Dam sabotage creates Ukraine’s worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl

By | June 6, 2023

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KYIV Concerns over a massive environmental disaster in Ukraine have long focused on the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. But people were looking in the wrong place.

Catastrophe struck early Tuesday when explosions ripped through the colossal Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric dam in southern Ukraine, drying up one of the continent’s largest reservoirs. It has forced the evacuation of thousands of people downstream, polluted the land, destroyed a large electricity generator and will cause future problems with the water supply.

Kiev blames Russia, which seized control of the dam on Feb. 24, 2022, the first day of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin has pointed the finger at Ukraine, but has not provided evidence.

Ukraine has long warned of the danger. In October, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on the West to put pressure on Russia not to blow up the dam, which he said had been rigged with explosives. Destroying the dam would mean a large-scale disaster, he said.

But while international observers are present at Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, that was not the case at Nova Kakhovka. The dam saw months of fighting when Ukraine pushed back Russian troops on the Dnipro River last year and now sits on the front line between the two armies.

A human disaster

The immediate impact is on people living downstream; the western bank of the Dnipro is under Ukrainian control, while the eastern one is still in Russian hands.

The Ukrainian head of Kherson region, Oleksandr Prokudin, said as many as 16,000 people in Ukrainian-controlled territory were in danger and many would have to leave their homes.

Vitaly Bogdanov, a Kherson city council MP who lives nearby, went to see the extent of the damage on Tuesday morning. There is no panic, the rescue services are working, the police and military are everywhere, he told POLITICO, adding: Many people are being evacuated.

Bogdanov said he had no plans to leave his home as he has to care for elderly relatives.

Those living in Russian-occupied territory were left unsure of what to do next.

Sergii Zeinalov, a filmmaker who lives in Kiev, called his grandmother on Tuesday morning in Oleshki, a town about 70 kilometers downstream from the dam. There was no water in the city at that time. As far as I know, there is no electricity or communication in Oleshki now. As a result, information is arriving slowly. Meanwhile, the water is getting closer to the houses there.

Environmental impact

Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Andriy Melnyk called Nova Kakhovka dam breached Europe’s worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl.

The range of impacts is vast, from the displacement of people to drowning of animals and pollution of the environment.

We now know that potentially 600 or possibly even 800 tons of oil have been released into the water, Ukraine’s Environment Minister Ruslan Strilets said in Brussels. This oil spill will drift into the Dnipro River and I’m sure it will end up in the Black Sea.

In his nightly speech published early Wednesday, Zelensky called the attack ecocide, saying: An oil spill of at least 150 tons has formed and been carried by current into the Black Sea. We cannot yet predict how many chemicals, fertilizers and petroleum products stored in flooded areas will end up in rivers and the sea.

According to Olexi Pasyuk, an activist with environmental group CEE Bankwatch, the temporary impacts of the floods could last up to a week.

However, later the biggest impact will be caused by water shortage as the Kakhovka reservoir is a source of water for the southern Kherson region’s irrigation system, he added. We can expect significant problems for agriculture and the local people who live off it.

The drying up of the reservoir could also have a dramatic impact on the illegally occupied Crimea peninsula. It is based on water from mainland Ukraine; one of the first actions of invading Russian troops last year was to reopen a water channel connected to the reservoir that had been closed by Ukraine since its 2014 annexation.

It will be a socio-economic disaster. Farmers will not be able to grow crops, said Wim Zwijnenburg with PAX, a Dutch NGO and contributor to the Bellingcat investigative network. Ukraine had already done this [blocked] the river in Crimea before the conflict to stop the flow of water, which has already led to some desertification in the area. It is difficult to predict anything, most of the effects will probably occur in two or three years.

Iiulia Markhel, coordinator of Lets Do It Ukraine SOS, the country’s largest environmental NGO, called the dam burst a catastrophe.

Animals, species, will be destroyed, he said. It will change the climate of the entire region. Ukraine’s agricultural lands have probably been destroyed. The area will be flooded. The places that the water will leave will turn into deserts; the places where the water stands will become swamps.

It adds to the vast cost of the war’s environmental impact, which has reached 2 trillion hryvnia (53 billion), Ukraine’s environment ministry said.

Power struggles

The dam’s destruction will not have an immediate effect on Ukraine’s national electricity grid, said Vitaliy Mukhin, a strategic consultant at the Kyiv state-owned hydroelectric company Ukrhydroenergo. Nova Kakhovka, built in the 1950s, has a capacity of 357 megawatts but hasn’t contributed much power since it came under Russian occupation.

It won’t be back online anytime soon. Ukrhydroenergo said that as a result of the explosions in the engine room, the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station was completely destroyed. It is not recoverable.

The hydroelectric plant would have been a key source of clean energy and an important part of Ukraine’s postwar energy mix, said Olena Pavlenko, chair of the DiXi Group energy think tank in Kyiv.

People help an elderly man into a rubber dinghy as he evacuates his home on a flooded street in Kherson | Ivan Antyrenko/EPA_EFE

Ihor Syrota, the head of Ukrhydroenergo, said Kyiv would build a new plant on the same site once it liberates the territory.

The explosion of the Nova Kakhovka dam has a potential impact on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is also occupied by Russian troops. The plant relies on water from the tanks to cool its six reactors, but they are now in so-called cold shutdown and the plant’s cooling pool is full, so it only needs a few liters per second, said Leon Cizelj , president of the European Nuclear Society .

The International Atomic Energy Agency said there is enough cooling water at the plant for about six months.

The facility has backup options available and there is no near-term risk to nuclear safety, said director general Rafael Mariano Grossi.

Conflict continues to push new boundaries, said Doug Weir, director of research and policy at the Observatory on Conflict and the Environment. Many people were concerned about these dams but at the same time never expected them to be breached. Events continue to unfold, building layers of environmental damage and harm in Ukraine.

Veronika Melkozerova reported from Kiev. Federica Di Sario, Victor Jack, Antonia Zimmermann e Louise Guillot contributed to the chronicle.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct water usage at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. It consumes a few liters per second.


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