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

Rescue workers with residents of Kherson, Ukraine
Rescue workers help residents evacuate from a flooded neighborhood in Kherson, Ukraine, on Tuesday. (Libkos/AP)

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

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

The governments of Russia and Ukraine are blaming each other, saying the dam was destroyed by an explosion orchestrated by their enemy. U.S. agencies have intelligence suggesting that Russia is the culprit and a senior NATO official told NBC News that Russia, rather than Ukraine, would stand to benefit from the disaster.

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

Flooding, property damage

A view of the damaged Kakhovka dam
A view of the damaged Kakhovka dam. (Ukraine's Presidential Office via AP)

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

“Footage from Kherson showed rooftops floating down the river and other homes half submerged, and floodwaters are expected to peak by Wednesday,” Yahoo News reported.

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

"Residents are sitting on the roofs of their homes 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 belongings they can during an evacuation. (Libkos/AP)

Aside from the risk of drowning, flooding creates a range of health hazards. Because floodwaters pick up debris from the buildings they invade, they “contain many things that may harm health,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns.

Those include downed power lines, human and animal waste, dangerous chemicals from industrial facilities, and sharp or heavy objects. Contact with any of these may result in wounds, skin rashes, gastrointestinal illness and tetanus.

Floodwater can also contaminate wells, aquifers and reservoirs, making drinking water unsafe to consume.

“More and more water is coming every hour. It’s very dirty,” Yevheniya, a woman in 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 assisting an elderly woman in Kherson. (Vladyslav Musiienko/Reuters)

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

“We understand that there will be big problems regarding the delivery of drinking water,” Zelensky said. “There will be big problems with drinking water even where there is no flooding. In the whole region.”

Then there is the nearby nuclear power plant.

“The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant relies on water from the Dnieper River to cool its emergency diesel generators and reactors,” Time reported. “Currently, the water reservoir is falling by two inches per hour, meaning that the supply of cooling water should last at least a few days. The U.N.’s 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 for the Crimean Peninsula that comes from the river.

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

Animals and crops

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 the animal rescue group UAnimals, all of the 260 animals at the Kazkova Dibrova zoo in Russian-occupied Nova Kakhovka died in the flood except for the swans and ducks.

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

“The short-term impact is the damage of grain silos and other equipment situated in the low banks of the river,” Sergey Feofilov, head of UkrAgroConsult, told Bloomberg News. “Exactly which silos, whether grains are in the silos, and how much of the grain might be rotting is unclear immediately now. The long-term impact will be much more dramatic.”