‘Biggest ecocide in Ukraine’: Thousands of species threatened by breach at Kakhovka Dam

The breach of the southernmost dam on the Dnipro River reservoir cascade on Tuesday forced thousands to evacuate the area found on its downward stream.

Aside from the damage done to infrastructure and human life, the flooding also risks permanently destroying the rich animal habitats and plant species found along Dnipro’s banks.

The flooded region is home to a significant amount of forests and reserves. According to data collected by Ukrainian institutions so far, the breach and the subsequent flooding represents the most severe environmental damage that took place since February of last year.

“Due to the comprehensive damage done to the area, this is the biggest ecocide in Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale invasion,” Deputy Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources Oleksandr Krasnolutskyi told journalists in Kyiv on Wednesday afternoon.

“We understand that what happened will result in colossal environmental damage to our ecosystems,” said Krasnolutskyi, claiming the flooding will “destroy the biodiversity and natural reserves” along its path.

Ukrainian ecologists predict that the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, home to thousands of species, and the Oleshky Sands desert will be the most affected by the flooding.

Streets are flooded in Kherson, Ukraine, Wednesday, June 7, 2023 after the walls of the Kakhovka dam collapsed.

The Kakhovsk Water Reserve existed above the dam, and was used by migrating birds in the area. The fact that the floods could carry pollutants, heavy metal and fertiliser all the way down to the Black Sea will severely affect marine life in the area.

Around 70% of Ukraine’s territory is used for agrarian purposes, which means that the flora and fauna are largely focused around its rivers.

“Along the territory where the water is flowing, there were natural parks created with the goal of preserving threatened or unique animal and plant species found on the Red List. We are worried these species will stop existing,” continued Krasnolutskyi.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species is a comprehensive information source on the global extinction risk status of animal, fungus, and plant species.

Areas in Ukraine that are part of the Emerald Network, a pan-European network of areas of special conservation interest, have also been affected.

“The Emerald Network includes territories intended for bird migration and nesting. European regulation stipulates that these areas need to be protected in order to not disrupt the migration patterns of these species,” he said.

The Dnipro is Ukraine’s biggest and most important river, and the local population has a deep emotional attachment to the estuary which played a central role in Ukrainian history as well as agriculture.

This satellite image shows an overview of the damage on the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine on Tuesday. 6 June 2023

From the first Nordic occupants of the territory who sailed the wide river downstream to the Khazar and Cossack fighters who created the first cities on its banks, the Dnipro is the basis for much of Ukraine’s modern identity — making the fact that the dam was compromised even more painful for the local population.

Russia currently occupies what is known as the Left Bank of the Dnipro, found on its east, making it harder for the ministry to react in affected areas.

In early November 2022, Russia opened the spillways at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, and the reservoir fell to its lowest level in three decades, putting irrigation and drinking water resources, as well as cooling systems at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, at risk.

In recent months, the water in the Kakhovka Dam was kept at dangerously low levels.

According to the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration, the motive may have been to flood the area south of the dam to prevent Ukrainian forces from crossing the river.

After reaching a low point, the water level began to rise after the Ukrainian government began filling it with water from other reservoirs on the Dnipro River.

In the period of mid-February to late May 2023, either deliberately or negligently, the damaged dam at Nova Kakhovka was not adjusted to accommodate the seasonal increase in water flow. Due to this, water washed over the top of the dam and flooded land upstream.

The ministry also announced that it is contact with the biggest European governmental and civil society organisations focused on environmental issues, “to demand that they condemn Russia and exclude it from environmental conventions.”

“So far, there have been no major reactions among non-governmental organisations to what has happened,” he concluded.

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