic losses caused by these wildfires in Ukraine range from UAH 3 billion to UAH 8 billion ($109 million to $291 million) annually (DSNS, 2018).

In 2020, the common Ukrainian practice of open burning of waste and dry grass, which often leads to uncontrolled fires, reached its peak with wildfires in the Chornobyl  exclusion zone. It even provoked fears that radioactive particles may get into the atmosphere. Fortunately this did not end up being the case, but it did force many Ukrainians to stay at home due to poor air quality caused by dust and smoke from the fires.  In fact, numerous studies have pointed to a significant correlation between air pollution and COVID-19 infections and mortality, increasing the vulnerability of patients affected by coronavirus infections.

Ukraine’s State Emergency Service reports between 36,000 and 56,000 fire events across the country each year. These fires, even if started with good intentions to remove waste, pollute the air, destroy entire ecosystems and cause immense economic hardships. In 2019, they reportedly caused 84 deaths in addition to economic losses of about UAH 3.4 billion (US$ 120.6 million). With climate change making the weather drier and warmer in many areas, these events are becoming more frequent – and more extreme.

Figure 1: The problem of open burning is not a uniquely Ukrainian one. Many countries struggle to eliminate this destructive practice. But in Ukraine, it is significantly more frequent than in other parts of Europe, as this graphic depicting the number of fires registered by satellite in April 2020 shows (https://go.nasa.gov/3exPaOH). The green line shows roughly the border area.

When the trees are gone following a forest fire or from illegal logging, there is no longer any forests or foliage to absorb the water and severe rains have nowhere to drain.  The roots, which used to hold the soil together, are gone or dead and with the rains, the dirt turns to mud and often slides down the hillsides along with the floods. This phenomenon is happening around the world, burying or submerging entire communities and destroying important economic and social infrastructures.  Apart from direct losses caused by the high water, when the floods recede, the damage left behind is often devastating. There also are serious impacts on health as the floodwaters become contaminated with sewage and chemicals.

This is what happened in the Carpathian regions of western Ukraine, which were among the country’s hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2020, the region suffered from the largest flood in a decade, causing five deaths and more than UAH 3 billion ($109 million) in damages.

The search for sustainable solutions

Two concepts make up the response to “natural disasters” arising out of climate change: the first involves mitigation while the second is about adaptation.  In other words, while reducing the anthropogenic causes of climate change through efforts like reducing carbon emissions, we need to get busy and make sure the increasingly common, and disturbing, weather events do not lead to disasters.

To address the latter, UNDP Ukraine launched a project on disaster risk reduction (DRR) that aims to assess risks and offer solutions on how to improve the resilience of communities and infrastructure.  The DRR project started with the research led by the UNDP Accelerator Lab and the Center for Innovations Development (CID), a Ukrainian non-governmental organization. It is specifically focused on open burning practices (the Do Not Burn Compost project). The Accelerator Lab and CID team assessed why people burn (see the report that was shared with the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources here)  and mapped the existing and potential local, national and international solutions. As a result of that, a live catalog was created with over 40 solutions together with 200 communities in Ukraine. 

The project also worked closely with some 200 communities to “manage” their burning practices from the “sky” using satellite imaging. Now many communities are using this tool. Furthermore, it tested many composting options and created a virtual map of available composters that are collecting the organic waste across Ukraine. A fourth initiative explored ways to create a “don’t burn” community on social media. Now a Facebook group connects about 200 local communities, and they exchange their tips and tricks on how to stop the open burning of waste.

For the future we are exploring a mass behaviour-change communications campaign that will seek to raise awareness of and inspire action towards more sustainable practices.  Initial research has revealed that some people who continue to burn waste have indeed heard about the possible harm but still haven’t abandoned the practice.  What is needed are creative and more effective ways to reach the tipping point towards widespread adoption of innovations – something Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell has likened to a positive spin on the spread of a virus. 

“When a virus spreads, it starts with one person — Patient Zero — who gets sick and infects a handful of others,” he wrote in his famous book aptly called The Tipping Point.  “Then each infected person passes the germs to more people, and with exponential speed and reach the virus spreads until it reaches epidemic proportions. Ideas, messages, behaviours, and products can spread through a population in a social epidemic in the same way that viruses spread.”

We hope to achieve this through a planned communications campaign on the health risks caused by open burning.

Avoiding the need for Noah’s Ark

Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast is one of the five western Ukrainian provinces that were the most severely affected by the heavy floods. As many as 276 km of roads and 95 bridges were destroyed and over 7,000 hectares of agricultural land were flooded, jeopardizing rural and remote mountainous areas. The national authorities estimated economic losses from the disaster at over 70 million USD. 

Under the current project, UNDP Ukraine supports Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast in developing strategic tools that would improve adaptive capacity of local communities prone to flash floods and enhance their future resilience to hazards, disasters and extreme weather events.

In March-April 2021, UNDP Ukraine organized meetings of community representatives of the region along with regional environmental managers, civil protection authorities and academia to discuss principles, structure, and approaches for a common strategy. The participants highlighted as priority goals the need to set up a sound early warning system, conduct flood damage modeling and establish an efficient flood insurance system based on Build Forward Better principle in the  Dniester River basin.

Along with the work on the regional disaster risk reduction strategy, UNDP will also support local branches of the state emergency agency to improve their capacities and knowledge for a more responsive disaster risk management.

Meanwhile, after a series of wildfires that had raged in the conflict-affected east of Ukraine and in the areas adjacent to the Chernobyl exclusion zone in 2020, it became clear that forest and water resources should be managed in an integrated way at the basin level and that forest logging must be balanced with reforestation. This is especially important for the Carpathian region in western Ukraine, which includes Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast.

The climate and forests are linked together and winds are infamous for spreading fire across forests planted in the steppe, as was the case with Luhansk Oblast, which was severely affected by wildfires last year. Many of the forests in the region are located within the valley of the Siversky Donets River, which is the de facto contact line that separates the sides of the conflict in Donbas. This creates difficulties for environmental monitoring and emergency response for the disasters in this part of Luhansk Oblast. The local foresters say that the main problems for their work are limited access to the parts of the forest along the contact line and the invasion of pest species.

Prior to any plans for reforestation in a wildfire-torn area it is necessary to conduct a Post Disaster Needs Assessment, including an assessment of environmental impact. UNDP has developed an environmental impact assessment registry that helps local forestry departments obtain the knowledge necessary for a post-wildfire recovery.

Moving forward towards a green, robust, sustainable and lasting recovery

The complex factors that have contributed to the Anthropocene Epoch will need just as complex and integrated solutions that take in a holistic, whole-of-society “big-picture” systems approach.  The 2020 UNDP Human Development Report indeed calls for a reimagining of development in the wake of the coronavirus – not just because it is a good idea, but because our very survival may depend on it. According to the report, development has relied too heavily on fossil fuels and linear models of production and consumption until now. The resulting benefits have often been ephemeral, putting at risk the lives and livelihoods of those affected by a deteriorating environment.

Many countries are now considering economic recovery strategies as they emerge from lockdown.  One approach being called for by UNDP is to invest heavily in a green economy, a course of action reflecting the triple bottom line that offers equal benefits to the social, environmental and financial sectors. The COVID-19 recovery and economic stimulus process provides an enormous opportunity to introduce a new economic package to support an economy working closely with the environment, rather than against it, while providing decent, better jobs. In fact, if one wants to look for the silver lining in the darkest of clouds, this could be it.

UNDP is well aware that if the world falls back onto its old ways after the pandemic, it may revert to a trajectory that leads to ever-worsening global environmental emergencies with consequent impacts far worse than those caused by COVID-19. To avoid this, we believe all economic recovery packages should be built on principles of a green economy, and designed to build forward better than before.

The good news is the Government of Ukraine is currently implementing a broad policy agenda aimed at putting SDG-achievement efforts back on track while pursuing a resilient, inclusive and sustainable post-COVID recovery. The entire UN family in Ukraine is supporting these efforts, both individually and collectively, and will continue to do so until the Government’s vision of a green, peaceful and prosperous country is reached.

In one of these initiatives, the UN Economic Commission for Europe, UNDP, UNICEF and the World Health Organization are working together through a Joint Programme called “Promoting strategic planning and financing for sustainable development on national and regional level in Ukraine.” In another, UNDP developed and launched a tailored programme to update the European Green Deal framework in Ukraine. The US$ 1.2 million “Supporting Green Recovery in Ukraine” includes, among other things, a plan to unlock private green and sustainable finance. It also includes an analysis of the threats and opportunities for the Ukrainian economy associated with active participation in the European Green Deal.

Through these and many other programmes, projects, and initiatives, we at UNDP in Ukraine will continue to work tirelessly with our counterparts in the Ministries, our colleagues throughout the UN system, and civil society and academia.  Our collective mission is to map out solutions that transform the dystopian dots of despair into emerging points with progressive patterns that lift all Ukrainians out of insecurity and poverty and onto the paths of shared prosperity. 

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