In the early morning of 6 June 2023, the Nova Kakhovka Dam near Kherson, Ukraine, breached. While the Ukrainian government blamed Russia for blowing up the dam, Russia announced that Ukrainian shelling had damaged the dam to an extent that it broke. Satellite imagery showed parts of the dam missing and water flooding the territories below the dam on both riverbanks – the Northern one controlled by Ukraine and the Southern one controlled by Russia.
For the evacuation of around 80 communities being flooded, the Ukrainian authorities were left with just a few hours. In the territories under Ukrainian control 17,000 people were immediately evacuated, on both sides of the river 40,000 people were in need of evacuation. The flooding peaked fast with water levels already dropping in some areas in the afternoon on the same day and the flood crest expected within two days. This indicates the massive breach in the dam, which released large amounts of water at high discharge levels within a very short period of time.
Numerous international policy-makers, heads of state and international organisations have voiced their concerns over the breach of the dam, supported by academics and other experts concerned about the human, social and environmental effects of the events. Ukraine called for a UNSC meeting, which was held the same day, without any vote or any conclusions being drawn.
While the details and background are still not fully clear, the wider and multifaceted short- and long-term consequences of this act as well the judicial and legal situation will be assessed in this short blog. It provides a first overview of the potential implications of the event and suggests five different types of consequences that should particularly be monitored.
Satellite image of the Nova Kakhovka Dam before its destruction (Google Earth 2023)
SHORT- AND LONG-TERM CONSEQUENCES
The dam is destroyed and in foreseeable time it will not be possible to rebuild it – for technical as well as political reasons. While the debated act of weaponising water and the visible damage are at the centre of the debate, the impact has multi-facetted consequences in the short as well as in the long run.
The destruction of the dam targeted (1) the civil population who have been deprived of their livelihoods, displaced and even killed. After floods it is questionable if or when people can return home as houses might be damaged or destroyed, livestock killed and basic infrastructures, such as drinking water, massively damaged. Already now, drinking water provision seems to be severely challenged, especially in places such as Kryvyi Rih, a town that depends to 70% of its drinking water supply on the Kakhovka reservoir. And the Ukrainian government warns that germs and chemicals in the floodwater will poison wells and lakes and increase the risk of water-borne diseases among the population. In addition, the Ukrainian authorities and the Red Cross warn that land mines are spilled into the water, become floating mines and being moved to other areas, including villages and cities.
Moreover, the flooding has a massive impact on (2) the ecosystem, destroying or, at least, severely damaging parts of the Dnipro River. The flooding itself has an impact on flora and fauna along the river, including in the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, protected under UNESCO, and two national parks along the river and at its mouth. Moreover, it has spilled at least 150 tonnes of oil into the river system and 300 tonnes more are at risk of poisoning the river further as gas stations, industrial sites and other installations are flooded. Additionally, industrial chemicals will most likely be spilled into the river and can remain in the ecosystem. When the flood levels decline, the authorities also expect a fish kill. Effects could also be felt in the Black Sea, the recipient water body of the Dnipro River.
The destruction of the dam and the hydropower has an impact on the (3) energy security of the country, as the hydroelectric power plant, which had a capacity of 330 MW, at the dam had been destroyed in the events. While the overall countrywide electricity supplies are not at risk as the hydropower plant only contributes around 1% of the overall electricity of Ukraine, there are almost 12,000 people in the Kherson region that had lost power as a consequence of the flooding, according to Ukraine’s Energy Ministry. As the reservoir behind the dam provided water reserves for the cooling systems of the nuclear power plant Zaporizhzhia, the destruction of the dam might, however, have an impact on nuclear energy production and nuclear safety.
Also Ukraine’s (4) agriculture is affected as around 10,000 hectares of agricultural land have been flooded on the Northern shore, in the Cherson Region, while on the Southern Bank, Russian-occupied, a significantly bigger agricultural area seems to be affected. The dam breach and its consequences are feared to leave irrigation systems in the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro regions without a water source, threatening fields and harvests. Beyond the immediate flooding, around 31 irrigation systems might be damaged or destroyed which will consequently not or only insufficiently operate in the next years, most likely affecting agricultural production and food security in the longer run. Moreover, the destruction of Kakhovka Dam will also likely cause the drying up of the Northern Crimea Canal, an already very contested infrastructure. This will further affect the many agricultural industries based in the region, which have already been affected by the war and significantly reduced their production or entirely ceased it. A considerable loss of jobs among the local population – estimates ranging from 280,000 to 420,000 jobs – but also implications on global food security need to be monitored.
The destruction of the dam as also consequences for (5) the military operations as the flooding creates obstacles that might slow down the widely expected Ukrainian offensive. For example, the dam was one of the very few possibilities to cross the river with military vehicles in the region. And flooded areas from which waters recede slowly are unsuitable for the movement of tanks and other heavy machinery. In addition, various civil protection forces and efforts in Ukraine are currently bound to addressing the consequences of the flooding. The destruction of Nova Kakhovka dam is, moreover, a dramatic case of the frequently observed attacks on and destructions of critical civilian infrastructures in Ukraine. This was so far particularly true for energy installations and power plants but also water infrastructures have played a role and been under attack since the beginning of the war.
THE LEGAL SITUATION
Destroying water infrastructure – whether in offence or defence – is clearly forbidden by international humanitarian law. The 1977 Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions forbids the destruction of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, which includes drinking water installation and irrigation works, for the purpose of preventing to use of those by the population as well as against installations containing dangerous forces. It specifically mentions dams and dykes, given the tremendous damage their destruction can cause. The 1977 Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD) supports this, committing parties to the Convention to not engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects.
As both, Ukraine and Russia, are parties to these international humanitarian law provisions, the latter would apply if the dam breached due to an attack. In case the breach of the dam was due to a series of unfortunate events, starting e.g. with earlier damages or inappropriate dam management, this would be questionable. Likewise, if Ukraine had sabotaged the dam on what their own territory, this would not amount to an attack under the aforementioned instruments. In addition, Russia as the occupier of the territory where the dam is located, was responsible for protecting such infrastructure from destruction, no matter through which events or forces.
Right now, we still do not know enough to clearly evaluate the legal consequences of the dam breach, in particular whether the dam was damaged due to direct military attacks or due to other reasons (sabotage, neglect, inappropriate management). All evidence does, however, point to a situation in which the destruction of the dam could fall under international humanitarian law and amount to a war crime and possibly also a crime against humanity, adding to earlier allegations that led to the issuance of an arrest warrant against Russian President Putin in March 2023.
The next days and weeks will reveal a more comprehensive picture and allow for a more detailed assessment of the event and its consequences – for the river, its riparian populations and ecosystems, but also the development of the military and political situation. The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership will therefore continue to closely monitor the situation. Stay tuned for a more detailed analysis of the dam breach and its consequences in the next days.
The above blog piece was authored by Planetary Security's Tobias von Lossow and Susanne Schmeier from IHE Delft and was originally published by the Water Peace and Security partnership. To view the original publication, use the link here.
Tobias has previously provided his insight on the weaponization of water in the Russian invasion of Ukraine in an interview with Politico which can be viewed here. To learn more about how water can be used as a weapon or tool in conflict, see his earlier work on: Water as Weapon: IS on the Euphrates and Tigris or The Rebirth of Water as a Weapon: IS in Syria and Iraq.
Photo credit: Armyinfor licensed under CC BY 4.0