The Kakhovka Dam Collapse Is an Ecological Disaster

Water surging from the broken Ukrainian dam is killing animals, destroying habitats, and unleashing pollution. The effects may be irreversible.
Flooded area near Dnipro
Photograph: Alex Babenko/Getty Images

A push notification news alert on his phone, then images of the deluge—that’s how Heorhiy Veremiychyk learned of the disaster. With water pouring through the stricken Kakhovka Dam in the Kherson region of Ukraine, he immediately understood the enormity of what had happened. “The water raised very sharply,” he says, referring to the terrible effects on wildlife downstream. “There was no possibility to escape.”

Veremiychyk, of the National Ecological Center of Ukraine (NECU), says the impact of the dam’s destruction is severe. It will range from the obliteration of habitats to the contamination of drinking water. He can only watch from afar. Like millions of Ukrainians, he fled the Russian invaders, and he has been watching the Kakhovka Dam crisis unfold from the Czech Republic.

President Zelensky has called the catastrophe an ecocide—apparently in reference to Article 441 of Ukraine’s criminal code, which defines it as the mass destruction of flora or fauna, poisoning of the atmosphere or water, or other large-scale environmental crimes.

Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, Andrij Melnyk, says the dam’s destruction is “the worst environmental disaster in Europe since Chernobyl.” And various research and conservation groups are now tallying the dreadful toll on the surrounding environment. This is just the latest in a long series of ecologically damaging acts that have occurred since Russia invaded. For many months, experts have been sounding the alarm about the environmental aspect of the war.

Every crime has a perpetrator and, for many Ukrainians and expert observers, that perpetrator is obvious. In an email to WIRED, the head of NECU, Ruslan Havryliuk, calls this “another Russian military terrorist act against Ukraine.” Russia has denied responsibility, but it is important to note that certain Russian statements about the country’s activities in Ukraine have been unreliable.

“Russia is illegally invading and occupying Ukraine, therefore Russia is to blame for this—there’s no point in even having that discussion, in my eyes,” says Jonathon Turnbull, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford who has studied the ecological impacts of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The dam’s destruction is not a scorched-earth tactic, he argues—but a “drowned earth” tactic.

Photograph: Maxar Technologies

While the world awaits evidence and further details about what exactly happened to the dam, there is no doubting the ecological harm the breach will cause. Around 600 square kilometers of the Kherson region are currently underwater along the southern part of the Dnipro River, says Veremiychyk. And above the dam, a vast quantity of water has now drained away, which will leave behind a desert full of polluted dust, he adds.

video shared online by President Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, shows what appears to be thousands of wriggling fish stranded on dry ground near the village of Maryanske, which is north of the Kakhovka Reservoir. According to Ukraine’s agricultural ministry, 95,000 metric tons of fish could be lost. The Ukrainian Ministry of Health posted a warning on Facebook advising people not to eat fish swept downstream by the flood waters. “There is a risk of botulism,” the post read, referring to a rare but serious condition caused by toxins released by several types of bacteria.

In the path of the flood waters lie homes, farms, wetlands, meadows, and national parks. Much of the wildlife living in these habitats will probably be wiped out, says Veremiychyk: “It will be big losses.”

NGOs and research groups in Ukraine have spelled out the possible ecological impacts. In a lengthy blog post, the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group (UNCG) describes how dozens of fish species will likely be affected. Birds that rely on the waterways and wetlands, including the beautiful Eurasian spoonbill, reptiles such as the Caspian whipsnake, and vulnerable mammals like Nordmann’s mouse are also considered at risk. “These animals,” the authors of the blog post write, “have no means of survival in the turbulent flow.”

Turnbull says that nature-focused groups in Ukraine are already documenting the many ecological impacts of the war in order to gather hard evidence and establish the true extent of environmental destruction. We can expect to see reports detailing the consequences of the dam’s breaching in the coming months and years.

What is already obvious is the huge geographical reach of the disaster. Doug Weir, research and policy director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory, has been poring over satellite images of flooded areas downstream of the dam. “There are pretty significant oil slicks, or what appears to be oil, in the region of Kherson, which seem to be originating from some of the industrial buildings there,” he says. “That’s a risk we anticipated.”

He says that contaminants from septic tanks and wastewater treatment facilities could also be washed over the land. Kristina Hook, a specialist in Ukraine and Russia at Kennesaw State University, agrees that pollutants are a serious threat. “You’re looking at just a really dangerous and dirty type of water,” she says. And this is all happening right after many animals reproduced during the spring, she adds. This part of the world—the Eurasian Steppe, which stretches from Hungary to eastern China—is characterized by grasslands, plateaus, and, in many places, high levels of biodiversity.

Alongside wildlife in the Ukrainian part of the steppe live farmers, many of whom grow grain. The Ukrainian Agrarian Council estimates that the Kakhovka disaster could lead to a 14 percent drop in Ukraine’s grain exports. The country is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat—meaning there will be serious knock-on effects for countries that rely on imports. Farmers in the area also produce cherries, plums, apples, tomatoes, eggplants, and other crops, says Susanne Wengle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. “These orchards have been growing for generations. It’s very unclear how they can recover,” she says. Hook adds that even once the flood waters recede, there could be significant but less obvious damage to tree roots underground that could blight vegetation in the coming months. Flood water can sometimes carry sediments to tree roots and block oxygen.

For communities that depended on the Kakhovka Reservoir for drinking water and the irrigation of farmland, it will be difficult if not impossible to replace this water resource, says Volodymyr Starodubtsev of the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine, via email.

The UNCG estimates that the recovery of species affected by the dam’s destruction could take many years. And this will unfold unevenly. Populations of some animals, such as mute swans, could recover in three years, but others, including marsh harriers—birds of prey—might take a decade, they suggest.

Weir says there is likely to be permanent damage. When drastic change happens to an ecosystem, it tends to become less diverse, he explains, and therefore less resilient to external pressures—including climate change. There will be some form of recovery in the aftermath of the Kakhovka Dam’s destruction, but, as he puts it, “what comes back will not be the same as what was there before.”