The latest casualty of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the destruction of the Kakhovka Reservoir, a major dam in the south of the country. The dam’s collapse set off a chain of environmental disasters that will not only affect swaths of Ukraine’s territory for years to come, but disrupt the wider global ecology and economy.
The Nova Kakhovka dam is one of the largest in the world, with a capacity of 18 billion cubic metres. For reference, Sydney Harbour usually has a volume of about 500 gigalitres – making the Kakhovka dam cpable of holding about thirty-six Sydney Harbours’ worth of water. It’s also crucial to Ukrainian agriculture.
The dam itself and the adjacent town of Nova Kakhovka have been under the control of Russian forces since the start of the invasion. Last Tuesday, at 2.50am local time, a section of the dam and adjoining hydroelectric plant were blown up, causing the reservoir to collapse.
Immediately, massive amounts of water flooded out of the dam down the Dnipro River, with the water level rising by over three metres in the city of Kherson. Water levels in the Kakhovka dam had reportedly reached a 30-year high as of last month, due to Russian occupiers limiting the number of sluice gates kept open.
There are a number of villages and towns along the course of the Dnipro, which have all been hit with heavy flooding – some have been washed away entirely. People were left stranded on the roofs of houses, and while figures remain unreliable, the current death toll sits at at least ten people.
It’s likely the disaster will continue to claim lives for years to come too, as the flood waters picked up tens of thousands of mines from the frontlines along the river banks, carrying them downstream and scattering them randomly. The inundation of water and silt has also wiped out islands and wetlands, damaging ecosystems in the region, and tens of thousands of hectares of agricultural lands have been swamped.
Upriver, the damage is also significant, but with inverse effects. Lands upstream of the dam are now suffering from a dearth of water, depleting drinking water and irrigation capacities – devastating for the surrounding agricultural belt.
Also upstream is the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which pulls from the Kakhovka reservoir for its water pumps to cool reactor cores and spent fuel stocks. The International Atomic Emergency Agency has assured that there is “no immediate nuclear safety risk at the plant”, which has been a key site of conflict in the war.
The canal which supplies water to the Crimean peninsula also has its intake upstream from Kakhovka. While recent top-ups of Crimea’s reservoirs mean there won’t be an imminent crisis, some analysts warn the Kakhovka fiasco could have significant impact on Crimea’s liveability in future.
The motivation for the explosion is unclear. Russian officials deny responsibility, responding with mixed explanations, from Ukrainian shelling, to a structural fault.
Kakhovka’s destruction came just days into a new Ukrainian counteroffensive, so it looks likely to have been an attempt at limiting any Ukrainian advance along parts of the Dnipro frontline. Of course, the flood equally affects Russian positions.
Zelensky called the act ‘desperate’, and decried it as an “environmental bomb of mass destruction”. Crossing the Dnipro is essential for either side to advance – something which will now be nigh impossible, promising to drag the war out even further.
Relief efforts are currently underway, though made difficult by ongoing shelling along the river. Ukrainian officials estimate about 16,000 people need to be evacuated from ‘critical zones’ on the Ukrainian-controlled right bank, with about 42,000 at risk overall.
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