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What the destruction of Kakhovka dam means for the environment
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Blog...What the destruction of Kakhovka dam means for the environment

What the destruction of Kakhovka dam means for the environment

Ecology News
Policy
water flowing through a dam
In this article we’ll explore the impact of the Kakhovka dam collapse, including the environmental repercussions. We’ll also discuss the possibility of an investigation being opened into charges of ecocide.
Ecology News
2023-06-21T00:00:00.000Z
en-us
water flowing through a dam

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam in Ukraine made headlines around the world this year. The scale of the collapse was devastating from a humanitarian perspective, but the impacts also have dire consequences for the environment, with some even going as far as to label the act as a form of ‘ecocide’ that should be punishable under international law. 

👉 In this article we’ll explore the impact of the Kakhovka dam collapse, including the environmental repercussions. We’ll also discuss the possibility of an investigation being opened into charges of ecocide.

Kakhovka dam destruction - what happened?

On June 6 2023, at 2.35am and 2.54am, seismic sensors located in Ukraine and Romania detected signs of a detonation near the city of Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region of Ukraine. Witnesses in the area report having heard the sound of a large explosion at around the same time.

Shortly after, huge amounts of water from the Kakhovka reservoir tore through a gaping hole in the dam, flooding agricultural land and scores of villages and towns which lay downstream. More than 11,000 people in the affected area had to be evacuated and the floodwaters are said to have caused over €1.2 billion worth of damage. 

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What caused the Kakhovka dam destruction?

The Kakhovka dam lies in the Kherson region of Ukraine which is currently (as of June 2023) under Russian occupation. The Kakhovka dam was a potential crossing point for Ukrainian forces who would need to traverse Ukraine’s Dnipro River in order to reach Russian-held territory, to carry out a counter-offensive and re-gain occupied land. 

The strategic position of the Kakhovka dam, coupled with initial evidence of an explosion, seems to suggest that the most likely reason for the dam’s destruction was intentional sabotage. Although the full sequence of events cannot fully be determined without access to the dam, and its inspection by engineers and other experts, most believe that the dam was purposely blown up. 

Ukraine and the West have laid blame at the feet of the Russians, however, the Kremlin and President Putin himself have denied such allegations, calling its destruction ‘barbaric’.

water flowing through large dam

What are the impacts of the Kakhovka dam destruction?

The Kakhovka dam destruction is serious - so serious that if one side is found to be responsible for the dam’s destruction they may be considered to have committed a war crime, punishable under international law.

Destroying important infrastructure such as the Kakhovka dam causes untold damage to the surrounding communities and environment.

Let’s take a look at some of the main effects of the Kakhovka dam destruction:

Flooding destruction

The most immediate and obvious impact of the Kakhovka dam collapse is that huge amounts of water stored in the Kakhovka reservoir was released downstream. This resulted in the immediate flooding of villages lying along the Dnipro river close to the dam, however the excess water also flowed into smaller tributary rivers, flooding areas that were far removed from the Kakhovka reservoir. 

👉 It’s estimated that as of June 14, 2023 over 3,000 homes were still underwater. And even when the flood waters finally recede, they’re unlikely to be in habitable condition. 

The flooding has resulted in the evacuation of over 11,000 people residing in the impacted areas. On the right side bank of the Dnipro river - which is currently under Ukrainian control - NATO, the Ukrainian Government, and the European Union though its Civil Protection Mechanism have mobilized to provide relief to those living within the affected areas. This includes the provision of generators, shelter, equipment, water pumps, and other emergency supplies. 

It is much more difficult to assess the damage and situation on the left side of the river bank as it is currently occupied by Russian forces who do not permit any international aid organizations to enter the area.

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Threat to human health

Flooding in the region presents a direct threat to human health. Not only have lives been lost due to the flood waters themselves, but people living in the area now lack access to basic necessities such as clean drinking water, medical aid, shelter etc. 

👉 UN officials have warned that 700,000 people in the region now lack access to clean drinking water. 

The situation has been made much more complex by the war in Ukraine. In some cases it's not been possible to evacuate residents due to the structural damage inflicted by the ongoing conflict - roads and critical infrastructure has been damaged and sometimes completely destroyed by fighting meaning that residents have struggled to evacuate. 

What’s more is that the Russian-occupied Crimea region will soon face growing issues of water shortages since the destruction of the Kakhovka dam has drastically diminished the volume of water in the North Crimean Canal (the primary source of freshwater for the region).  

Another cause for concern, is that landmines in the area - placed there intentionally by Russian forces to prevent Ukrainian forces from advancing - are now at risk of becoming dislodged and floating downstream to unknown locations. This is a significant threat to local populations who may mistakenly step on one of these landmines.

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Risk to nuclear power plant

In addition to the extensive challenges now faced by the Ukrainian government and those living downstream of the Kakhovka dam, there are also growing issues upstream from the reservoir - namely the threat posed to the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. 

The Zaporizhia nuclear power plant is Europe’s largest nuclear power station, and it cools down its reactors by drawing on water from the Kakhovka reservoir. Something that could become a problem as the water level in the reservoir continues to drop. 

The UN’s nuclear watchdog - the International Atomic Energy Agency (IEA) has said that there is no immediate risk to the nuclear facility as there is several months worth of water supply held in reserve. However, with warming weather the risk of evaporation means that the water volume could deplete quicker than hoped. 

Thankfully there are backup options for providing water to the facility, and it is possible to divert water from other sources in order to cool down the nuclear facility’s reactors. However, with growing fighting in the region the risk of further damage to infrastructure looms large, placing the nuclear facility in a precarious position.

sunset behind nuclear power plant

Global food insecurity

With extensive flooding across large areas of agricultural land in Ukraine, we can expect to see knock-on effects in terms of food production, with possible repercussions for global food supply chains.

Ukraine is one of the world’s key agricultural producers - it is one of the primary growers of crops such as wheat, barley, maize, rapeseed, and sunflower seed. Countries in Africa and Asia are particularly reliant on these exports.

The flooding of agricultural land means that sowing and harvesting will be incredibly difficult this season, which will ultimately affect the output of these key crops. Experts predict that the implications may be global - with prices expected to rise and global supply chains impacted. 

Compounded by the dam collapse is the resulting destruction of the hydroelectric power station in Kakhovka. The loss of this energy source means that an estimated 1 million hectares of land in the surrounding areas will be unfarmable for the next 3 to 5 years due to a lack of water supply. The lack of water may even affect the condition of soil in this area in the long term, with soil becoming arid and unusable over time.

field of wheat crop

Environmental impact of Kakhovka dam collapse

You may have heard the Kakhovka dam collapse being referred to as the next Chernobyl. And while this may sound dramatic, it’s not far off. The Kakhovka dam collapse is one of the largest human-caused disasters on European soil in recent decades. 

This is not only because of the threat to human lives and destruction of crucial infrastructure, but also because the dam collapse represents a significant environmental risk.

The scale of destruction of wildlife, natural ecosystems and entire national parks is incomparably greater than the consequences for the wilderness of all military operations since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022. - The Ukrainian Nature and Conservation Group Report.

Pollution

The flooding from the Kakhovka dam has pushed millions of tonnes of oil, sediment, pesticides, debris, and chemicals downstream towards the Black Sea. This toxic mix will degrade the water quality and risks a potential ecological disaster. 

👉 The contaminated water will seep into groundwater, potentially poisoning farmland, rivers and even the basin of the Black Sea. 

Authorities have already been forced to close popular beaches along the Blacks Sea, and have even enforced bans on swimming after water tests indicated a deterioration in water quality, including dangerous levels of salmonella and other harmful elements.

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Threat to wildlife

The Kakhovka reservoir was home to around 43 different varieties of fish. But sadly depleting water levels mean that areas of the reservoir are now completely dry, resulting in the death of over 9,000 fish and threatening other species of animals that call this habitat home. 

Animals living in areas that have been flooded are also likely to be severely impacted. In some cases the species are specific to this region of the world, and the flooding may even result in their extinction. 

👉 The Nordmann mouse is native to this region of Ukraine, and over 70% of its population live in areas that were flooded. There is a very real risk that these species of mouse could tragically become extinct in the near future. 

The sudden physical change in habitat is also a threat to a number of bird species that mate and nest in the region. Many species of birds build their nests in flooded areas and it’s expected that swallows and tufted ducks will disappear as a result.

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Impact on ecosystems

The impact of the Kakhovka dam collapse will have effects on the land both upstream and downstream. 

Upstream of the reservoir and hydroelectric power plant, over 11 different nature parks, reserves and protected areas are now at risk, with experts fearing that these valuable areas of nature may disappear altogether. 

Downstream from the Kakhovka dam, the threat to ecosystems is even greater with 48 different protected areas under threat from the flooding. Including a biosphere reserve, 3 national parks, 16 reserves, 3 natural sanctuaries, and 22 natural sites. 

Many different ecosystems will potentially be unbalanced by the collapse of the reservoir and a deterioration in the quality of water due to the influx of chemicals, oils, and other harmful substances. 

150 tonnes of motor oil has already contaminated waters due to the destruction of the dam, and there is a significant risk of a leak of a further 300 tonnes. There is potential for this oil spill to reach as far as the Black Sea which would be devastating for marine life. 

flooded countryside

Ecocide

Ever since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, conservationists have been working to document the environmental consequences of the ongoing war.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has warned of immediate and long term consequences for human health and ecosystems, and has highlighted its concern that the establishment of a green and sustainable economy is no longer possible in Ukraine.

At the end of 2022, a delegation that included the heads of environmental organizations asked European governments for their support in establishing a case of ecocide in Ukraine. As a result of this two committees of the European Parliament have since recommended the inclusion of ecocide in EU law. This recommendation has since been validated -  the European Commission and the European Council will now negotiate the specifics of the final legal text. 

The move is being hailed as an important first step and potentially paves the way for legal action to be brought against those responsible for the destruction of Ukraine’s Kakhovka dam.

Round up

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam in Ukraine is a tragedy for a number of reasons - not least due to the environmental repercussions.

The full scale of the impact of the dam’s collapse is currently not clear, and the long lasting effects will take a bit of time to reveal themselves. What is certain however, is that the repercussions will be extensive, and will compound the negative environmental costs that the war in Ukraine has already resulted in.

What about Greenly? 

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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