The Novaya Kakhovka dam in Ukraine – the effects of the destruction on the environment

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On June 6, the Novaya Kakhovka dam – the largest such structure in Europe – was destroyed by an act of terrorism. The reservoir, with an area of 2155 km² and a volume of 18.2 km³, has flooded at least 40 settlements in Kherson, necessitating the displacement of thousands of residents, the deaths of thousands of animals and damage to the entire ecosystem of the Dnieper River basin. It is estimated that the total area flooded will exceed 120,000. hectares. There are extensive and long-term ecological and environmental consequences associated with the dam’s destruction – not only for Ukraine – but also for other countries. UN officials warn of serious humanitarian and ecological consequences of the disaster.

Novaya Kakhovka dam – the importance of the reservoir and its absence for Ukraine

Russian hostilities in Ukraine are not waning, even if they do not involve an offensive in the conventional sense. The Nova Kachovka Dam is an example of this. The flooding caused by the destruction of the reservoir has deepened the crisis in occupied Ukraine. The country, plunged into chaos, is no longer only fighting a military war, but is also facing a massive environmental and humanitarian disaster. The destroyed dam and Kakhovsky reservoir previously irrigated agricultural regions in Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson regions. He maintained 400,000. agricultural jobs in southern Ukraine and provided drinking water for 400,000. people. It made it possible to maintain the depth of the Dnieper at 16 meters.

The uncontrolled, sudden release of water caused flooding in nearly 80 villages. The death toll, according to preliminary estimates, was more than a dozen. The reservoir area, occupied by water for 68 years, is now exposed and the phenomenon is likely to cover as much as 1,000 square kilometers of land. The Ukrainian Ministry of Agriculture has warned that the agricultural regions of Kherson, Zaporizhia and Dnipro could become deserts as early as next year. The flood inundated entire villages, farmlands, deprived tens of thousands of people of electricity and clean water, and caused massive environmental damage.

Floods of this magnitude will inhibit agricultural activity and contribute to the death of livestock and the collapse of fisheries – a serious loss for Ukraine’s already devastated food production sector. The destroyed Nova Kachovka dam is one of the biggest industrial and environmental disasters in Europe in decades. It has also heightened concerns about nuclear security in Ukraine.

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Satellite images showing the difference before (05.06.2023) and after (06.06.2023), the damaged dam in Novaya Kakhovka
Source: Planet Labs PBC

Consequences of the destruction of the Kachov Reservoir for the ecosystem

Such a rapid change in the reservoir’s environment cannot be without serious consequences for the flora and fauna. The population of animals living at the Novaya Kakhovka power plant on the day the dam was destroyed met with a tragedy and decimation unseen for 100 years. The reservoir at the Kachovka power plant was one of the largest concentrations of freshwater fish species in Ukraine – as many as 43 species lived there, 20 of which were of industrial importance. It will take many years to rebuild similar resources.

Due to the almost complete disappearance of the Kachov Reservoir, there has been a death of most benthic organisms, as well as coastal invertebrates (i.e., insects and mollusks), which made up most of the reservoir’s biomass. The sharp rise in water levels in low-lying areas, especially on the islands, gave no chance for survival to terrestrial animals (i.e., mammals, reptiles, insects) and colonies of most bird species for which the dam was a nesting area. It is estimated that it could take up to 10 years to rebuild the population. The surge of water has also been disastrous for populations of globally endangered mammal species – for example, 70% of the world’s population of the Nordmann birch mouse(Sicista loriger) has been submerged, which could lead to its extinction in the future.

Some of the birch and oak forests, including some of the giant oak trees in the Kherson region, are likely to perish as a result of the great flood. Inundation of areas bordering the Kachow Reservoir will lead to salinization of soils, which is harmful to vegetation. The scale of destruction will increase rapidly due to the rapid current of the Dnieper, causing erosion of a number of nature reserves along the river’s banks. Ukraine has irretrievably lost some of its protected areas, both those created under domestic law and under the curatorship of international conventions. Unique protected areas with many animals and birds, including red-listed species, have been destroyed perhaps forever.

Consequences of the destruction of the reservoir for the Black Sea

The destroyed dam in Novaya Kakhovka poses a great threat to the Black Sea as well. “The rapid entry of fresh water into the sea will cause the death of the fish in it, leaving seabirds (i.e. gulls, cormorants, terns) without a food base.” – Rewilding Ukraine’s executive director explains. The brisk water will carry missiles into areas previously assessed as safe, exposing people to the unpredictable danger of contamination by mines and explosive substances.

River waters from flooded areas, it was reported in Kiev after a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council, carry with them 150 tons of machine oil, gasoline and lubricants, thousands of tons of chemicals and soil, fertilizer residue, dead animals, sewage, uprooted trees and exploding mines. The flood drags with it toxic sludge deposits from the Kachov Reservoir and cemeteries washed away along the way. The sediments contain contaminants that have accumulated at the bottom of the reservoir for decades as a result of emissions from industrial enterprises in Zaporozhye, Dnipro, Kamen and other cities.

Such a toxic stream has flowed into the Black Sea and this mixture of pollutants will have an impact on the state of all existing life in it. The State Environmental Inspectorate of the Southwestern District on June 11 noted significant changes in the chemical composition of seawater samples on the Odessa coast. The consequences of the Black Sea poisoning will be felt, along with Ukraine, by other countries in the Black Sea region. Environmental and economic impacts predicted to last for decades will also be experienced by other countries. It is necessary in this tragic situation to take action leading to bringing the perpetrators to justice and preventing them from committing similar barbarism in the future.

“The worst consequences are unlikely to affect us directly, not me, not you, but rather future generations, because this man-made disaster is not transparent,” said Kateryna Filiuta, an expert on the issue. protected habitats in Ukraine’s Nature Conservation Group.

The consequences of the terrorist act of Russia’s destruction of the Novaya Kakhovka hydropower dam are catastrophic for nature and people. The scale of the destruction of wildlife, natural ecosystems and entire national parks is incomparably greater than the consequences of all Russian warfare since the invasion began in February 2022.


Photo source: Planet Labs PBC

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