This story was originally published by Slate and is reproduced here as part of the Climate window collaboration.
Like the Russia-Ukraine war rages, its most devastating impacts add up and extend far beyond Eastern Europe. Last week offered an extremely grim example: the Kakhovka dam, perched on the Dnieper River in Kherson province, was blown up on June 6, draining the Kakhovkas reservoir into the river and beyond its banks. Surrounding land, homes and infrastructure were inundated by poisonous runoff, forcing thousands of residents to flee.
While we still don’t know who is responsible for the demolition, each side blamed the other, Russia and Ukraine both sustained major damage; both nations claim several regions within Kherson province and Kakhovka is under Russian control. Moreover, the destruction of the dams does not provide a clear advantage to either side in the conflict: the military front lines have turned to mud and the livelihoods of both Russians AND Ukrainians are at risk. In fact, the attack that a former Ukrainian ecology minister said could be the country’s worst ecological disaster since Chernobyl won’t affect the war as much as it will hurt both countries in the years to come, and the rest of the world along with them. .
It’s already bad. As water drained from the dam and flooded a 50-mile stretch of the Dnieper, Ukrainian territory along the western banks was engulfed in wholesale farms, petrol stations, land mines, armories, factories, homes, railroad tracks, forests. As the Dnieper River reached dangerous heights, residents and government officials reported disgusting visions across Kherson province. The floodwaters contained pesticides, chemicals, oil, dead animals and fish, and even debris from graveyards, one Ukrainian told the New York Times; President Volodymyr Zelensky informed environmental activists that the runoff contained sewage, oil, chemicals and possibly even toxic materials from at least two anthrax burial sites located in the region. At a national zoo inside the southern Ukrainian city of Nova Kakhovka, which is under Russian control, thousands of animals have drowned. Some 14 human deaths were recorded, with dozens more missing and up to 100,000 at risk of displacement.
Unlike its opponent, Ukraine’s climate-conscious government has paid extensive attention to the environmental and energy implications of Kakhovka over the past week. Country officials have pointed out that the world’s largest dam once served as both a major hydroelectric power generator and a source of cooling water for the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant upstream. The explosion will not have a short-term effect on electricity supply; both hydroelectric and nuclear facilities were overrun by Russian forces in the early stages of the 2022 invasion and subsequently decoupled from the Ukrainian grid.
By far the biggest concern, therefore, is the waste water from Kakhovkas. Its tank, which drains up to four cubic feet of water a day, was already only a quarter full before the explosion. Concerns abound that as Zaporizhzhia draws on its water reserves for refreshment in the coming months, it could eventually deplete its reserve water sources and skilled human workers, which would cause a nightmarish collapse in the area.
There is also the matter of the debris that Kakhovkas water has splashed into Eastern Europe and the runoff that will inevitably flow at the Dnieper’s entry point into the Black Sea. Zelensky announced last week that because Kakhovka’s hydroelectric turbines are now under water, some 150 tons of machine oil used for the plant’s engines were swept away, polluting the floodwaters even before they crossed Kherson. (There are another 300 tons of lubricants left in the plant that could still be spilled, which would be horrific for the wildlife in the Black Sea, which is now rapidly turning into a garbage dump and animal graveyard in the words of the government of Ukraine.)
Those waters have drenched more than 125,000 acres of forest, Zelensky said, and tens of thousands of birds and other animals could die as a result. His government’s Agriculture Ministry also noted that 25,000 acres of Ukrainian-controlled farmland had been flattened by the floodwaters and that Russian-occupied agricultural plains had suffered even more; crops and livestock on both sides were swept from their homes. Freshwater fish that depended on the Kakhovka reservoir were also wiped out, and are likely to die once they hit the salt-rich Black Sea.
At this point, little in Ukraine has been spared: not the national parks, not the shellfish or aquatic plants, not the plantation soil that is salted by the floods, not the endangered mammals that depend on the Dnieper. The Ukrainian nature conservation group warns that the wastelands left by the disaster could soon be overrun by invasive species.
Such massive losses of habitat, vegetation and agricultural land portend an even bleaker future for Ukrainians. Already tens of thousands of them lack the drinking water supplied by the Kakhovkas reservoir (if their villages have not been completely flooded as it is), and even Russian-controlled Crimea will feel the taps running. For farmers whose plots have been spared, their concern now turns to much-needed irrigation.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Agriculture estimates that around 1.2 million agricultural acres will have to cease production and that the reservoir will need to be remediated to prevent it from turning into poisonous dust (this is the result of agricultural pesticides that have escaped from farmland to collect at the bottom of the tank). This could stunt the growth of up to $1.5 billion in grains and oilseeds, the ministry added.
This translates into another emergency – what Ukraine’s industrial and agricultural damage portends for the rest of the world. The Black Sea, already the most polluted body of water in Europe, is a region of great importance to its other coastal neighbours: Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Georgia. They have all played their part in muddying those waters, but they also depend on the Black Sea for tourism, trade and travel, industrial development and energy. The accelerated pollution of the sea will harm each of these nations.
In addition, there is cause for alarm for Ukraine’s specific exports, industries and food supplies. If Ukraine’s Agriculture Ministry is correct in estimating that Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro regions will be most affected by the dam’s destruction, then Ukraine’s trading partners should pay close attention, especially as much of Ukraine’s agriculture goes on export. As noted by the Wall Street Journal, the three aforementioned areas produce 12 percent of the country’s agricultural output, mainly of vegetables and barley. To look at Kherson specifically, it suffices to note that several grain storage silos were destroyed in the aftermath of the blasts, while food-processing giants AgroFusion and Chumak own several factories and acres in the province.
In addition to looted goods, which many poor countries rely on, there are still other industries at play and the question is whether Ukraine will be able to trade much in the short term. The country’s largest steelmaker has halted operations for the time being to reduce water demand. A key ammonia pipeline along the Kakhovka Dam has also been ruptured, which will weaken Ukraine’s fertilizer and grain exports. And several commercial ports on the Dnieper River that helped transport products such as crops and building materials have been rendered unusable by the drying up of the basin, the head of Ukraine’s maritime administration told the New York Times.
All of these will take years to fix, and some may never be fixed. Farmland made fragile by lack of water and sediment deposits may never recover the rich crops that once blessed Ukraine’s economy. The affected animal and plant species will take years to repopulate if the most endangered do not become extinct. Cities and villages that relied on the Kakhovka dam and the Dnieper River, many of which have been evacuated, won’t rebuild for a while yet. And we have no idea how long the war will last and how much of Ukraine’s fertile lands, natural resources and waters will be affected as a result. The dam collapse is not just a Russia-Ukraine disaster, it is global one.
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