Dam collapse in Ukraine is both a fast disaster and a slow ecological disaster

KHERSON, Ukraine (AP) — The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam was a quick-fire disaster that is rapidly evolving into a long-term environmental disaster affecting drinking water, food supplies and ecosystems reaching the Black Sea.

Near-term dangers can be seen from outer space – tens of thousands of flooded patches of land, with more to come. Experts say the long-term consequences will be generational.

For every flooded house and farm, there are fields upon fields of newly planted grain, fruit and vegetables whose irrigation canals are drying up. Thousands of fish were left panting on the mudflats. Young waterfowl have lost their nests and food sources. Countless trees and plants were drowned.

If water is life, then the drying up of the Kakhovka reservoir creates an uncertain future for the region of southern Ukraine which was an arid plain until the Dnieper dam 70 years ago. The Kakhovka Dam was the latest in a system of six Soviet-era dams on the river, which flows from Belarus to the Black Sea.

Then the Dnieper became part of the front line after the invasion of Russia last year.

“All this territory formed its own particular ecosystem, including the reservoir,” said Kateryna Filiuta, protected habitats expert for the Ukrainian nature conservation group.

THE SHORT TERM

Ihor Medunov is an integral part of this ecosystem. His job as a hunting and fishing guide effectively ended with the start of the war, but he stayed on his small island with his four dogs because it seemed safer than the alternative. Yet for months, knowing that Russian forces controlled the dam downstream worried him.

The six dams along the Dnieper were designed to work in tandem, adapting to each other as water levels rose and fell from season to season. When Russian forces seized the Kakhovka dam, the entire system fell into oblivion.

Whether deliberately or simply inadvertently, Russian forces have allowed water levels to fluctuate uncontrollably. They dropped dangerously low in the winter, then soared to historic highs as snowmelt and spring rains piled into the reservoir. Until Monday, the waters were lapping in Medunov’s living room.

Now, with the destruction of the dam, he is seeing his livelihood literally crumble. The waves that stood on his doorstep a week ago are now a muddy distance away.

“The water is flowing before our eyes,” he told The Associated Press. “Everything that was in my house, what we worked for all our lives, everything is gone. First it drowned, then when the water left it rotted.

Since the dam collapsed on Tuesday, the turbulent waters have uprooted landmines, torn arms and ammunition caches and carried 150 tonnes of machine oil to the Black Sea. Entire cities were submerged to the roofs and thousands of animals died in a large national park currently under Russian occupation.

Rainbow-colored slicks already blanket the murky, placid waters around flooded Kherson, the capital of the province of the same name in southern Ukraine. Abandoned houses reek of rot as cars, first floor rooms and basements remain submerged. Huge slicks seen in aerial footage stretch across the river from the city’s port and industrial facilities, demonstrating the scale of the Dnieper’s new pollution problem.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Agriculture estimated that 10,000 hectares (24,000 acres) of agricultural land was under water in the territory of the Ukrainian-controlled province of Kherson, and “much more than that” in the territory occupied by Russia.

Farmers are already feeling the pain of the reservoir’s disappearance. Dmytro Neveselyi, mayor of the village of Maryinske, said everyone in the community of 18,000 will be affected within days.

“Today and tomorrow we will be able to provide drinking water to the population,” he said. After that, who knows. “The canal that fed our water reservoir also stopped flowing.”

THE LONG TERM

The waters slowly began to recede on Friday, revealing the looming environmental disaster.

The reservoir, which had a capacity of 18 cubic kilometers (14.5 million acre-feet), was the last stop on hundreds of miles of river that flowed through Ukraine’s industrial and agricultural heartland. For decades, its flow carried runoff of chemicals and pesticides that settled in the mud at the bottom.

Ukrainian authorities are testing the level of toxins in the mud, which is in danger of turning into toxic dust with the onset of summer, said Eugene Simonov, an environmental scientist with the Working Group on the Environmental Consequences of the War in Ukraine, a non-profit organization of activists and researchers.

The extent of long-term damage depends on the movement of the front lines in an unpredictable war. Can the dam and reservoir be restored if fighting continues there? Should the region be allowed to become an arid plain again?

Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrij Melnyk called the destruction of the dam “the worst environmental disaster in Europe since the Chernobyl disaster”.

Fish and waterfowl that had come to depend on the reservoir “will lose the majority of their spawning and feeding grounds,” Simonov said.

Downstream of the dam are about 50 protected areas, including three national parks, said Simonov, co-author of an October article warning of potentially disastrous consequences, both upstream and downstream, if the dam Kakhovka had just been damaged.

It will take a decade for flora and fauna populations to return and adapt to their new reality, according to Filiuta. And maybe longer for the millions of Ukrainians who lived there.

In Maryinske, the farming community, they search the archives for old wells which they will dig up, clean and analyze to see if the water is still safe to drink.

“Because a territory without water will become a desert,” said the mayor.

Further, all of Ukraine will have to consider whether to restore the reservoir or think differently about the future of the region, its water supply and a large swath of territory that is suddenly vulnerable to invasive species – just as it was vulnerable. to the invasion. which caused the disaster to begin with.

“The worst consequences will probably not directly affect me or you, but rather our future generations, because this man-made disaster is not transparent,” Filiuta said. “The consequences in the future will be for our children or grandchildren, just as we are the ones currently suffering the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, not our ancestors.”

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Hinnant contributed from Paris. Illia Novikov contributed from Kyiv, along with Jamey Keaten.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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