On June 6, a humanitarian and ecological disaster was triggered when the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP) in Ukraine was destroyed—most likely the work of Russian forces in the area (New Voice of Ukraine, June 6). Ukrainian hydropower operator Ukrhydroenergo reported that, as of June 8, water levels in the reservoir had dropped to 12.5 meters (m), which is below the so-called “dead point” after which any withdrawal of water is impossible. The fall in the water level will likely stop around 3 m (Ekonomichna Pravda, June 8).
Located on the Dnipro River in Kherson region, the Kakhovka HPP has been occupied by Russian units since the early days of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 (Rada.gov.ua, June 6). According to the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, the apparent involvement of Russia’s military and political leadership in the destruction of the dam is supported by a slew of direct and indirect evidence (Gur.gov.ua, June 8). According toUkrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, this terrorist act “threatens an environmental disaster” for Ukraine’s southern regions (Novosti.dn.ua, June 6). Andriy Yermak, head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, called the destruction of the Kakhovka HPP an “ecocide” and yet another of Russia’s many “war crimes” (Lb.ua, June 6).
The Kakhovka dam and reservoir play a crucial role in the management of Ukraine’s water resources. The reservoir holds a prominent position as one of Ukraine’s largest artificial lakes (with a volume of over 18 cubic kilometers and 240 kilometers long), serving as the final component in the Dnipro reservoir network and a vital water source for multiple critical functions. Since its construction in the 1950s, it has played a central role in generating hydroelectric power, facilitating navigation and serving as a key link between the right (west) and left (east) banks of the Dnipro River, as well as for road and railway crossings in the area (New Voice of Ukraine, June 6). Additionally, it provides the essential cooling water for the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), ensuring its smooth operation. Thus, the destruction of the dam has created myriad risks for the operation of the ZNPP, one of the largest nuclear power plants in the world. As the reservoir continues to rapidly drain, the Ukrainian nuclear plant is confronting a critical water shortage that could lead to a wider disaster (T.me/supernova_plus, June 14).
Furthermore, the Kakhovka reservoir has been the main source for two crucial irrigation and water supply systems—the Kakhovka system and the North Crimean Canal (NCC). These systems were efficiently built to use a minimal amount of electricity for the operating pumps with water levels in mind. Now that this level has fallen dramatically, water simply cannot reach the systems. According to experts’ estimates, the consequences of the attack are predicted to cover an area of at least 5,000 square kilometers (both flooding and drainage zones) (Unian, June 11). A large part of the Dnipropetrovsk (in particular, Kryvyi Rih, Nikopol and other cities); Zaporizhzhia; Mykolaiv; and Kherson regions, as well as Crimea will be without drinking and technical water resources. According to the Ukrainian State Environmental Inspectorate, the water in southern Ukraine has already tested positive for cholera and E. coli. This development poses serious health risks to the populations in the affected regions (New Voice of Ukraine, June 13).
Water for agricultural purposes has also been jeopardized (Minagro.gov.ua, June 6). In such emergency conditions, most population centers switch to a decentralized water supply. Furthermore, residents located upstream from the Dnipro reservoir cascade are facing restricted access to water resources. The situation is especially difficult in the temporarily occupied territories, where the Russian occupiers have left people without any help. To a large extent, the occupied Ukrainian territories on the Dnipro’s left bank will be flooded, as the bank is lower in these areas. Significant and alarming concerns loom over several towns and villages in this part of occupied Ukraine, including Berdyansk and Mariupol, as there is a substantial risk to the populations in these cities of losing access to safe and clean water resources (Apostrophe.ua, June 6).
The destruction of the Kakhovka HPP will also have severe consequences for the water supply to Crimea. The Kakhovka reservoir is the primary source of water for the NCC, an essential irrigation infrastructure, which has played a vital role in meeting approximately 85 percent of the peninsula’s freshwater demands until its occupation in 2014. According to Ukrenergo, due to the dam’s destruction, water levels in the Kakhovka reservoir are already significantly lower than that required for the supply of water through the NCC. As a result, it is highly probable that water will not flow into Crimea for at least the next year (Ekonomichna Pravda, June 12). Already on June 6, residents on the peninsula immediately began experiencing problems with the quality of drinking water. According to numerous sources, the water supply to Crimea has already been contaminated with various clay-like impurities (Rubryka.com, June 6). The Telegram channel, “Crimean Partisans,” recently published schedules for water delivery in Kerch. Numerous videos indicate that the current water quality in Kerch, Yevpatoriya and Dzhankoy is far from potable or suitable for everyday use (New Voice of Ukraine, June 6).
Finally, the destruction of the dam poses a great danger to the Black Sea, as river water from the flooded areas contains a large amount of fuel and lubricants (currently, the oil spill is at least 150 tons); toxic waste from industrial enterprises, cemeteries and cattle burial grounds; hundreds of thousands of tons of soil; thousands of dead animals and birds; uprooted trees; houses; cars; waste from destroyed sewage systems and cesspools; residue from fertilizers and other chemicals; mines; and other munitions that detonated directly in the water (Unian, June 11). The loss of entire species of animals, fish and birds is a looming possibility in this critical situation (Openforest.org.ua, June 11).
Thus, though it is difficult to assess the full scale of this tragedy at the moment, it has already caused significant damage and distress. The Ukrainian government has estimated that the damage to the environment due to the explosion of the dam amounts to more than 55 billion hryvnia ($1.47 billion) (Biz.nv.ua, June 10), and about 700,000 people in Ukraine have been left without drinking water (Svoboda, June 11). It is also clear that this technogenic catastrophe will have longer-term humanitarian, economic and environmental consequences. The presence of a nuclear threat, as the ZNPP’s cooling waters run dangerously low, is also a matter of significant concern and should not be taken lightly.