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The Kakhovka Dam Disaster: Responsibility and Consequences

Andrian Prokip
Flooded streets
Kherson, Ukraine—June 6, 2023: Flooded streets a day after the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam.

In the early morning hours of June 6, an explosion destroyed the dam of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station on the Dnipro river. Seismic data collected by Norway show clear signals of an explosion at the time of the dam’s collapse. The event has far-reaching consequences that cannot be adequately tabulated but will be massively harmful into the foreseeable future, affecting Ukraine’s economy, agricultural sector, environment, and power systems, though foremost the lives and livelihoods of Ukrainian people.

These consequences are worsened by the Russian occupation. Russian forces captured the plant on February 24, 2022, the first day of the full-scale invasion, and in the fall of 2022 the Russian military mined the dam. Kyiv intelligence had learned of the Russians' intention to blow up the dam, and issued warnings to international community. It is already obvious that the dam explosion in conjunction with summer heating of the land, which has produced spontaneous combustion of mines, will be one of the biggest disasters in Europe of the past few decades.

The Kakhovka hydropower plant became operational in 1956 after a few years of construction. New cities sprang up on the periphery of the service area as the plant was under construction. The reservoir created by the dam subsequently supplied drinking water, water for reclamation of agricultural land, and even the water in the cooling ponds of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which also came under Russian occupation. The destruction of the dam and the flooding of territories is expected to have long-lasting effects on ecosystems, cities, and industries in the region, with terrible humanitarian, ecological, and economic consequences.

Urgent Evacuations

Many villages and townsites were flooded, some almost completely disappearing beneath the waters. According to local officials, as of June 8,600 square kilometers had flooded, 32 percent of which were on the right bank, which is occupied by Ukraine (the left bank is largely occupied by Russian forces; Ukraine’s environment minister Ruslan Strilets shortly after the dam breach said the flooding was eight times worse on the left bank). The average water inundation level in the region is 5.61 meters. Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said eighty settlements were under threat of flooding. The scale of the flooding required immediate evacuation of residents, which had to be carried out under Russian fire. The flooding affected not only Kherson oblast but also the neighboring Mykolaiv oblast, where thirteen settlements were threatened.

On the occupied left bank of the Dnipro, some settlements, such as Oleshky, are completely inundated. The Russians did not care much about facilitating evacuation, in some cases blocking evacuation routes and telling those attempting to leave to return home. Ukrainian nationals reportedly were refusing to get on Russian-supplied buses because they feared being deported. The actual number of people who died or are missing is unclear and may never be known because wartime conditions hinder accurate tallies.

Drinking Water Scarcity

Ukrainian scientists reported that four oblasts—Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and part of Mykolaiv, along with Crimea—would suffer from drinking water scarcity with the loss of the reservoir waters. But the situation is worsened by contamination: the explosion damaged turbines and other mechanical equipment of the hydroelectric power plant, releasing between 150 and 450 tons of engine oil into the Dnipro river, making it risky to consume any water below the dam. Scientists also warned that there could be toxic substances and pathogens at the bottom reservoir. So the flows of poisoned water can contaminate groundwater, aggravating the problem of drinking water shortage in the surrounding territories.

Environmental Damage

Wildlife is under threat: entire ecosystems face destruction. Forty-eight protected sites established by the Nature Reserves Fund will be completely or partially affected, amounting to a total area of 120,000 hectares. These sites include the impressive Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, which has been protected since 1927 and is part of the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve network.

Many hectares of the protected sites that are important for fish spawning and provide habitat for birds and animals have been destroyed. A mass die-off of fish was observed in a few areas. These losses are likely to have knock-on effects on the ecosystems of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, which are fed by the Dnipro.

Impact on Agriculture

The region affected by the flood is an important contributor to agrarian production, and therefore to Ukraine’s GDP. Some of the affected lands may be unusable in the future. On June 7, the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine reported that approximately 10,000 hectares of agricultural land on the right bank of the Dnipro in Kherson oblast were expected to flood.

In addition to the direct effect on agricultural lands and ecosystems, a destroyed water reservoir means no water will be available for irrigation. Some once fertile lands will likely experience desertification. The ministry reported the disaster would make water unavailable to thirty-one irrigation systems supplying fields in Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya oblasts. In 2021, these systems provided irrigation for half a million hectares, which produced four million tons of grain and oilseeds, worth about $1.5 billion.

Fisheries and animal husbandry operations will also be affected by lack of a water supply, as has already happened with the only state-owned sturgeon farm in Ukraine.

Impact on Industrial Production

The water deficit has already affected the operation of key metallurgy plants in the country's south. The biggest metallurgical plant in Ukraine, ArcelorMittal Kryvyi Rih, has limited water use and some production processes. The Zaporizhzhia ferroalloy plant and the Nikopol ferroalloy plant were also affected by water shortages.

Impact on the Energy Sector

Ukraine's power sector has been greatly affected by Russian air strikes during the war. Destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant did not have much of a direct effect on Ukraine’s power system operation but still will. The Russians disconnected the Kakhovka plant from the Ukrainian power system in October 2022. But all other hydroelectric power plants in Kakhovka had to change their operating regime to decrease water usage, and this will have an impact on the power system.

In addition, some energy facilities were simply flooded with water, including the cogeneration thermal power plant in Kherson, two solar power plants in Mykolaiv oblast, and 129 transformer substations, and this has also meant a reduced power supply. At last count, 20,000 customers remained without power after the disaster.

A singular threat is posed by the loss of water supply to the cooling ponds at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, formerly drawn from the Kakhovka reservoir. The International Atomic Energy Agency has reported no new immediate threats for the Zaporizhzhia NPP because alternative sources of water are available. But the risk is “dramatically increased,” according to the IAEA, and Russia is expected to try to use this factor to blackmail the whole world by threatening a possible nuclear accident at the plant.

Doubts about the Perpetrator

Speculation about the party responsible for the disaster began immediately. Some media outlets expressed skepticism that the Russians were behind the explosion. However, Russia has controlled the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant since the war began and mined the dam and some plant units in October 2022. At the same time, Ukrainian personnel were removed from plant operations.

These actions had the earmarks of a planned false-flag operation by which Russia would try to shift blame for some future catastrophe to Ukraine. President Zelensky, concerned by the intelligence, appealed to the international community to send mine sweepers and the IAEA monitoring mission to the plant.

Just a week before the explosion, the Russian government allowed investigators not to follow up on accidents occurring to high-risk objects as a result of "military actions" and terrorist attacks. This order applied to all the territories and sites occupied by Russia, including the Kakhovka dam and power plant.

The full extent of the losses caused by the dam's explosion is unclear, but obviously enormous. Renovating affected areas and restoring budget components lost to the dam breach and subsequent flooding will take years and billions of dollars. Even then, part of what has been lost can never be recovered.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Andrian Prokip

Andrian Prokip

Senior Associate, Ukraine;
Director, Energy Program, Ukrainian Institute for the Future
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more