Ecological Consequences Of Dam Destruction: A Focus On The Nova Kakhovka Dam

by Annabel Solnik

Introduction

The extreme humanitarian situation and reported war crimes in the Russia-Ukraine conflict mean that the effects on the environment have been overlooked (1, 2). The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka Dam by the Russian troops in June 2023 resulted in one of the largest environmental disasters of our time (3). It was also a violation of the Geneva Convention that prohibits attacks on infrastructure that contain dangerous forces due to the risk to civilians and the environment (1). The Nova Kakhova Dam was located on the Dnipro river in South Ukraine, upstream from the Black Sea and near many ecologically important areas, including RAMSAR sites (4). The explosion suddenly released 18 km³ of water from Europe’s largest reservoir (by volume) causing grave humanitarian, economic and military consequences. Here we focus on the environmental impacts (1). 

Downstream impacts 

Downstream, the sheer force and volume of the released water caused the most damage.  Many military and industrial sites are located along the Dnipro river where the floodwater picked up pollutants and carried them downstream (5). As a result, 150t of both lubricants and machine oil as well as heavy metals and chlororganic compounds ended up in the Dnipro estuary and in the Black Sea (3, 6). These pollutants are extremely dangerous for aquatic life, causing death and affecting their reproduction and growth. Heavy metals accumulate in the food chain and impact more species over a long time (6).

Large areas of wetland, riparian zones and floodplains (that boast great biodiversity and  offer habitat and shelter, irrigation and regulate the wider water system) were lost or altered forever due to the influx of water (5, 6). How this impacts flooding protection and climate resilience of the area is yet to be investigated. In addition, many minefields on the Russian-occupied bank of Dnipro were flooded (1). With an average of 3-5 mines per square metre there are many “lost” mines that increases the risk of accidents for both humans and wildlife alike (7). 

The Black Sea Biosphere – an area of high ecological importance, a sanctuary  for endangered species and home to over 120,000 birds and 250,000 dolphins –  experienced some of the worst environmental effects (4, 5). Decreased sea water salinity, which resulted from the influx of fresh water, causes stress on the marine species and can impact their growth and access to food (6). Increased sediment disturbed the balance of seafloor composition and brought with it high concentrations of  nitrogen and phosphorus. This led to increased phytoplankton content and large green batches of microalgae along the coast (6). In the long-term, this can have very dramatic effects on marine life i, as the microalgae settles on  various layers of the sea leading to anoxic conditions where the water does not have enough dissolved oxygen to support other living organisms. Overall, the disaster will affect  the resilience of the sea’s ecosystem which is  important in the wider context of climate change (8).

Upstream impacts

The largest impact upstream has been the loss of water in the Kakhovske reservoir that supports agriculture, drinking water supply and hydro energy production (5, 6). Continuously draining since June, it is estimated to lose all water by the end of 2023. This will result in the death of most of the living organisms, including 95,000 metric tonnes of fish (3). Vegetation will grow on the drained area and the landscape will be completely altered, endangering species like the Caspian whip snake and Nordmann’s mouse, but providing a habitat for many new species (5). 

Both now and in the long-term, agricultural production will be seriously impacted as the reservoir was used to water 300,000 ha of agricultural land in an otherwise dry Kherson region (6). This will have implications for local life as well as wider food security and local economic security particularly as much of the crop produced in the area is exported to Asian and African countries. The destroyed hydroelectric plant inside the Nova Kakhova dam produced 1.5 bn kWh of electricity per year that is now missing from the grid. If this lost energy supply is replaced with energy sourced from fossil fuels, it will contribute significantly to the level of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. (5.6).

 Conclusion

In conclusion, the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka Dam in the Russia-Ukraine war has and will continue to have severe environmental consequences. Downstream pollution and habitat loss endanger aquatic life and ecosystems, while the Black Sea Biosphere faces ecological stress. Upstream, water loss disrupts agriculture and energy production. This disaster underscores the profound environmental toll of conflict. Urgent action is needed to mitigate these impacts, restore ecosystems, ensure local livelihoods, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It serves as a stark reminder of the critical importance of environmental preservation in times of crisis, emphasizing the need for international cooperation to prevent such catastrophes in the future.

References:

[1] Kossov, I. (2023). Consequences of Kakhovka Dam Demolition. Kyiv Independent. Retrieved from https://kyivindependent.com/consequences-of-kakhovka-dam-demolition/. Accessed on 3.09.2023.

[2] Pereira, et al. (2022) Russian-Ukrainian war impacts the total environment. Science of The Total Environment, 837, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.155865 

[3] Sergatskova, K. (2023). Aftermath of the Kakhova Dam Collapse. Wilson Center. Retrieved from: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/aftermath-kakhovka-dam-collapse. Accessed on 3.09.2023.

[4] ReliefWeb. (2023). Downstream Impact: Analyzing Environmental Consequences of Kakhovka Dam Collapse. Retrieved from https://reliefweb.int/report/ukraine/downstream-impact-analysing-environmental-consequences-kakhovka-dam-collapse. Accessed on 3.09.2023.

[5] Stoll, Dl. (2022). Environmental Implications of the War in Ukraine. Earth.org. Retrieved from https://earth.org/environmental-implications-war-in-ukraine/. Accessed on 3.09.2023.

[6] Vyshnevskyi, et al. (2023). The Destruction of the Kakhovka Dam and Its Consequences. Water International, 48(5), https://doi.org/10.1080/02508060.2023.2247679

[7] Lister, T. (2023). Ukraine says density of Russian mines is ‘insane’ as it plays down counteroffensive expectations. CNN. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2023/08/03/europe/ukraine-russia-zaporizhzhia-advance-intl/index.html#:~:text=He%20 described%20the%20density%20of,our%20military%20to%20move%20afterwards.

[8] Komorin, V. (2021). Assessment of the Black Sea Shelf Ecosystem Sustainability with Mathematical Simulation Method. Geographia Technica, 16(2), 19–28. https://doi.org/10.21163/GT_2021.162.02

Categories Food & Agriculture

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