The breach of the Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine has sparked fears of an ecological catastrophe, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky describing the situation as ‘an environmental bomb of mass destruction’.
Ukrainian officials have called the action ‘ecocide’ as floods devastated the surrounding area after the Russian-occupied dam and hydro-electric power plant were destroyed. The crisis has forced more than 1,400 people to flee their homes and threatened vital water supplies with towns, cities and farmland ruined.
Both Kyiv and Moscow have blamed each other for the dam’s destruction, without providing any proof that the other is culpable. It is also not yet clear whether the dam was deliberately attacked or whether the breach was the result of structural failure.
Zelensky, however, said Russia bears ‘criminal liability’.
‘The consequences of the tragedy will be clear in a week. When the water goes away, it will become clear what is left and what will happen next,’ he said.
Destruction its Wake
The flooding poses severe dangers to wildlife, farmlands, settlements and water supplies from the floodwaters and possible contamination from industrial chemicals and oil leaked from the hydro plant into the Dnipro river.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said the dam collapse was an ‘ecological catastrophe’ with the destruction of newly planted crops and massive flooding ‘another devastating consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine’.
Ukrainian Environment Minister Ruslan Strilets said at least 150 metric tons of oil from the dam have leaked into the Dnipro and the current environmental damage had been estimated at 50 million euros (196,446,500 AED) according to economists at Reuters.
The Nova Kakhovka Dam lifeline
Before its collapse, the critical Nova Kakhovka dam was at the head of the largest reservoir in Ukraine and supplied water for much of the southeast and the Crimean peninsula.
Speaking to the United Nations Security Council, the UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said its breach is possibly the ‘most significant incident of damage to civilian infrastructure’ since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in February last year.
The dam, Griffiths said, is a lifeline in the region, being a critical water source for millions of people in the city of Kherson, and a key source of agricultural irrigation impacting farming and food production.
‘The damage caused by the dam’s destruction means that life will become intolerably harder for those already suffering from the conflict,’ Griffiths said.
According to Zelensky between 35 and 80 settlements were expected to be flooded due to the breach, and aid efforts are ongoing to get drinking water, hygiene kits and other supplies to affected neighbourhoods.
At least one unique wildlife species faces severe decimation and hundreds of zoo animals have been swept away and drowned.
Strilets said downstream wildlife species found nowhere else in the world were in jeopardy, including the sandy blind mole-rat. Ukraine’s Black Sea Biosphere Reserve and two national parks were also likely to be heavily damaged, he added.
The flooding has already killed 300 animals at the Nova Kakhovka zoo, according to the Ukrainian Defence Ministry.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is under Russian control, lies upstream from the destroyed Nova Kakhovka dam. The reservoir supplies cooling water to the plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power station, and is crucial for its safety.
The International Atomic Energy agency said there was ‘no immediate nuclear safety risk’ at the plant, adding that the agency’s experts on site were ‘closely monitoring the situation.’
It said the main line of cooling water is fed from the reservoir and pumped up through channels and it is estimated that the water through this route should last for several days.