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The Environmental Impact of the Kakhovka Dam Explosion in Ukraine

CRISIS - Pollution Crises by Lei Nguyen Europe Jun 28th 20235 mins
The Environmental Impact of the Kakhovka Dam Explosion in Ukraine

The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in southern Ukraine has not only resulted in a  massive flood and a humanitarian crisis but it has also unleashed a series of severe environmental impacts that are of great concern. The breach of this crucial dam has disrupted the ecological balance of the area, leading to contamination, habitat destruction, and long-term consequences for the region’s natural resources. This article delves into the extensive environmental impact of the Kakhovka Dam explosion, providing insights into the magnitude of the damage and the complex challenges faced in the aftermath.

The Kakhovka Dam, located in the city of Nova Kakhovka in Ukraine’s Kherson region, played a vital role in managing the flow of the Dnipro River, which stretches from the northern reaches of Ukraine into the Black Sea. The dam, constructed during the Soviet era, held back a substantial reservoir known as the Kakhovka Sea, providing water supply for communities upstream and serving as a source of cooling water for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, which is now under Russian control.

However, the catastrophic breach of the dam has triggered a cascade of environmental consequences. Video footage captured the moment of the dam’s rupture, as water surged through the breach and flooded downstream areas towards Kherson. The resulting flood has displaced thousands of people and brought about a range of environmental challenges that pose significant threats to the delicate ecosystems and natural resources of the region.

Flooding and Contamination

The breach of the Kakhovka Dam unleashed a devastating flood that submerged vast expanses of agricultural land, villages, and towns downstream. As the floodwaters surged through the breached dam, they carried with them a significant quantity of industrial lubricant, estimated to be around 150 tonnes. This immense volume of hazardous substances has resulted in severe contamination of the river Dnipro, posing a grave environmental threat.

The presence of industrial lubricant in the river not only endangers aquatic ecosystems but also raises concerns about the long-term consequences on the region’s biodiversity and water quality. The toxic nature of the lubricant can have detrimental effects on aquatic organisms, including fish, plants, and other wildlife that depend on the river for their survival. The contamination can disrupt the delicate balance of the ecosystem, leading to the decline of certain species, habitat degradation, and long-lasting ecological damage.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed deep concerns over the situation, highlighting the risk of an additional 300 tonnes of industrial lubricant leaking into the river. This potential leakage further exacerbates the environmental crisis and underscores the urgency of containing the pollution. Swift and effective measures are necessary to prevent the spread of contaminants downstream and minimise the long-term impacts on the region’s water resources.

Long-Term Agricultural Consequences

The destructive flooding has resulted in the loss of approximately 10,000 hectares of agricultural land, as reported by the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine. These once fertile lands on the right bank of the Dnipro in Kherson oblast are now expected to remain submerged, rendering them unusable for future agricultural activities.

The consequences extend beyond the direct impact on agricultural lands. With the destruction of the water reservoir, the availability of water for irrigation is severely compromised. This absence of irrigation water is expected to lead to the desertification of formerly productive lands. 

The Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food further reported that the disaster disrupted 31 irrigation systems supplying fields in Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. These systems, which provided irrigation for half a million hectares in 2021, supported the production of four million tons of grain and oilseeds, with an estimated value of around US$1.5 billion.

Disrupted Ecosystems and Biodiversity

The dam, which played a crucial role in regulating the flow of the river Dnipro, supported a diverse range of habitats and species. The sudden release of floodwaters has led to the loss and alteration of critical habitats, such as wetlands, riparian zones, and floodplain areas. These habitats are essential for the survival and reproduction of many species, including fish, birds, amphibians, and plants.

Fish species in the Dnipro River and its surrounding waterways are particularly affected. Stranded fish, such as the thousands seen in videos near the village of Maryanske, face a high risk of death for being cut off from their natural habitats. The agricultural ministry estimated that up to 95,000 metric tons of fish may be lost, and warned against consuming fish swept downstream due to the potential for contamination and the risk of botulism. Birds that rely on the waterways and wetlands, reptiles like the Caspian whip snake, and vulnerable mammals such as Nordmann’s mouse are also at risk. The destruction of their habitats and the disruption of the natural flow of water pose significant challenges to their survival.

Landmine Risks

In addition to the devastating impacts on infrastructure and ecosystems, the flooding has created an additional danger in the form of dislodged landmines. The Halo Trust, a land mine clearance organisation, has conducted extensive surveys in the region and has found more than 5,000 anti-tank mines in the Mykolaiv region, with some minefields now submerged underwater. The scale of mine contamination in Ukraine hasn’t been seen since World War II, surpassing even the Balkan conflicts. The presence of these mines poses a significant risk to civilians, especially on the Russian-controlled side of the Dnieper River, where wide and extensive minefields had been set up.

Officials from both Ukraine and Russia urged civilians to be aware of the mine risk as they evacuate. The exact locations of the dislodged landmines are currently unknown, making it extremely hazardous for people to navigate and carry out recovery operations in the affected areas. Floodwaters may have moved the landmines downstream, potentially endangering communities residing in previously safe zones. The lack of precise information about the location and number of dislodged landmines further complicates the process of identifying and neutralising these hidden threats.

Water Supply and Infrastructure

The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam has significant implications for water supply and infrastructure in the region, posing challenges to both human populations and critical facilities such as the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station. The dam played a crucial role in supplying water to communities upstream. Its breach disrupts the normal flow of water, potentially leading to water shortages for residential, agricultural, and industrial purposes. The loss of a reliable water source can have far-reaching consequences, affecting daily life, sanitation, and economic activities in the affected areas.

Furthermore, the Kakhovka Dam provided cooling water to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, which is located approximately 160 kilometres (100 miles) away from the dam and is currently under Russian control. Cooling water is essential for nuclear power plants to regulate reactor temperatures and ensure safe operation. The disruption of this cooling water supply raises concerns about the impact on the plant’s operations and nuclear safety.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reassured that there is no immediate nuclear safety risk following the dam’s destruction. However, ongoing monitoring of the situation is necessary to assess any potential long-term effects on the power plant’s cooling systems and overall safety.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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About the Author

Lei Nguyen

Lei is a student at Masaryk University pursuing her studies in Politics, Media, and Communication. With a strong passion for writing and journalism, she aspires to become a prolific writer in the field of social issues, particularly mental health and climate change. Currently, she is working as an Editor Assistant at IVolunteer International and Contributing Writer at Earth.Org.

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