Fate unknown – one year on from the Kakhovka dam collapse

Composite showing the effects of the dam collapse
The Kakhovka dam collapse caused a major environmental disaster (Pictures: Getty)

On the morning of June 5, 2023, as the Sun rose across Oleshky Sands National Park in Ukraine, its rippled dunes were humming with life.

Nocturnal rodents like the thick-tailed three-toed jerboa and Nordmann’s birch mouse returned to their burrows, deserting the sands before lizards and snakes began to roam. Hares lolloped across the wide open expanses, always alert for wolves. 

Underground, endangered sandy blind mole-rats, found nowhere else in the world, trundled up and down their 200 metre-long tunnels, snacking on roots from above.

The next day, all were presumed dead, drowned in the devastating flood unleashed by the collapse of the Kakhovka dam.

In the early hours of June 6, locals heard a deafening explosion coming from the great wall, situated in the occupied Kherson Oblast. As the dam crumbled, 18 million cubic metres of water began to surge over its remains, racing towards the Black Sea and taking homes, vehicles, trees and lives with it.

Russia officials said 59 people drowned in the floods, but an AP investigation estimates it to be more likely in the hundreds. Sources suggest Russian soldiers in the occupied east bank of the Dnipro were not even warned of the incoming flood.

The Oleshky Sands National Park before the flood
The Oleshky Sands National Park before the flood (Picture: Getty)
Ukranian sandy blind mole-rat
The Ukranian sandy blind mole-rat (Picture: Picasa)

Ukraine’s military and Nato, alongside many experts, have accused Russia of blowing up the dam. Russia has blamed Ukraine, but Russian forces were in charge of the dam at the time, with no evidence of an external, airborne strike.

Following the collapse, thousands of people were evacuated from the lush region alongside the river, but for the wildlife that also called it home, there was no escape.

As the war rages on, it has been difficult for ecologists and conservationists to survey the damage done, even a year on, but with so much life all around, it is not hard to imagine the devastation.

Anna Ambrosova, an industrial ecologist and co-founder of Stop Poisoning Kryvyi Rih, says there have been both short-term and long-term effects.

‘Immediately after the dam was destroyed, water flowed out at a furious speed and demolished everything in its path,’ she says. ‘It flooded large areas downstream of the Dnipro. Port facilities were destroyed and storage yards with fertilisers and pesticides were flooded. In addition, local sewage treatment plants and sewerage networks were flooded. Even cattle cemeteries were affected. 

Water pours over the remains of the Kakhovka dam on June 6, 2023
Water pours over the remains of the Kakhovka dam on June 6, 2023 (Picture: AP)

‘Thus, we are talking about chemical and biological contamination of the territories.’

Contamination has not only come from new sources on land. Sediments at the bottom of the Kakhovka reservoir – also known as the Kakhovka Sea, a reflection of its size – held on to traces of another environmental disaster 40 years earlier.

‘Heavy metals and even radionuclides were preserved there, carried by the Dnipro river after the Chernobyl accident,’ says Anna, referencing the preferred Ukrainian spelling of the doomed nuclear power plant.

‘According to the researchers, a significant part of them was retained in the lowest of the cascade of reservoirs on the Dnipro. So, after the destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station, all this was carried away by water flows into the sea.’

The radiation is invisible, but the buildings, rubbish, trees and animals swept away were not. Between the remains of the dam and the Black Sea, the bodies of fish dotted the waters in some places, and covered it in others.

Dead fish are seen on the drained bottom of the Kakhovka reservoir
Dead fish are seen on the drained bottom of the Kakhovka reservoir (Picture: Reuters)
A man evacuates a cow through flooded streets
A man evacuates a cow through flooded streets (Picture: Getty)

Ukraine officials estimate that up to 95,000 metric tons of fish may have been lost.

But Julia Markhel, a founding member of the charity Let’s Do It Ukraine, warns fish were far from the only casualties.

‘Flooding affected areas where typical and rare groups of floodplain forests, swamps, meadows, the steppe slopes of the Dnipro and rock outcrops have been preserved,’ she says. ‘The Nyzhnyodniprovsky National Park was completely flooded. In total, the flora [plants] of the park includes 1,016 species. There are 120 valuable species of flora and fauna [animals] that are protected.’

Countless animals were washed away during the floods, while even fish from the reservoir will have died in the salty water of the Black Sea.

Other species, such as newts, survived the journey, but cannot live on the coast.

Julia Markhel, a founding member of Let's Do It Ukraine
Julia Markhel, a founding member of Let’s Do It Ukraine (Picture: Sonya Kabaeva)
Brown floodwater in the central square of Nova Kakhovka
Floodwaters were contaminated with sewage, fertiliser and even radioactive material leftover from the Chernobyl disaster (Picture: AP)
A Ukrainian serviceman helps evacuate local residents
A Ukrainian serviceman helps evacuate local residents (Picture: Getty/AFP)

Anna says: ‘Scientists, volunteers, and local residents tried to save the animals, looking for them on the coast, and retrieving piles of reeds that had carried them out of their habitat. But even after the rescue, the animals’ fate remains very uncertain. 

‘There was no possibility of returning them to the Dnipro Delta in the near future, and the landscape was completely destroyed.’

Even for birds able to escape the initial flood, huge swathes of their habitat was destroyed. Without being able to properly assess the damage, no one knows when they may return.

And on that day in June last year, egrets, herons and spoonbills were among those nesting in the region.

Great Egret over Cattails
A generation of great white egrets was lost (Picture: Getty)
Industrial ecologist Anna Ambrosova
Industrial ecologist Anna Ambrosova

Oleksii Vasyliuk, head of the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group, says: ‘The entire flooded zone was a highly popular nesting site for waterfowl. Given that this occurred in June, when all the birds already had chicks that couldn’t yet fly, all those chicks died. 

‘An entire generation of birds nesting in southern Ukraine perished.’

The humanitarian impacts of the dam’s collapse are equally far-reaching, not confined simply to the initial flood.

‘The water level drop and drainage of about 1,000 kilometres squared caused not only an ecological but also a humanitarian catastrophe upstream of Dnipro river,’ says Julia. 

Eurasian spoonbill(Platalea leucorodia) foraging for food
Spoonbills were also nesting in the flood zone (Picture: Getty)
Dead fish are seen on the drained bottom of the Nova Kakhovka reservoir
Millions of fish were killed (Picture: Reuters)
The town of Oleshky before and after the dam collapsed
The town of Oleshky before and after the dam collapsed (Picture: Maxar/AFP)

‘In total, about four million people were supplied with Kakhov water. It fed a densely populated conglomerate of cities and industrial facilities, in particular Kherson, Kryvyi Rih, Marganets, Melitopol, Berdyansk. Approximately 880,000 people have lost access to centralised water supply, which poses a direct threat to their lives and health.’

Still today, residents are forced to buy drinking water, adding significant costs to families already struggling to survive in a war zone.

The disrupted water supply has also had a major impact on Ukraine’s farmers, already dealing with the fallout from Russian occupation.

Before the war, southern Ukraine, also known as the ‘breadbasket of the world’, produced 10% of the world’s wheat, 15% of its corn and more than 50% of its sunflower oil. 

Anna says: ‘The water flows below the Kakhovka dam destroyed the irrigation systems of the Dnipropetrovs’k, Kherson and Mykolaiv regions. Above it, there was simply no water to irrigate fields and private gardens. This resulted in significant harvest losses last year and this year.

Julia collects samples to measure the quality of the water
Julia collects samples to measure the quality of the water (Picture: Getty)
Streets and homes were flooded in Kherson
Streets and homes were flooded in Kherson (Picture: AP)

‘We are now urgently trying to solve water problems – we are looking for groundwater, drilling wells, and building water pipelines. People need water in the hot summer. But no one is studying the long-term consequences.’

Highlighting the human impacts of an environmental catastrophe can often help elevate its reach. Since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, myriad assaults on its natural resources have taken place, to the extent that protecting the environment from ecocide featured in President Zelensky’s ten-point peace plan.

‘Millions of hectares of forest were burned by shelling,’ he said. ‘Almost two hundred thousand hectares of our land are contaminated with unexploded mines and shells.

‘It is impossible to accurately calculate the amount of atmospheric pollution from burnt oil depots and other fires… As well as from blown up sewage facilities, burned chemical plants, innumerable burial sites of slayed animals.

‘Just imagine this – due to the Russian aggression, six million domestic animals died. Six million! These are official numbers. At least 50,000 dolphins were killed in the Black Sea.’

Dolphins in the Black Sea
Dolphins in the Black Sea (Picture: Getty)
Oleksii Vasyliuk, head of the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group
Oleksii Vasyliuk, head of the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group (Picture: Mikhail Rusin)

And, with the Kakhovka Sea now depleted, another potential environmental catastrophe is looming.  

‘We should also remember the cooling system of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Enerhodar,’ says Anna. ‘It was also replenished with water from the Kakhovka reservoir. The territory of the nuclear power plant is occupied, and there have been several attempts to start or stop it. This means that there is also a nuclear hazard. And this is an issue for at least half of Europe.’

The fate of the Zaporizhzhia plant has at times dominated headlines, with sporadic shelling and power failures pushing it to the brink.

Like Chernobyl, catastrophic failure at Zaporizhzhia would be an environmental disaster of continental scale, one of lasting impacts.

But four decades on, Chernobyl has also become a symbol of nature’s ability to heal. Plants and animals have completely taken over the ghost city of Pripyat nearby.



Widespread casualties

A zebra in Ukraine before the war
A zebra in Ukraine before the war (Picture: Getty/500px)

From an ecological point of view, the loss of wildlife and habitat will change Ukraine’s landscape enormously in the years following the collapse.

But it wasn’t only wild animals who fell victim to the floods.

Livestock, pets and hundreds of animals at the Fairytale Díbrova all died in the floods.

Further afield, although not affected by the Kakhovka dam collapse, rare and endangered species at the Askania Nova nature reserve including zebras, American bison, Przewalski’s horses and Père David’s deer are reported to have been illegally removed by Russian forces.

Anna says: ‘According to Viktor Shapoval, the director of the reserve, the Russian occupiers took rare animals from Askania Nova.

‘Despite media reports in the summer of 2023 that the animals would end up in Crimea, their final destination turned out to be Rostov [a city in southern Russia]. The endangered animals arrived there in November/December 2023.

‘Their fate is unknown.’

While the flood zones destroyed by Kakhovka will not remain abandoned after the war is over, there is debate over whether the dam should be rebuilt, or the river left to run its course.

Anna says: ‘Scientists say that nature does not return to its previous state, therefore, the Kakhovka reservoir will be replaced by some other natural complex – and it has already begun to take shape. 

‘At the bottom of the former reservoir, young poplars have grown abundantly in some places. In other places, willows have already reached several metres. We were afraid of dust storms that kicked up dust from the dried bottom sediments, but nature was on our side, and that did not happen.’

Brown river water
Water supplies in the region are still contaminated (Picture: Stop Poisoning Kryvyi Rih)

Julia adds: ‘The Kakhovka dam is almost completely under water – it needs to be restored from the very beginning, which will take at least 10 years and billions of dollars. But all this time people have to live. It is necessary to adapt to new realities and save nature as well as the residents of the surrounding areas.’

Hundreds of lives lost. Thousands of plant and animal species threatened, some possibly extinct. Water supplies and soils contaminated for years to come. 

The collapse of the Kakhova dam was one of the most shocking and enduring events to happen in the country since the war began.

Not until the war is over will the full scale of the devastation be revealed. By then, the country of Ukraine will be eternally changed. 

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