The destruction of Ukraine’s dams could change ecosystems forever, officials say

By | June 6, 2023

The destruction of a major dam and hydroelectric plant on the frontline of the war in Ukraine could dry up the rich agricultural region of southern Ukraine, carry pollutants into waterways and disrupt ecosystems that had grown up around the huge reservoir which is now rapidly flooding downstream, though the full impact could take months or even years to understand, officials and experts said.

Spill of huge reservoir of water from Kakhovka Dam will reshape Ukraine’s map, its habitats and livelihoods, endangering communities that depend on water for drinking and growing crops, forcing farmers to close business, prompting cities to relocate and upsetting sensitive ecological issues. sales. Ukrainian officials have warned that at least 150 tonnes of oil stored within the hydroelectric plant at the dam has been washed into the waterway. And the tank’s water also fed the cooling ponds of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, although nuclear experts said there was no immediate threat.

There are catastrophic consequences for the environment, Ukraine’s Environment Minister Ruslan Strilets told reporters on Tuesday.

For some of our ecosystems, he said, we have lost them forever.

Damage to Russian-owned hydroelectric plant floods southern Ukraine battlefield

The largest and most immediate impact is likely to be on the residents of southern Ukraine, who depended on reservoir water for daily needs, as well as agriculture which is the source of much of the country’s important agricultural exports. Water from the reservoir fed the thirsty agricultural region of southern Ukraine, which grew to depend on water-fed canals in the decades following the dam’s construction in the 1950s. And while it’s possible they could pump water out of the ground to make up for some of the loss from the reservoir, they could quickly deplete it, said Doug Weir, director of research and policy at the Conflict and Environment Observatory, a British organization that has monitored l environmental impact of the war in Ukraine.

It will be weeks before the consequences of such a massive and sudden shock to a river ecosystem are clear, experts said.

The floods will come quicker than that, crossing some of Ukraine’s most valued environmental sites, including Oleshky Sands National Nature Park and the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve in the littoral area where the Dnieper flows into the Black Sea, which is home to wild horses and protected snakes and hawks. Some fish spawning grounds within the shallow parts of the reservoir will also disappear.

People will not have drinking water or water for cooking, said Anna Ackermann, a board member of Ecoaction, one of Ukraine’s leading environmental civic organizations, who added that she was most concerned about the human impact of dam destruction. . There will be no water to cultivate the fields.

He also said pollutants from industries clustered along the banks of the Dnieper River downstream of the dam could easily be washed into the waterway and then into the Black Sea. Warehouses and other industrial buildings in the city of Kherson and elsewhere already look be flooded.

The war in Ukraine is a human tragedy. It is also an environmental disaster.

We don’t know yet what it will be like, he said. Imagine this flood coming down, washing away all the dams and all the landfills and all the industrial areas. There will be many different pollutants in the water.

Ackermann said there could also be a residual radiation hazard from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster if contamination was trapped in sediment that had built up at the bottom of the tank that is now being swept away.

There’s a lot of different debris that will flow into the flood, including from all the factories and workshops that make and use chemicals and different toxic things, said Mohammad Heidarzadeh, assistant professor of architecture and civil engineering at the University of Bath.

Dam breaks like this can eventually release every hazardous material you can imagine. Everything is swept away in the flood, he said.

He noted that Brazil is still struggling to assess the impacts of similarly large dam breakages that occurred years ago.

And because the Dnieper River has been a frontline in the conflict, a flash flood could pose other dangers, experts said, including washing away landmines that had been placed on the embankments and moving them to other unexpected locations.

There’s a huge amount of unexploded ordnance and mines now being swept away by pretty aggressive floodwaters, Weir said.

Mines are being moved and remobilised, he said. Presumably, the Ukrainian and Russian forces would have had maps of these minefields. The flood moves and redistributes them.

In October, a group of Swedish engineers modeled the potential fallout if Russia used explosives to destroy the dam.

The model, from the firm Damningsverket, predicted that a surge of water 13 to 16 feet high would hit Kherson within 19 hours. The model predicted that water would gush out of the basin faster than water flowing out of Niagara Falls and warned that cities along the river would be overwhelmed.

One of that study’s authors, Henrik Olander-Hjalmarsson, said in a statement that the actual event will likely cause more damage.

It appears that the real-world scenario is worse than the one I modeled as water levels in the reservoir were significantly higher than in the model, he wrote to reporters in an email.

Ukrainian officials also warned of a large release of potentially more than 150 tonnes of oil that was stored inside the hydroelectric plant within the dam. That oil could have a significant impact, depending on how it behaves within the massive water flow, Ackermann said, though he said the implications weren’t yet clear.

Because the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant uses water from the reservoir to fill its cooling pools, there are some concerns about the long-term impact of the dam failure.

But the International Atomic Energy Agency said the facility is positioned to avoid a meltdown, as it has access to alternative pools of water that can keep the reactors and fuel rods cool for at least the next two months. Operations at the Soviet-era facility were largely dormant before the dam collapsed, experts said, which helped reduce the threat.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has warned that the facility remains in a state of maximum alert, as any disruption to the remaining cooling ponds could rapidly increase the threat of a nuclear accident.

The location of the nuclear power plants upstream of the dam made it possible to avoid potentially catastrophic flooding. And experts said the plant was designed with safety devices to keep the cooling systems running in the event that tank water becomes unavailable, as is the case now.

They have a pool to draw from, said Henry Sokolski, a longtime adviser on nuclear proliferation at the Department of Defense and in Congress who is now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. In normal times, that would be insufficient. Since they have things off, they have enough water to keep it cool.

He warned that this could change if the facility comes under a military attack and the backup pools are breached. There are ways you could damage that fuel tank, but that doesn’t seem likely, Sokolski said.

The plant is under Russian control. Although the IAEA has pleaded with fighters to avoid fighting in its vicinity, that is likely inevitable as Ukraine pushes to regain control of the area. Those fighting threaten to further destabilize the situation.

Water and electricity are the lifelines of a nuclear power plant, even one that is shut down, said Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering and international relations professor at the University of Southern California.

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