The breach of a large dam on the front-line Dnipro river has complicated a much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russian invaders and risks an environmental calamity for battle zone civilians.
The destruction of a dam and hydroelectric power plant in Kakhovka region of southern Ukraine has unleashed a torrent of water and sparked concerns of widespread flooding downstream on the Dnieper River. In the early hours of Tuesday, footage of water leaking from the strategically significant Nova Kakhovka dam began to emerge.
It is unclear what precisely destroyed the dam early on Tuesday, but it appears that an explosion blew up a significant portion of the structure, based on images broadcast from the scene. Kyiv and Moscow have placed blame on each other for the collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine on Tuesday, which resulted in the flooding of adjacent towns and farmland and the evacuation of hundreds of civilians.
Analysts say that the collapse of the dam, which occurred just as Ukraine was about to initiate a counteroffensive, could complicate the advance of its forces in any assault, though Kyiv has not disclosed which direction it intends to strike. The destruction of the dam will have significant repercussions for the surrounding area and for Ukraine’s overall combat effort.
Why is Nova Kakhovka dam significant?
The emergence of the Nova Kakhovka dam and a sea of fresh water behind it was praised as a “great construction project of Communism” seven decades ago. The dam spans the massive Dnipro River in Ukraine, holding back a vast reservoir of water. The dam’s height is 30 meters and its width is hundreds of meters. As a component of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power facility, it was constructed in 1956. The dam and affiliated hydroelectric power station are located approximately 70 kilometers (44 miles) east of Kherson and provide electricity, irrigation, and drinking water to a large portion of southern Ukraine and its inhabitants.
Its reservoir contains approximately 18 cubic kilometers of water, the same volume as Utah’s Great Salt Lake. An avalanche of water might inundate the towns and cities below the dam, including Kherson, which Ukrainian forces retook in late 2022.
Soon after Ukraine accused Russia of destroying the dam, the governor of the Kherson region urged residents to evacuate the area, stating that “water levels will reach a critical level within five hours.”
The reservoir provides water to the peninsula of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, as well as the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power facility, the largest in Europe. Additionally, it helps fuel the Kakhovka hydroelectric facility. After Russia spent weeks earlier this year targeting vital infrastructure, its destruction will only worsen Ukraine’s ongoing energy issues.
Devastating impacts of dam failure
The recent failure of a dam in Ukraine has resulted in significant human and environmental costs, putting thousands of people and hundreds of settlements in danger. Martin Griffiths, the head of United Nations aid, describes it as possibly the “most significant incident of damage to civilian infrastructure” since the conflict began in February 2022. It is anticipated that the disintegration of the dam will devastate the canal system that irrigates a large portion of southern Ukraine, including Crimea.
Immediate impacts on residents and agriculture:
The biggest and most immediate impact will be felt by residents of southern Ukraine who relied on water from the reservoir for daily needs. Additionally, the farming sector, which is a significant source of the country’s agricultural exports, will be severely affected. Farmland in the Zaporizhia and Kherson regions is projected to turn into desert, causing Ukraine’s overall agricultural output to decline by around 15%. Analysts predict that up to one million people will be left without drinking water. Although Ukraine may attempt to pump water from the ground to compensate for the reservoir loss, it may quickly deplete existing water sources.
Long-term consequences and environmental impact:
Experts suggest that it will take weeks to fully comprehend the consequences of such a massive and sudden shock to the river ecosystem. The flooding is expected to disrupt agricultural supply chains and leave behind mud that could take years to clear. Furthermore, the washing of industrial chemicals into the soil will have detrimental effects on food supplies, ecosystems, and biodiversity. Accusations have been traded between Russia and Ukraine, with Russia denying responsibility and Ukraine accusing Russia of “ecocide.”
Geostrategic implications and potential motives:
The breach of the dam is viewed as a potential turning point in the conflict, with possible motivations on both sides. Russia may benefit from impeding the communication between Ukrainian forces and leaving Ukraine with a long-term problem. The incident raises concern about Ukraine’s capacity to export grain to countries struggling with famine and high food prices, straining global supply chains. According to experts, it will take weeks before the complete effects of such a massive and sudden shock to the river ecosystem become apparent.
Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant:
The collapse of the dam may also impact the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, but experts believe that the facility has sufficient alternative water sources to maintain safety for the next few months. Any disruption to the cooling systems, however, could increase the likelihood of a nuclear incident. The location of the facility upstream of the dam has helped it avoid flooding, but the situation remains precarious as the region is under Russian control and subject to armed conflict.
Does Russia get an advantage from the dam breach?
In light of the fact that Russia is on the strategic defensive and Ukraine is on the strategic offensive, Russia has an advantage in the short term, according to Ben Barry, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“It’ll help the Russians until the water subsides because it makes it more difficult for Ukraine to do assault river crossings,” he said.
Maciej Matysiak, security expert at the Stratpoints Foundation and former deputy chief of Polish military counterintelligence, stated that the region’s flooding will prohibit the use of heavy weaponry such as tanks for at least one month.
“(This) creates a very good defending position for Russians who expect Ukrainian offensive activity,” Matysiak said.
The flood has already submerged villages and towns surrounding the city of Kherson, and Russian officials warn that the principal canal supplying water to the Russian-annexed portion of the Crimean Peninsula is receiving a significant decrease in water.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine referred to the dam’s disintegration as a “environmental bomb of mass destruction,” claiming that the dam was “blasted from within.” On the other hand, Russia asserts that Ukraine plotted the diversion beforehand. Germany has blamed Russia for the incident, while the U.S. and U.K. are reportedly investigating the matter.
To conclude, the devastation of the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine has had significant effects on the ongoing conflict and the surrounding ecosystem. It is unclear what caused the dam to collapse, but it appears to have been an explosion. As both Ukraine and Russia are putting blame for the explosion on the other, the incident has escalated tensions between Russia and Ukraine and raised concerns about Ukraine’s ability to recuperate and maintain stability.