The Ukrainian dam collapse is both a fast-moving disaster and one

Norman Ray

Global Courant

A view shows a flooded residential area after the collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam during the Russia-Ukraine conflict, in the town of Hola Prystan in Kherson region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, June 8, 2023.

Alexander Ermochenko | Reuters

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam was a rapidly evolving disaster that is rapidly developing into a long-term environmental disaster affecting drinking water, food supplies and ecosystems as far as the Black Sea.

- Advertisement -

The near-term dangers can be seen from space: tens of thousands of parcels of land have been flooded and more will follow. Experts say the long-term consequences will be generation-to-generation.

For every flooded house and farm, there are fields after fields of newly planted grains, fruits and vegetables whose irrigation canals are drying up. Thousands of fish were left panting on the mudflats. Young waterfowl lost their nests and their food sources. Countless trees and plants have drowned.

If water is life, then the draining of the Kakhovka reservoir creates an uncertain future for the region of southern Ukraine, which was an arid plain until the damming of the Dnieper River 70 years ago. The Kakhovka Dam was the last in a system of six Soviet-era dams on the river, which flows from Belarus to the Black Sea.

Then the Dnieper became part of the front line after Russia’s invasion last year.

“This whole area formed its own distinct ecosystem, including the reservoir,” said Kateryna Filiuta, a protected habitats expert for the Ukraine Nature Conservation Group.

- Advertisement -

The short term

Ihor Medunov is very much part of that ecosystem. His work as a hunting and fishing guide effectively ended with the outbreak of war, but he remained on his small island compound with his four dogs because it seemed safer than the alternative. Still, for months science worried him that Russian troops controlled the dam downstream.

The six dams along the Dnieper are designed to interact and adapt to each other as the water level rose and fell from one season to the next. When Russian troops captured the Kakhovka dam, the entire system fell into neglect.

Whether intentionally or simply carelessly, the Russian forces allowed water levels to fluctuate uncontrollably. They dropped dangerously low in winter, then reached historic peaks as snow melts and spring rains collected in the reservoir. Until Monday, the water rippled into Medunov’s living room.

- Advertisement -

Now, with the destruction of the dam, he is literally seeing his livelihood drain away. The waves that were at his door a week ago are now a muddy path.

“The water is pouring out before our very eyes,” he told The Associated Press. “Everything that was in my house, that we worked for all our lives, it’s all gone. First it drowned, and when the water went away, it rotted.”

Since the dam’s collapse on Tuesday, the gushing waters have uprooted land mines, ripped through weapons and ammunition caches and carried 150 tons of machine oil to the Black Sea. Entire cities were flooded to the roofs and thousands of animals died in a vast national park now under Russian occupation.

Rainbow-colored slicks are already covering the murky, calm waters around flooded Kherson, the capital of the province of the same name in southern Ukraine. Abandoned houses stink of rot as cars, first floor rooms and basements remain flooded. Massive slicks seen on aerial imagery extend across the river from the city’s port and industrial facilities, demonstrating the magnitude of the Dnieper’s new pollution problem.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Agriculture estimated that 10,000 hectares (24,000 acres) of farmland were flooded in the Ukrainian-controlled province of Kherson, and “many times more than that” in Russian-occupied territory.

Farmers are already feeling the pain of the disappearing reservoir. Dmytro Neveselyi, mayor of Maryinske village, said everyone in the community of 18,000 people will be affected within days.

“Today and tomorrow we can provide the population with drinking water,” he said. After that, who knows. “The canal that supplied our water reservoir has also stopped flowing.”

The long term

The water slowly began to recede on Friday, only to reveal the looming environmental catastrophe.

The reservoir, with a capacity of 18 cubic kilometers (14.5 million acre-feet), was the last stop along hundreds of miles of river flowing through Ukraine’s industrial and agricultural heartland. For decades, the stream carried runoff of chemicals and pesticides that settled in the mud at the bottom.

Ukrainian authorities are testing the level of toxins in the mud, which threatens to turn into toxic dust with the arrival of summer, said Eugene Simonov, an environmental scientist with the Ukraine War Environmental Consequences Working Group, a nonprofit group of activists and researchers.

The extent of the long-term damage depends on the movement of the front lines in an unpredictable war. Can the dam and reservoir be repaired if the fighting continues there? Should the region become a barren plain again?

Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrij Melnyk called the dam’s destruction “the worst environmental disaster in Europe since the Chernobyl disaster”.

The fish and waterfowl that had become dependent on the reservoir “will lose most of their spawning grounds and feeding grounds,” Simonov said.

Downstream from the dam are about 50 protected areas, including three national parks, said Simonov, who co-authored a paper in October warning of the potentially disastrous consequences, both upstream and downstream, if the Kakhovka dam were damaged .

According to Filiuta, it will take ten years for the flora and fauna populations to return and adapt to their new reality. And possibly longer for the millions of Ukrainians who lived there.

In Maryinske, the farming community, they are searching archives for records of old wells, which they will excavate, clean and analyze to see if the water is still drinkable.

“Because an area without water becomes a desert,” said the mayor.

Ahead, all of Ukraine will have to wrestle with whether to restore the reservoir or else think about the future of the region, its water supply and a large chunk of territory suddenly vulnerable to invasive species – just as it was vulnerable to the invasion . who caused the disaster to begin with.

“The worst impacts probably won’t affect us directly, not me, not you, but rather our future generations, because this man-made disaster is not transparent,” Filiuta said. “The coming consequences will be on our children or grandchildren, just as we are now the ones experiencing the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, not our ancestors.”

The Ukrainian dam collapse is both a fast-moving disaster and one

World News,Next Big Thing in Public Knowledg

Share This Article