July 2023

Act of terror or self-sabotage?

While the jury is out on who is responsible, the cost of the Nova Kakhovka dam breach is starting to be reckoned.   Tanya Vatsa  assesses the immediate impact of this environmental disaster, and the long term implications further afield

The Russian-occupied Kherson region in Southern Ukraine has recently witnessed a catastrophic breach of a massive dam. The breach has caused devastation for civilians as well as to the environment on a monumental scale. Setting aside the critical rescue and evacuation operations, the uncertainty behind the cause of the collapse is very concerning. Kyiv has blamed Moscow for this vile ‘act of terrorism’ while Moscow holds Kyiv responsible for the ‘sabotage’.

The Nova Kakhovka Dam is one of six dams in Ukraine along the Dnipro River, running from its northern border into the Black Sea. These dams are largely responsible for providing drinking water and generating power in the country. This particular dam is the only one currently under Russian control while the other five are controlled by Kyiv. This Soviet-era dam was built as part of the Nova Kakhovka hydro-electric power project in the Kherson region. The dam’s reservoir holds a large quantity of water, said to be equivalent to that of the Great Salt Lake in the United States. Apart from providing water to the surrounding settlements, villages and towns, the reservoir also feeds the North Crimean Canal, providing the bulk of the water supply to the Crimean peninsula. The reservoir is also responsible for providing the ‘coolant’ for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is currently under Moscow’s control. Hence the breach and collapse of the dam will undoubtedly have irreversible repercussions for Southern Ukraine, especially the Kherson region. Currently, the Russians controls the left (or southern) bank while the right (or northern) bank is controlled by Ukraine.

Nova Kakhovka Dam breach: Ecocide, weapon of war

The collapse of the huge structure has caused vast swathes of land to be submerged, flooding Oleshky, Kardashinka, Gola Preston, Mykolaiv and several other surrounding villages. Several miles of farmland have been decimated and villages flooded. The floods have caused a severe scarcity of drinking water and caused the power supply to be cut off. There have been reports of people drowning while hundreds more remain trapped in water-logged areas, teetering on the brink of starvation while waiting to be rescued.

In addition, the massive breach has exposed the riverbed, depriving aquatic animals of their habitat and causing them to die on a huge scale. It has also exacerbated an already exceptionally dangerous situation by exposing unexploded shells from previous Russian offensives. Meanwhile, the water has also dislodged landmines and carried them downstream, making it difficult to track their location and increasing the risk to locals as well as to rescue teams and volunteers.

Since the dam breach is one of the biggest man-made disasters of our times, it is being called the ‘new Chernobyl’. The sudden surge in water levels has led to the deaths of farm animals and pets while a nearby zoo had reported the death of all 300 animals in the aftermath of the flood. The long term impact threatens rendering several acres of agricultural land unusable due to the shortage of water and widespread damage to reclamation systems — the land in the Kherson region was arid before the reservoir was built for irrigation, hence there is a threat of desertification without the necessary water supply.

Kyiv has blamed Moscow for this vile ‘act of terrorism’, while Moscow holds Kyiv responsible for the ‘sabotage’.

Receding water has also contaminated the Dnipro River with large quantities of pollutants– it’s reported that 150 tons of oil were spilled into the river, with a further leakage of 300 tons anticipated. In addition, the wells in the flooded regions will be unusable after the water has receded, because of contamination by organic and industrial waste. The flood has also made the clean-up operation very difficult and animal corpses risk causing an epidemic in the region. Experts predict that the impact will continue for decades, hence why the dam breach has been called an ‘ecocide’, due to the monumental scale of the disaster. Given that civilians were deliberately targeted, the act (committed during an enemy occupation) is being equated to a war crime.

While both sides have condemned the colossal scale of the tragedy, Kyiv and Moscow continue to point fingers at each other. According to engineers, the dam was built to withstand external force; hence the cause of the breach has to be internal, with strategic points within the structure being precisely targeted. The possibility of a structural failure has been dismissed, given its long-standing viability and the timing of the failure (during Russian occupation). Most of the global community stands with Kyiv in its belief that the damage was deliberately caused by the Russians to impede the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

Indeed, Moscow is notorious for targeting critical infrastructures to disrupt water and power supplies in regions they have tried to occupy in Ukraine. There are also reports of shelling by the Russian forces in areas to which people were being evacuated from flooded villages. The Russian-appointed mayor of Nova Kakhovka had down-played the impact of the dam breach giving an assurance that the situation was ‘under control’, despite reports of many people missing on both sides.

Experts predict that the impact will continue for decades, hence why the dam breach has been called an ‘ecocide’

According to Russia, Kyiv’s act of ‘sabotage’ was a means of creating a distraction from its failing counter-offensive. Putin has also blamed Ukraine for creating an excuse to cutoff water supplies to Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014; Kyiv had stopped the supply of water from the reservoir in protest against the wrongful annexation and the supply was restored by Moscow last year after its occupation of part of the Kherson region.

The Ukrainian army has claimed that the much awaited counter-offensive is yet to be launched and that the dam breach was a deliberate act to instill terror in people living in the region–Putin’s strategy from the beginning of the invasion. Irrespective of which side is responsible for the disaster, the dam’s destruction could have an adverse effect on the nuclear power plant, which uses water from the reservoir as a coolant. The International Atomic Energy Agency has given an assurance that there is no immediate threat to the nuclear plant but the situation is being monitored closely for any escalation.

The dam’s destruction has killed animals too
The dam’s destruction has killed animals too

In spite of investigations being led by experts of various nationalities from influential organisations such as the United Nations, Amnesty, etc, no firm conclusions have yet been reached concerning responsibility for this disaster. Meanwhile, search and rescue operations are ongoing and are mostly facilitated by Kyiv while evacuation operations and delivery of vital provisions to those trapped are being carried out by NGOs and international humanitarian bodies. Despite the ongoing work to salvage the situation and to save what is left of the flooded regions, the long-term impact cannot be ignored. The environmental impact will affect people and regions far and wide, as oceans become contaminated and land can no longer be used for farming. The most important message, however, remains – that there are no winners in war and that the ordinary person pays a very high price as political scores are settled between world leaders. The UN secretary General, António Guterres has rightly described it as ‘yet another example of the horrific price of war on people’.

Tanya Vatsa, a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow and an incoming LLM candidate at the University of Edinburgh, is a former assistant advocate. She is currently a geopolitical analyst with The Synergia Foundation, an India-based think tank. Her writing on international relations has been published by the Diplomatist, International Policy Digest and The Kootneeti