What the destruction of Ukraine’s Kakhovka dam means for local residents

Rescue workers with residents of Kherson, Ukraine

On Tuesday, rescue workers help residents evacuate a flooded neighborhood in Kherson, Ukraine. (Libkos/AP)

Tuesday’s destruction of the massive Soviet-era Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River in the Ukrainian town of Nova Kakhovka has damaged homes and poses a threat to people, animals, crops and public infrastructure. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the dam collapse, which he blamed on Russia, an “environmental bomb of mass destruction”.

The dam is part of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station in Ukraine’s Kherson region, which has been occupied by Russia as part of the war against its smaller neighbor. The Dnipro River is the front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces.

The Russian and Ukrainian governments accuse each other, saying the dam was destroyed by an explosion orchestrated by their enemy. US agencies have intelligence suggesting Russia is the culprit and a senior NATO official told NBC News that Russia, rather than Ukraine, will benefit from the disaster.

According to Reuters, the dam is 98 feet high and 2 miles long, and the reservoir it created holds 4.3 cubic miles of water – about as much as the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Releasing that much water will have massive repercussions.

Floods, property damage

A view of the damaged Kakhovka dam

A view of the damaged Kakhovka dam. (Ukrainian presidential office via AP)

The Ukrainian government says more than 40,000 people along the Dnipro are at risk of flooding. The Russian and Ukrainian governments have ordered evacuations.

“Images from Kherson showed roofs floating on the river and other half-submerged houses, and floodwaters are expected to peak by Wednesday,” Yahoo News reported.

“Ukrainian officials said evacuations were underway,” USA Today reported. “The Russian-installed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, a town of about 45,000, said his town was under water, state media reported.”

“Residents are sitting on the roofs of their houses waiting to be rescued,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Telegram.

Water levels are expected to peak Wednesday morning.

Threats to human health

Local residents of Kherson

Kherson residents take what they can during an evacuation. (Libkos/AP)

In addition to the risk of drowning, floods create a series of health risks. Because floodwaters pick up debris from buildings they overrun, they “contain many things that can be harmful to health,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns.

These include downed power lines, human and animal waste, hazardous chemicals from industrial facilities, and sharp or heavy objects. Contact with any of these products can lead to wounds, skin rashes, gastrointestinal illnesses and tetanus.

Flood waters can also contaminate wells, aquifers and reservoirs, rendering drinking water unsafe to drink.

“More and more water is arriving every hour. It’s very dirty,” Yevheniya, a woman from Nova Kakhovka, told Reuters.

“Polluted water supplies and wider environmental consequences are anticipated as a result of the incident,” in Ukraine, Time magazine noted.

Damage to key infrastructure

Red Cross volunteers help an elderly woman

Red Cross volunteers helping an elderly woman in Kherson. (Vladyslav Musiienko/Reuters)

According to CNN, Ukraine’s Energy Ministry said “nearly 12,000 people in the Kherson region lost power due to flooding and that ‘there may be problems with the water supply.’

“We understand that there will be big problems regarding the supply of drinking water,” Zelensky said. “There will be major drinking water problems even where there is no flooding. Throughout the region.

Then there is the nearby nuclear power plant.

“The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant depends on water from the Dnieper River to cool its diesel generators and emergency reactors,” Time reported. “Currently, the water reservoir is shrinking by two inches per hour, which means the cooling water supply should last at least a few days. The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency wrote in a statement. that “there is no immediate risk to the safety of the plant”.

There is also the water supply of the Crimean peninsula which comes from the river.

“The destruction of the dam risks lowering the water level of the Soviet-era Northern Crimean Canal, which has traditionally supplied Crimea with 85% of its water needs,” Reuters reported. “Most of this water is used for agriculture, some for industries on the Black Sea peninsula and about a fifth for drinking water and other public needs.”

Animals and cultures

A local resident walks along a flooded street in Kherson, Ukraine

A local resident negotiates a flooded street in Kherson. (Libkos/AP)

An unknown number of farm animals and pets have already drowned due to the dam breach. According to a Facebook post by animal rescue group UAnimals, all 260 animals at the Kazkova Dibrova zoo in Russian-occupied Nova Kakhovka died in the flood, except for swans and ducks.

Ukraine is a major wheat exporter and the flooding of farms is expected to damage crops. As a result, wheat and corn futures rose on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

“The short-term impact is the damage to grain silos and other equipment located on the lower banks of the river,” Sergey Feofilov, director of UkrAgroConsult, told Bloomberg News. “It is unclear which silos, if the grain is in the silos and how much grain could rot. The long term impact will be much more dramatic.

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