For decades, Ukraine’s southern Kherson region has been a destination for nature lovers, home to at least 70 animal species, many of them endangered.
But on Tuesday, when the Kakhovka dam broke, its vast nature reserves, national parks and popular zoo were “completely washed away,” said Julia Markhel, head of the non-governmental environmental organization Let’s Do It Ukraine.
The fate of wildlife trapped in the expanding streams that followed the dam collapse is just one aspect of the ongoing disaster, which will alter the geography and ecology of the region and further will cause hardships for a population already scarred by war.
“I compare it to the Chernobyl disaster,” said Maksym Soroka, an environmental safety expert at the Dovkola Network NGO — in reference to the Soviet-era nuclear accident that unfolded on Ukrainian soil. “Yes, the consequences are different, but the long-term effect on the population and territory is the same.”
While rescue efforts were still underway after the dam’s collapse in the early hours of Tuesday, Ukrainians tried to assess the long-term damage to the region’s economy and environment. Officials and experts warned that unique ecosystems could be lost, farmland turned into desert, and remaining water supplies could become polluted.
Several hundred tons of lubricating oil and fuel oil were washed into the Dnipro River by the collapse of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station, as well as land mines unearthed by the deluge.
The flood also contaminated groundwater sources, officials said, exacerbating drinking water shortages for locals. The reservoir provided drinking water for the cities of Kherson and Krivyi Rih, as well as the Crimean peninsula through a 400 km channel.
The Health Ministry said a “plague” of rotting fish carcasses, effluent from latrines and contamination of cemeteries posed a serious risk of disease and instructed local residents not to consume water from wells and ground pumps, as is still common practice in rural areas of Ukraine.
Soroka said he expected an “epidemic of intestinal infections”, adding: “The situation in the occupied areas in the left bank of the Kherson region is even worse. People have no access to medicines and cannot escape this catastrophe. And there is nothing we can do to help them.”
Apart from the immediate humanitarian consequences, the dam’s breach will deal a serious blow to the vital agricultural sector. Ukraine’s agriculture ministry said the loss of the Kakhovka reservoir was a “man-made disaster” for agriculture in the area, a large grain and oilseed producing area where summers are hot and dry.
A highly competitive arable farming sector was a bright spot in Ukraine’s economy before it was hammered by the Russian occupation and blockade of Black Sea ports. Global wheat prices rose 3 percent after the dam collapsed, as investors processed the implications.
The lake held back by the dam covered 2,155 square kilometers before the barrier was breached and contained 18 cubic kilometers of water. It provided irrigation to 584,000 hectares of arable land in the regions of Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which produced 4 million tons of grain and oilseed crops by 2021.
With the reservoir empty, Kherson, an arid region in the far south, has lost 94 percent of its irrigation, Zaporizhzhia 74 percent and Dnipropetrovsk 30 percent.
“This was a huge irrigation system in which Ukrainian farmers had invested billions of dollars after the fall of the Soviet Union,” said a director of a large agricultural company. “It’s all gone.”
Denys Marchuk, the deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Agrarian Council, a trade organization, told Ukrainian television that the destruction of the dam could cost the country up to 14 percent of its grain exports. A third of the country’s beets, onions, cabbage and carrots — ingredients for the national dish of borscht — are produced in the region, he added.
“We won’t be able to grow anything in the Kherson region until the (dam) is repaired,” Marchuk said. Building a new dam can take several years even without ongoing war.
Markhel, the environmentalist, said “mini-deserts” could begin to form in Kherson, causing further drought.
The disappearance of the dam has also ended the navigability of the Dnipro between the city of Zaporizhzhia and the Black Sea, a cheap form of transport for crops and industrial goods. The Kakhovka reservoir was also an essential source of water for heavy industry, including major steel and metallurgy plants in Nikopol and Krivyi Rih.
The agriculture ministry said 95,000 tons of fish could be lost. A video shared online by Andriy Yermak, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, showed thousands of fish roaming on a dry riverbed on the banks of Maryanske village, Dnipropetrovsk region, 90 km upstream from the destroyed dam.
Ihor Syrota, director general of Ukrhydroenergo, the hydroelectric operator, said on Wednesday that it may still be possible to save part of the Kakhovka reservoir with water at a depth of 3 meters (was 16 meters), depending on whether the base of the dam remains intact. intact.
“We’ll see this in two or three days,” he said. “But we understand that it is very likely that the dam will be completely destroyed.”