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Ukraine: Destroyed Kakhovka dam amounts to 'ecocide'

June 7, 2023

The destruction of a major dam in Ukraine is catastrophic for the environment and will mean that parts of nature are 'lost forever,' says Ukraine environment minister Ruslan Strilets.

Ukraine Krieg | Nova Khakovka Talsperre
Image: Maxar Technologies/REUTERS

A day after the destruction of the critical Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine's south, the scale of the disaster is slowly beginning to unfold.

Thousands of people on both sides of the frontline have been impacted by the cascading waters. The dam breach is also disastrous for the region's environment and water supply.  

"I understand that some parts of wild nature we've lost forever," Ukraine's environment minister Ruslan Strilets told DW, adding that it was the largest environmental crime since the first day of the full-scale invasion.

A 'real ecocide,' says minister

For now, what is clear, says Strilets, is that a large swath of national park territory has been destroyed, as well as much of the Emerald Network — a European-wide complex of protected areas set up to protect regional species and habitats facing extinction.

"We understand that maybe 600, maybe 800 tons of oil is in the water," said Strilets, referring to environment authority estimates. Other unconfirmed reports from within the Ukrainian leadership spoke of around 150 tons of motor oil flowing into the Dnipro River, with the risk of a further 300 tons to follow. 

Woman carrying a bag walks through a flooded residential area
A local resident walks through flood watersin KhersonImage: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP/picture alliance

Flora and fauna will likely be damaged, as oil is highly toxic to all aquatic and terrestrial life. Even small amounts are enough to contaminate soil and water. Exact data on the damage is not yet available.

But Strilets said the dam's destruction was a worst-case scenario as well as a "real ecocide," and a "humanitarian catastrophe" that will have far-reaching impacts into the future.

The environment minister believes around one million people will now have to do without fresh water. 

Shortly after the explosion that blew a hole in the dam, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal spoke of a flood risk for up to 80 localities. Scientists at the Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences in Germany calculated in initial models that 60,000 people could be affected, with about a third of them in direct danger.

According to the governor of Kherson, Olexander Prokudin, 16,000 people are within the danger zone. The EU spoke of hundreds of thousands of civilians whose lives are at risk. So far there has been no information on potential casualties. 

Russia 'likely underestimated flood impact'

Fast-moving water compounds damage

Nickolai Denisov of the Zoi Environmental Network, a Geneva-based NGO, said that while the immediate consequences are similar to most floods, the speed at which the water was released has worsened the impacts.

"The water is pouring out at relatively high speeds and it's flooding the low lying areas," he said, adding that "nature areas" are not usually flooded so quickly or at such heights, which is compounding the direct damage.

Flooding of industrial districts will cause further problems, he added, because it's "not usually what people are prepared for." And expected additional pollution beyond the overflow of industrial wastewater would spread.

Ecosystems and domestic animals devastated

Olena Kravchenko, director of the Ukrainian NGO, Environment People Law, told the Guardian newspaper that the dam breach could have "unprecedented environmental consequences" in areas downstream of the Dnipro — including the Dnipro Estuary and coastal Black Sea ecosystems. Agriculture could also be affected by chemical pollution and lack of flowing water.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) expects that although local wildlife populations will be harmed, many animals will also return after the disaster.

Difficult evacuations in Ukraine: DW's Max Zander reports

The situation is worse for domestic animals, which are often not evacuated with people.

"We have already received information that neighboring shelters are overwhelmed with rescue requests," said Natalia Gozak, IFAW's wildlife rescue officer in Ukraine, in a statement on Tuesday.

"In Nova Kakhovka, in occupied territory, a small zoo was totally flooded — all animals except their swans died today."

Even beyond the dam breach, the war has already caused severe damage to the environment.

Soils and water across large parts of the country have been polluted by war munitions and chemical spills caused by the destruction of industrial facilities.

The breakdown of local waste disposal is also an increasing problem. Similarly, fire damage from shelling and illegal logging in the conflict area have destroyed significant parts of local forests.

Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of having blown up the dam.

At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, Ukraine's UN ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, labelled it an "act of ecological and technological terrorism."

This article was originally published in German.