On June 6, 2023, Russian forces blew up the 1950s-built Kakhovka Dam and destroyed its hydroelectric power plant, perpetrating their most far-reaching environmental war crime since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.1 It took only a few days for the torrent of water from the Kakhovka reservoir to reach the Black Sea, flooding all the downstream lowlands along the Dnipro River, causing widespread human suffering (52 fatalities reported as per June 19) and wreaking havoc on the ecosystems of the lower Dnipro. The grease, sewage, refuse and fertilizers carried by the current ended up in the Black Sea, and mines placed along the river banks exploded in its wake. The destruction of the dam has severely impaired biodiversity in the region and caused irreversible damage to Nyzhnodniprovskyi National Park, the Dnipro River delta and other Ramsar sites that preserve unique wetland ecosystems.
The disaster affected areas along the Dnipro upstream and downstream of the dam. The Kakhovka reservoir, which extends from the Dnipro Hydroelectric Station (HES) in Zaporizhzhia to the Kakhovka Dam, was drained of most of its water within a few days. A massive die-off of fish ensued in the shallower waters, with a significant impact on birds and mammals. The diminished water level of the Kakhovka reservoir, which supplies cooling water to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (Energodar), could cause a disaster there, as well as a shortage in the supply of drinking water to the cities of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro and other parts of southern Ukraine. The Kakhovka Reservoir served above all to irrigate farms in the steppe region. Should it be drained of all its water, vital crops will be endangered, with the potential to trigger a worldwide food crisis: many countries in Africa and Asia are dependent on Ukrainian grain.
The Kakhovka disaster was followed closely by the Ukrainian press and on social networks, including minute-by-minute updates on flooding levels, reports on evacuees and volunteers trying to rescue people and animals (livestock and pets, also wild animals), and a wide range of other consequences of the breach. Taken together, this coverage paints an alarming picture of the damage already wrought and greater dangers that lie ahead. Commentators have called out the destruction of the dam as an act of ecocide, environmental war crime and (eco)terrorism.
Villages on the left bank of the Dnieper, under Russian occupation, are underwater after the Kakhovka dam destruction on June 6, 2023.
The tragic stories of myriad lives upended by the flooding downstream of the Dnipro, along with shared photographs of new landscapes that have emerged along the drained bottom of the Kakhovka reservoir, have rekindled prewar debates about economic and environmental priorities in Ukrainian society: Should Ukrainian recovery and reconstruction efforts prioritize the Dnipro river or the Kakhovka reservoir, the Dnipro wetlands or the “sea”, nature or agriculture and industrialization, tradition or progress?2 The principal arguments on both sides are summarized in the following.
Dnipro wetlands and their past and present importance to Ukrainians
It was in primary school that I first heard stories from my teacher about “lush”, even “magical”, “oases” in Ukraine with dense river and lake systems and a wealth of diverse flora and fauna, rich sources of food and safety for local communities in times of war and famine. She told us how important the Dnipro wetlands were to local residents, and how large these storied wetlands loomed in the collective childhood memories of riparian communities. This was my introduction to the tragic history of the Dnipro wetlands, which had been flooded once before by the waters of the Kakhovka reservoir, back in the 1950s. I subsequently delved deeper, and my investigations corroborated my schoolteacher’s memories and helped to explain a shared nostalgia for the wetlands among her cohort of local residents.
Remains of Dnipro wetlands, 2020.
The Dnipro wetlands used to be a distinct zone of the southern steppe. Although there are wetlands all along the Dnipro river, the largest of them were located in the south. They were called Bazavluk and Konka Plavni and extended from present-day Zaporizhzhia to the confluence of the tributary Rohachyk River and the Dnipro. Wetlands were considered “oases” amid the hot dry steppe, and served as the material basis and mainstay of the local economy, the main source of income for these rural communities. This is why the subsequent building of the Kakhovka dam by Soviet fiat, which meant the destruction of the wetlands, was a “tragedy” that came to be deeply engraved in the collective memory of the local population.
This local tragedy spilled over into the national collective memory as well, which was rekindled after Ukraine’s independence in 1991. The Zaporozhzhian Cossacks had once built their fortresses and established their economic base in the Dnipro wetlands, which were known as Velykyi Luh or the “Great Meadow” at the time. In the 19th century, Velykyi Luh came to symbolize the heroic ancestors of the Ukrainian nation, who had established democratic institutions and fought off empires to defend their independence, and it became a cornerstone of Ukrainian national identity in the 1990s after the country gained its independence. It was regarded as “historical” Ukrainian territory – as opposed to the “non-historical” Northern Black Sea region known as Novorossiia (New Russia), the area colonized by the Russian Empire.
The Kakhovka dam in 2013. The rupture occurred at the handling gantry.
Kakhovka reservoir and Soviet modernizers
After the construction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant and dam, the Bazavluk and Konka wetlands were almost entirely submerged by the waters of the Kakhovka reservoir. Damming the river was not a new idea: it had been proposed and discussed in the 19th century. Construction of the first Dnipro hydroelectric power station in Zaporizhzhia began in the Soviet era, in 1927, as part of the State Electrification Plan. The “Great Dnipro”, an idea formulated in the early 1930s, involved building several hydroelectric plants and creating a cascade of reservoirs on the Dnipro for energy, transportation and other purposes. Under Stalin’s “Nature Transformation Plan”, the Kakhovka plant and reservoir were to serve a special purpose in the south: not to generate electricity, like the other hydroelectric plants on the Dnipro, but to grow crops on a huge scale in the steppes of southern Ukraine. The reservoir and a system of canals were to irrigate fertile but arid land in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts as well as in Crimea. In other words, the object of the Kakhovka reservoir was to provide a bulwark against the natural risks of steppe farming.
Nova Kakhovka, designed by Oleksandr Gubarev, 1953.
But it was assigned a new purpose in a 1952 decree: to stimulate industrial development in the south. The construction of the Kakhovka hydropower plant (HES) began in 1950 as decreed by the Soviet Council of Ministers.3 The Kakhovka reservoir was filled to a depth of 16 m from 1955 to 1958. The preparation of the reservoir basin required the clearing of trees, the destruction and relocation of existing administrative and residential buildings and roads and railways and resettlement of the population. The plan involved flooding 219 thousand hectares of land (including 56.8 thousand hectares of farmland and 63 thousand hectares of forest and shrublands) and 17,480 homes. Only 8.4 thousand hectares of land and 8,270 homes were to be protected by additional dams. 34 thousand people from 75 settlements had to be resettled. Industrial facilities, roads, railways and communication lines had to be relocated out of the flood zone.
Nevertheless, locals were particularly distraught by the flooding of the Dnipro wetlands, which gave rise to the saying: “Our new sea is our new sorrow.” There was virtually no consultation or discussion about the plan to flood the wetlands. The experts had to rubber-stamp the Soviet authorities’ decision and did not ask locals for their approval. However, period archives do include Soviet experts’ reports seeking to convince the government to protect the wetlands from flooding by means of another dam. The arguments were based not on the wetlands’ importance to the rural population or their historical significance, but on their ecological value and their potential economic value for Soviet agriculture, providing ideal conditions for growing valuable crops such as kenaf or “Southern hemp”. But these assessments were ignored and the wetlands flooded.
In building the Kakhovka hydropower station and reservoir, the central Soviet regime intended to create a new and radically different landscape there by submerging the wetlands under a new man-made “sea”, thereby consolidating the Soviet economic and political presence in the region. The Soviet authorities played up the benefits of the Kakhovka reservoir, but local communities still remembered their “oasis in the steppe”. Varying and often dissenting views can be found in the oral histories, literature and cinema of the period, one of the most revealing of which is “Poem of the Sea”, a 1958 film by Ukrainian Soviet director Oleksandr Dovzhenko.4 Although the narrative is contrived to stress the benefits of social progress, this film is more about the tragic history of Ukrainians and of Ukraine’s Dnipro wetlands, in particular, under Soviet rule.
Ambivalence about the wetlands and the Kakhovka reservoir has persisted from the very beginning of the initial project to the present day. It took several decades for locals to get used to their new environment and the “new sea”, as they called the reservoir, in place of the Dnipro River and wetlands. The Kakhovka reservoir was to become a mainstay of the local economy and the livelihoods of latter-day residents, many of whom do not remember the wetlands at all. It serves vital purposes for local industry as well as for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, navigation, irrigation etc. And for locals like me, born and raised in a small city in Zaporizhzhia oblast on the banks of the Kakhovka reservoir, it is deeply troubling to see the drained floor of a body of water that had become a prominent fixture of our landscape and our lives.
The history of the Kakhovka dam, its construction by the Soviet regime in the 1950s and its recent destruction by the Russian invaders, has hugely impacted the lives and welfare of local communities past and present. Its future is now the subject of widespread debate in the Ukrainian press and on social media. Should Ukraine rebuild the dam and refill the reservoir in order to restore the regional economy, thereby disregarding the ecological and historical importance of the wetlands? Or should Ukraine sacrifice economic considerations and start thinking instead about restoring the Dnipro wetlands, a vital natural feature of the steppe environment?
Opinions clearly diverge. In the immediate aftermath of the Kakhovka dam breach, officials at Ukrhydroenergo, the Ukrainian state-owned company that runs the hydro-power plants, insisted that the dam would be rebuilt and that plans were already being drafted to that effect. And I can say that their plans will be persistent. One of the evidence is the plan to raise the level of Oleksandrivsk reservoir on the Pivdennyi Buh river which will flood the historical site of Buzkyi Hard and negatively impact on the environment, which they are trying to implement even without approval of local residents and activist opposition for the last several years.
So a new controversy is brewing: between government officials and modernizers who view the region’s future solely through the prism of economic development, on the one hand, and those who care deeply about its history and ecology and seek to prevent another disaster on the Dnipro, on the other. When I first began studying the history of the Dnipro wetlands, I wondered whether it might be desirable and possible to drain the Kakhovka reservoir. Now that it the reservoir has actually been drained by forces beyond our control, it might be high time for us to consider keeping it that way.
Анна Олененко. “Новое наше море – новое наше горе”: Конфликт между украинским и советским в борьбе за конструирование ландшафта Нижнего Поднепровья. Ab Imperio. 1/2019. C. 125–152.
“Blasting of Kakhovka Dam: A ‘green choice’ test in Ukraine’s revival efforts.” https://uwecworkgroup.info/blasting-of-kakhovka-dam-a-green-choice-test-in-ukraines-revival-efforts
Постановление Совета Министров СССР от 20.09.1950 г. “О строительстве Каховской гидроэлектростанции на р. Днепр, Южно-Украинского канала и об орошении южных районов Украины и северных районов Крыма”. Решения партии и правительства по хозяйственным вопросам. В 5-ти тт. Москва, 1968. Т. 3. С. 648-651.