Destruction of Kakhovka Dam Spells Disaster for the Black Sea Coast

The damage will have an impact for decades, and whole ecosystems are threatened if not destroyed

14 June 2023

Aleksandra Klitina

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Thousands of tonnes of debris and toxic waste released by Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka dam on the Dniepr River have reached the shores of the Black Sea, causing unmeasurable damage to the natural environment not just in the Odesa region but further west.

The destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station’s dam on 6 June released a devastating flood onto the biodiverse habitats and farmlands of the lower Dniepr basin, with tonnes of debris and pollutants spreading the destruction to the shore waters of the Black Sea at the river’s mouth.

Immense tragedy

According to Kherson authorities, a total of 48 settlements have been flooded in the Kherson region, including 34 on the territory controlled by Ukraine and  14 on Ukrainian land occupied by Russian forces. Ten people perished, and 20 have been injured, including five police officers and two rescuers. Thirty-five people are missing, including seven children.

There is no reliable information about the casualties in the occupied territories. However, the number of people killed by flooding there may be much higher, as the Russian forces failed to evacuate locals.

Settlements in the Kherson region are experiencing water supply problems, also in Kryvyi Rih, Marhanets and Nikopol in the Dnipro region. In occupied Crimea, the situation with water supply will not change much, as the peninsula has been under Russian occupation for more than seven years without supply from the Crimean Canal.

It has been confirmed that about 1,300 hectares of farmland have been flooded due to the Russians’ explosion, and 25,000 hectares of agricultural land are at risk of flooding,  indicated by the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine. The UN said the flooding may again reduce global food supply and result in higher prices.

Unique protected lands and many animals and birds, including those in the Red Book, have been wiped out, threatening the extinction of some species. A toxic flow of unexploded mines, thousands of tonnes of chemicals, sewage, dead animals, uprooted trees, poisonous silt deposits containing dioxin and other toxic substances have now burst into the Black Sea.

“As of June 12, 70-80 per cent of the Kakhovka reservoir’s water has spilled out and flowed downstream into the Dnipro-Bug estuary and the Black Sea. This entire layer of water stretches along the coast to Odesa,” said Mykhailo Khorev, former Deputy Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources.

The water level in the Kakhovka reservoir continues to drop, and the property of those affected in the Kherson region – from damaged furniture to huge sections of houses and buildings – is washing up on the Black Sea coast in the Odesa region.

Environmental disaster

On 10 June, the State Ecological Inspectorate of the South-Western District recorded significant changes in the chemical composition of seawater samples on the Odesa coast.

According to the latest analysis, the salinity of the water on the Odesa coast is almost three times lower than normal, and the iron content is 3-5 times higher than normal.

“The biggest threat is that the water has washed away a huge amount of garbage from about 15 hectares of household waste dumps. The question is how strong the toxicity is. Additional analyses need to be carried out for herbicides and pesticides or whether there is an excess of toxic substances from mineral fertilizers because these substances exert pressure and can cause the death of fish resources and living organisms,” Khorev said.

The Institute of Marine Biology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine monitors the changes and salinity of the Black Sea. Scientists confirm that the disaster, which some have called “Putin’s biocide”,  will significantly affect the marine ecosystem. Russia has not acknowledged blowing up the dam but hints from Russian military personnel and President Vladimir Putin’s briefings with Russian military bloggers suggest Moscow decided to flood the area to slow the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

River water from flooded areas is being carried into the sea with a large amount of fuel and lubricants, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of soil, thousands of dead animals and birds and uprooted trees. In addition, there is waste from destroyed sewage systems and cesspools, residues of fertilizers and other chemicals, not to mention mines and other munitions that can detonate in the water. The flooding water also washes away cemeteries and cattle graveyards. This explosive mix will likely affect all marine life, from plankton to cetaceans

Unlike natural floods, which are formed by cold melt-water in the spring, this fresh water has been released in huge volumes in the warm summer. Warmer water allows bacteria and microalgae to bloom and feed off the waste, which worsens sanitary conditions in beach areas and led to algae blooms. In addition, many marine organisms are not adapted to the decrease in salinity and are likely to die.

Health authorities warn that diseases can spread during floods due to the contamination of wells and aquifers. We are talking about dangerous intestinal infections such as cholera and botulism.

Biosystems and national parks destroyed in the flooded areas

According to Vladyslav Balynskyi, head of the Green Leaf NGO, the flooding from the Kakhovka Dam is one of the largest global environmental disasters.

“Hundreds of islands, areas of floodplain forest and steppe, floodplain meadows and slopes with all their inhabitants are being washed away into the sea,” Balynskyi said.

“It is the mating season, the period of nesting and spawning. It means that hundreds of living organisms have died and continue to die, including 71 species of animals and 32 plants included in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Red Book of Ukraine.”

The bottom sediments of the Kakhovka Reservoir contain pollutants accumulating for decades due to emissions from industrial enterprises in Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro, Kamianske and other settlements.

According to Balynsky, the consequences of the sea poisoning will be felt by other countries in the Black Sea region along with Ukraine, as the current along the coast runs counterclockwise. In other words, the flow coming to Odesa will reach Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and later Russia in one form or another.

The Kakhovka Reservoir is a giant reservoir with a volume of more than 18 cubic kilometres and a length of 240 kilometres. According to the NGO Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group, when it was built in the middle of the last century, hydraulic structures raised the water level in the Dnipro by as much as 16 metres. Therefore, according to experts, the consequences on wildlife are expected to cover an area of at least 5,000 square kilometres.

According to Mykhailo Nesterenko, executive director of Rewilding Ukraine, the consequences for nature, including wildlife, are terrible.

“We are talking about destroying an entire biocenosis – a unique landscape complex with all living organisms – plants, animals,” Nesterenko said.

In particular, the Nizhnedniprovsky National Nature Park was affected by the hydroelectric power plant explosion, which is more than 80,000 hectares of floodplain in Beryslav, Bilozersky, Holoprystan and Oleshky districts, as well as the cities of Kherson and Nova Kakhovka, most of which are currently flooded. The attack also affected several other national parks, including Biloberezhzhya Svyatoslav, Oleshky Sands and Kinburn Spit in the Kherson region.

In addition, dozens of protected tracts, nature reserves and natural monuments – botanical, landscape, zoological, ornithological and forest – were hit. According to Nesterenko, the disaster caused by the dam’s explosion has raised the river water level ten times higher than it would have been in any natural flood.

“Unique meadows, floodplains, islands are not just flooded – they have washed away along with animals, birds, soil – everything that has been created over decades. Let me remind you that all the natural parks in Kherson and Mykolaiv regions are currently occupied, and we cannot know the full extent of this nightmare,” the biologist said.

Environmentalists note that the total area of the flooded protected areas, including the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve (protected by law since 1927 and part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves), may exceed 120,000 hectares.

According to Nesterenko, unique flora will die (and have already died), including hundreds of rare flowers and populations of wild orchids. Also, some birch and oak forests, some of the largest giant oaks in the Kherson region, located in Zburievo forestry near the Dnipro riverbank, will be destroyed.

 

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Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Aleksandra Klitina

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Aleksandra Klitina is a Future of Ukraine Fellow as well as a Senior Correspondent for Kyiv Post, with over a decade of experience in private and public institutions, including serving as a former Deputy Minister in Ukraine’s Ministry of Infrastructure. She has a background in advocating infrastructure and public administration reforms and has worked on EU projects in Ukraine.

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