Kherson, Kherson region, Ukraine 06 06 2023 Photo of the flooded shore after the Russians blew up the dam at the Kakhovka HP
The city of Kherson (Kherson Oblast) following the blasting of Kakhovka Dam.

Water as a Weapon

On the destruction of Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine

On March 3, 2023, an international team of researchers warned of the impact of Russia’s war of aggression on freshwater resources, water infrastructure, and the environment in Ukraine. Now, with the blasting of the Kakhovka Dam on June 6, 2023, the worst-case scenario has become a reality. In a joint statement, Dr. Oleksandra Shumilova of the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) and Prof. Dr. Klement Tockner, Director General of the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research (SGN), draw attention to the drastic consequences of this ecological catastrophe.

Water is increasingly being used as a weapon in armed conflicts, and this is particularly true of the war of aggression in Ukraine. The blasting of the dam of one of the largest reservoirs in Europe is unprecedented in its extent and devastating in its impact.

Eastern Ukraine is one of the world’s most heavily industrialized regions, with an extensive and complex water infrastructure that includes irrigation systems, drinking water pipelines, sewage systems, and pumping stations. These have been systematically damaged or completely destroyed on a large scale since the outbreak of the war, in some cases already since 2014.

Ukraine Staudamm
A flooded street. The wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure contradicts the Geneva Convention.

Oil pollution is dramatic enough in itself. But it gets even worse: Released petroleum products are not simply diluted and seep into the ground but are absorbed by living organisms such as plants and animals. Since the affected landscape is virtually flat and the water can spread over a wide area, a huge oil film is formed. In addition, since the beginning of the war, untreated wastewater has entered the rivers; pollutants and radioactive substances such as those accumulated after the Chernobyl reactor accident in 1986 are released from the sediments; areas contaminated by munitions, war equipment, and destroyed industrial plants are flooded; and disused mining areas are inundated. Thus, irrigation canals serve as dumping grounds for war equipment and munitions waste. 

This toxic cocktail will continue to massively pollute water bodies and groundwater for decades to come. Moreover, the pollutants are deposited in the soil and sediments and accumulate through the food chain.

Ukraine Staudamm
An aerial view of the city of Kherson in 2022. Eastern Ukraine is one of the most heavily industrialized regions in the world, with an extensive and complex water infrastructure.

However, we lack verifiable data and information to reliably assess the extent of the destruction and its consequences. Nevertheless, a dramatic impact on biodiversity and nature reserves has already become apparent. While upstream of the dam huge areas are drying up, causing a massive die-off of fish and other aquatic organisms, widespread flooding is occurring downstream, destroying valuable ecosystems of national and international importance. The Dnipro Delta boasts a wealth of islands, riparian forests, and reed beds – a hotspot of biodiversity. More than 100 of the plant and animal species native to the area are included on various Red Lists. Overall, 160,000 birds and more than 20,000 other wild animals are likely threatened in their existence by the explosion of the hydroelectric power plant.

It is certain that the consequences will be felt for decades to come, with severe impacts on the environment – including the coastal areas of the Black Sea – and on the supply of clean drinking water for millions of people as well as water for agriculture and fisheries. And last but not least, the situation poses a threat to global nuclear security. 

The wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure is contrary to the Geneva Convention. We must therefore do everything we can to avert even greater damage and to quickly repair what has been destroyed already. This will be a monumental task for Ukraine and the international community!