Challenges of Cleaning Ukraine during War

Written by
World Cleanup Day, Jim Sharman
July 28, 2023

Iuliia Markhel leads ‘Let's Do It Ukraine’, her nation’s largest environmental movement, uniting over 3.5M Ukrainians. She’s also founder of ‘School Recycling World’, co-founder of ‘Let's Do It World’ (LDIW), coordinator of the international humanitarian project ‘Let's Do It Ukraine SOS’ and of World Cleanup Day (WCD) in Ukraine.

In 2022, she continued to implement environmental projects in Ukraine that united 9,500 volunteers across 18 regions, creating humanitarian hubs operating both in danger zones and relatively safe areas of Ukraine.

She organized dozens of international cultural and social events with the support of bloggers, athletes, and influencers. Iuliia and her team distributed almost 10k tons of humanitarian aid to 1.2M Ukrainians and 6,000 food kits, as well as organizing logistical support for help arriving in other regions of Ukraine.

Here she talks about the multitudinous challenges of continuing the environmental work, alongside the humanitarian needs, in a country at war.

Communication and adaptation in a war zone

Before the war came, ours was the biggest environmental NGO in our country. After February 2022, we redirected all our efforts, energy, and resources into collecting for humanitarian missions because, first and foremost, we’re here for our people.

When you have many people in your network who need help, whose families need support, everything changes; you don't know everyone’s situation, but you must work quickly and unite many people around one idea and in one place. Sometimes plans change, so you regroup and either change the location or go online to find solutions.

We’ve never once considered stopping. We activate everything we have in order to gather resources. Our driving force is the will to just live, but we won’t leave. We find ways to stay safe and care for our families above all else. And when you want life that strongly, it gives you power.

Of course, at first, we were running an information campaign, because nobody knew what must be done. When the invasion and attacks started, and everything else that happened with it, information became a highly precious resource.

It’s in our nature in our country to know we must do things by and for ourselves. So, for the first few weeks, we were preparing information materials. If something happened in the morning, we’d have information ready by the evening. If it happened at night, then by the morning we’d have materials ready and we’d send messages to social media for everyone to share.

This enabled ‘Let's Do It Ukraine’ to grow from 10M users to 20M sharing information.

Across all our projects, we now have 10,000 volunteers working in all 24 regions – including, of course in Donetsk and Luhansk, mainly online but we do have a community working on the ground there too. We’ve found solutions to work with teams in occupied regions.

If we talk about Kherson, for example, when that territory was occupied, we worked online with our volunteers and invited them to other locations to work with teams there.

From waste collection to humanitarian aid distribution & back!

I’ve now learnt how to really live life without waste, how to reach the ‘zero waste’ point in life. All I really need to stay happy is just one bag, my passport, some money, a credit card, some food, some clean water, and some safety items, such as matches or other sources of light/heat.

And what else we’ve come to understand here is that you can put all your money and resources into building your house over many years – then, in just one day, something happens that leaves you with nothing…

I now understand how lucky I am to open my eyes, to smile at life, to see my family is safe, and to know we have food, water, and light. Right now, I'm in a dark country, where we don’t always have these resources.

In 2022, our activities were 50% environmental programs and 50% humanitarian aid programs, working with civilians needing help with food hygiene and everything else needed to maintain their environment.

The whole ‘Let's Do It World’ community helped us; we sensed how big the LDIW humanitarian family is, with direct support from Estonia, Romania, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and many more. So many countries have helped and care if we’re doing okay.

We sometimes receive requests for accommodation for volunteers or family members – we always need that kind of support, even if just for a month. Let me know!

At present, we feel we’re working too much, like non-stop 24 hours every day. For over 300 days now we’ve not stopped; no vacations, no weekend breaks, yet so we're very happy we’re here and the LDIW family helps me remember that we’re not alone and I’m not alone as a leader.

As for what practical needs we have from our LDIW family? Candles, food, hygiene products are things we always need. But the ability to have clean water is critical, especially equipment that helps us to clean and filter source water. If our regular supplies fail, or logistics break down and we have no water at home, we must draw it from lakes or rivers, which are not always clean.

If we have filtration systems, we can provide what water we need every day – and that’s a big win for us – it’s certainly better than having bombs every day.

People ask me how we keep up this pace, how we stay safe in a war zone. Truthfully, I don't know. In 2022, one journalist called me from then-occupied Kherson. She asked me, “Iuliia, I want official, printed information materials in our region on how we can change the environment in this period in Ukraine and in our region.” So, we spent the night preparing these materials.

I asked her, “You’re in occupied territory and you really want this material? People are really talking about and caring for the environment at this time?” She replied to me, “I talked with our people and we’re so motivated. At the moment it's okay we’re doing humanitarian work but we must also somehow get back to environmental work too!”

And in May, one guy from our Army called me. “Iuliia, I want to create an official recycling point at my army base!” I asked him, “You really want that? Why? What happened? Maybe we can motivate the whole Ukrainian army if we start this!”, and I then realized, “Okay guys, if we’re doing stuff like this, we really must be back!”

After that, we prepared a Clean Beach activity together, we prepared for the Leaders Academy, and we started the campaign for WCD 2023.

I remember 2022’s WCD event in Ukraine as the first large-scale offline civic event, the first time in a year when people were able to meet and hug other people, to touch them and say, “Oh my God, you're right here!” For me it was a massive environmental “YES!”.

But also, it was good for our minds and souls, even when we asked for help from all our WCD partners and municipalities, businesses, the media, etc. Their first question was always, “You really want to do WCD this year? Maybe you shouldn’t?!” Because budgets that year were zero. Flat zero.

However, in spite of all the challenges, our partners did send us trash collection bags, protective gloves, and some t-shirts. So, everyone on our team thought, “Okay, look what I have now. Maybe others can bring what they need when we plan pickups.”

We managed to organize activity in 5,133 separate locations. That was amazing – approximately 190,000 people came out to help, which was more than we had a couple of years ago during Corona!

A number is more than a number

190,000 might not seem a lot in a nation of 40M, but understand please how hard it is to even plan a cleanup – we face huge challenges. You can't do any massive, public events in a country when you have war, because even territory not under occupation is at risk of air strikes.

Firstly, you need to choose locations – and you can’t exactly publicize them! It’s each municipality that proposes each location, even then only after checking with the army if it's okay.

People ask me if they can use Instagram to promote the cleanups. No, you can't, not really. Sure, you can have materials for everything, but you can’t advertise the location. After that, we need security to be assessed. They check absolutely everything before approving.

For example, you must have a shelter or bunker nearby, then you have to ensure that the amount of people you’ve brought to clean up can fit into the shelters. Because if an air strike comes, you must get to the bunker quickly and sit it out. Thankfully, all volunteers know what you must do when sheltering in a bunker; a digital cleanup!

Cleanups are everywhere – Ukraine is everywhere!

We’d become so tired with the humanitarian mission. So, when we were able to go back to environmental matters, it felt a bit more like how everyday life felt before the war started. It feels good to work like that, it's really important for people to feel like they’re acting more normally.

Take Mariopul, for example. Before the war, we had 75,000 volunteers in the Donetsk region alone, with Mariupol being a central location.

Of course, now, almost all those people are somewhere else, so we sent them a message – “Mariupol is now everywhere. Meet in different places. You are Mariupol!”

Our coordinator called me from Italy and told me a lovely story. “My small son goes to school and he helped organize WCD there. They were all on a beach and, when he came back, he told me, “It's like in Mariopul, just the children speak in Italian.” It must be so hard for a child to live like that, and there are so many others in so many places around the world that, to them, “feel like” pre-war Ukraine.

Other organizers have told us stories about how the idea of “Ukraine is everywhere!” made for a more relaxed WCD experience. Where people were unable to do a physical trash cleanup, over 53,000 people deleted 1.5M gigabytes of digital trash, which is an incredible achievement!

These are amazing numbers and only the ones we could officially gather! That’s one of the disadvantages of cleaning in a war zone – it’s not always possible to get the true picture and we know there would have been more collected, more deleted, by people unable to report it.

When one official letter from the neighboring region’s municipality hit my inbox, I was crying, because they wrote, “We had 156 locations with 4,500 people in a normal cleanup!” Here in Kyív, we sometimes have maybe two or three air strikes a week, but that region endures them daily – yet they managed these numbers.

And it reminds me that, if we can do this much in a war zone, imagine what the world could achieve in just one day.

An impact more widely felt

One thing you must all understand is that everything that happens in Ukraine affects the whole world. Because Ukraine is the biggest country in Europe, the pollution that happens in our country can affect so many other places.

As a result of war, we have air pollution, we have ground pollution, we have water pollution – and this before any accidents or attacks directly on nuclear facilities, which are under daily threat.

Many of our animals have died, you’ve read on the international news about the destruction of tens of thousands of tons of grain. Everything must have balance in all countries, even with the help of other nations to try to bring stability in things like grain supply, or power and water distribution. The sabotage of supplies, including the destruction of dams, only adds to the imbalance in nature, a problem that will be felt far and wide for many years to come.

Of course, we await victory in war, but for the environmental aspects we must start now – today – and we need help from every country to rebuild the ecosystem and restore balance.

We must all work together and if you have some good ideas on how we can achieve that, then do join the LDIW movement. We must work quickly because we don’t have much time.

I am just so grateful right now for this article – I wish you all the best and I hope you are inspired. With tears in my eyes, I wish you all good luck.

And if you have candles, or anything else you know we need here, just contact me!

Thank you so much, world, for your help, for supporting Ukraine and, together for a cleaner planet, “Let’s Do It!”

Iuliia Markhel, leader of ‘Let’s Do It Ukraine’, talks with us about the challenges she and her team face in continuing their environmental work, alongside the humanitarian needs, in a country at war.
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