The destruction of a major dam and hydroelectric plant on Ukraine’s war front could dry up southern Ukraine’s rich agricultural region, sweep pollution into waterways and upend ecosystems that have developed around the massive reservoir, though now rapidly flooding downstream. The full impact could take months or years to understand, officials and experts said.
Massive water withdrawals from the Kakhovka dam will reshape the map of Ukraine, its habitats and livelihoods, endangering communities that rely on water for drinking water and growing crops, putting farmers out of business, forcing towns to relocate and upsetting fragile ecosystems. Balance. Ukrainian authorities have warned that at least 150 tonnes of oil stored inside the dam’s hydroelectric power plant has spilled into the waterway. Water from the reservoir also fed cooling ponds at Zaporizhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, although nuclear experts said there was no immediate threat.
“There are catastrophic consequences for the environment,” Ukrainian Environment Minister Ruslan Strilets told reporters on Tuesday.
“For some of our ecosystems, we’ve lost them forever,” he said.
A Russian-held hydroelectric power station was damaged by flooding in a southern Ukraine battleground
Residents of southern Ukraine, who depend on water from the reservoir for daily needs, and agriculture, the country’s main source of agricultural exports, are likely to have the biggest and most immediate impact. Water from the reservoir fed southern Ukraine’s thirsty agricultural sector, which had grown dependent on canals for water in the decades since the dam was built in the 1950s. Even if they could pump water from the ground to replace some of the losses from the reservoir, it could run out quickly, said Doug Weir, director of research and policy at the Conflict and Environment Observatory, a British organization. Monitoring the environmental impact of the war in Ukraine.
Experts said the full ramifications of such a large and sudden impact on a riverine ecosystem could take weeks to become clear.
Flooding will come sooner than that, affecting some of Ukraine’s most valuable ecological sites, including Oleshki Sands National Nature Park and the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, along the coastline where the Dnieper flows into the Black Sea, home to wild horses. Protected snakes and hawks. Some fish breeding grounds within the shallow parts of the reservoir will also disappear.
“People won’t have drinking water or cooking water,” said Anna Akerman, a board member of Ecoktion, one of Ukraine’s leading environmental civic organizations, adding that she was concerned above all else about the human impact of the dam’s destruction. “There is no water to grow the fields.”
Pollution from factories clustered along the banks of the Dnieper River below the dam could easily flow into the waterway and then into the Black Sea, she said. Warehouses and other industrial buildings in Kherson city and elsewhere are already being seen flooded.
The war in Ukraine is a human tragedy. It is also an environmental disaster.
“We don’t know what it’s going to look like yet,” she said. “Imagine this flood that washes away all the dams, all the landfills, all the industrial areas. There are many kinds of impurities in the water.
Ackerman said even radiation risks remained if contamination had accumulated in the sediment that had accumulated at the bottom of the now-draining reservoir from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
“A lot of debris from all the factories and workshops that produce and use chemicals and various toxic materials will flow into the flood,” said Mohammad Haiderzadeh, assistant professor of architecture and civil engineering at the University of Bath. .
“Dams like this will eventually release every hazardous substance you can imagine. Everything gets washed away in floods,” he said.
He pointed out how Brazil is still struggling to assess the impact of similar large dams years ago.
With the Dnieper River at the forefront of the conflict, experts said flash floods could pose other dangers, including sweeping away anti-personnel mines planted on dams and moving them to other unexpected locations.
“Large amounts of unexploded ordnance and mines are now destroyed by very aggressive flooding,” Weir said.
“Mines are removed and repositioned,” he said. “Ukrainian and Russian forces can be assumed to have maps of these minefields. Floods move and redistribute them.
In October, a team of Swedish engineers modeled a possible fallout in the event Russia used explosives to breach the dam.
Modeling by Dämningsverket predicted a wave of 13 to 16 feet of water could hit Kherson within 19 hours. The model predicted water from the reservoir would flow faster than water from Niagara Falls and warned that riverside cities would be submerged.
Henrik Olander-Halmarsson, one of the authors of that study, said in a statement that the actual event would probably have been more damaging.
“The real-world situation appears to be worse than what I have modeled, as the water level in the reservoir is much higher than the model,” he wrote in an email to reporters.
Ukrainian officials have warned of a large release of oil — more than 150 tons — stored inside the hydroelectric plant inside the dam. That oil could have a significant impact depending on how it behaves within the larger body of water, but the implications are not yet clear, she said.
Because the Zaporizhzia nuclear power plant uses water from the reservoir to fill its cooling ponds, there are some concerns about the long-term impact of the dam’s collapse.
But for at least the next two months, the International Atomic Energy Agency said the facility was designed to avoid a meltdown as it had access to alternative bodies of water that could cool the reactors and fuel rods. Before the dam collapsed, operations at the Soviet-era plant were largely dormant, which experts said helped reduce the threat.
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi warned that the facility was on high alert and any disruption of the remaining cooling pools would quickly raise the threat of a nuclear incident.
The location of the nuclear power plant above the dam allowed it to avoid catastrophic flooding. Experts said the plant was designed with fail safes to operate the cooling systems in case water from the reservoir is not available, as is happening now.
“There’s a pool they can draw from,” said Henry Sokolsky, a longtime nuclear proliferation adviser at the Defense Department and Congress who is now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “In normal times it would be inadequate. Since they turned things off, there was enough water to keep things cool.
He warned that would change if the plant came under military attack and breached the backup pools. “There are ways you can damage that fuel pool, but it’s unlikely,” Sokolsky said.
The plant is under Russian control. Although the IAEA has urged the combatants to avoid a war near it, it cannot be avoided as Ukraine tries to regain control of the area. That fighting threatens to further destabilize the situation.
“Water and electricity are the lifeblood of a nuclear power plant, even a shut down one,” said Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering and international relations at the University of Southern California.