A month has passed since the collapse of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine caused one of the world’s most devastating environmental catastrophes of recent years. The images will live long in the memory – floodwater lapping at the rooftops of Kherson, while civilians attempting to flee their homes in rubber dinghies are targeted by Russian shelling. A video of Ukraine’s chief rabbi, Moshe Reuven Azman, diving for cover as he comes under fire from Russian snipers has been viewed more than a million times. Ukrainian officials say over 100 people died following the dam’s collapse on 6 June as the water hurtled downstream.
Today the floodwaters have receded from Kherson and water levels are almost back to normal, but what remains is a sea of mud. Residents have returned and are busy clearing the streets and attempting to renovate their homes, which emit odours of damp and mould. People say they are grateful the disaster happened at the beginning of summer, so that their homes have time to dry out before the winter. The city centre still comes under daily shelling from across the river.
The floods are yet another tragedy that the residents of Kherson have had to bear. The city has suffered more than almost anywhere else in the course of 16 months of war – occupied in the early days, the people terrorised and unable to escape, then incessantly bombarded with artillery and rocket fire from across the River Dnieper since the Russian withdrawal last November, deprived of drinking water and electricity.
Outside the city, in lower-lying areas below the dam, huge lakes remain in places where there was no water before. The floods destroyed villages, farmland and nature reserves. Crops were lost across vast swathes of farmland as the floodwater raced through, taking with it pollutants including oil and agricultural chemicals, which all gushed into the Black Sea. Further west, residents of Mykolaiv have been warned not to drink tap water, go swimming or catch fish after Cholera-like bacteria were detected in the water. Odesa’s once beautiful coastline has transformed into “a garbage dump and animal cemetery,” according to Ukrainian officials.
Of even greater concern are the regions upstream of the dam, where the vast reservoir lies almost empty, changing the entire ecosystem. Half a million people have had their drinking water supply cut off and businesses, agriculture and wildlife have all suffered a massive impact. Covering more than 2,000 square kilometres, the reservoir spanned the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Dnipropetrovsk districts, and was known by locals as the Kakhovka Sea because it was so big that they could not see the opposite side.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky described the dam’s collapse as “an environmental bomb of mass destruction”. Kyiv and Moscow have blamed each other for the dam’s destruction. Ukraine is investigating the event as a war crime and possible ecocide, and estimates the cost of remedying the destruction at 1.2 billion euros.
Preliminary findings from a team of international legal experts working with the Ukrainian prosecutors indicate that it was “highly likely” that the dam’s collapse was triggered by explosives planted by the Russians. Evidence documented by the New York Times also suggests that an explosion in the dam’s concrete base detonated by Russia is the likely cause. The Soviet-era dam has been under Russian control since the early stages of the war last year.
Russia’s motivations for such an attack are manifold. Not only would it disrupt and potentially stall Ukraine’s advances and undermine the narrative of its counter-offensive, but also cut hydroelectric power and water supplies, divert resources and potentially help erode the will of the Ukrainian people to resist. But Russia accuses Kyiv of sabotaging the hydroelectric dam to cut off a key water source for Crimea and detract attention from the slow progress of the counter-offensive.
Last week, Swedish eco-activist Greta Thunberg was in Ukraine to meet Zelensky and other members of a new environmental group tasked with assessing the environmental damage resulting from the war. She reiterated Ukraine’s use of the word ‘ecocide’ to describe the ecological disaster brought about by the collapse of the dam. But the flooding is not the only environmental impact of the war. About 30 percent of Ukraine’s territory is contaminated with landmines and explosives, and more than 2.4 million hectares of forests have been damaged, Ukraine’s prosecutor general Andriy Kostin says.
There has been a long-running battle to get large-scale environmental destruction recognised as an international crime that can be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the unfolding ecological disaster in Ukraine may bring that a step closer. In 2021 a panel of experts that included the lawyer and author Philippe Sands drafted legislation – yet to be adopted – to enable the ICC to prosecute ecocide, in addition to its existing remit of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. A team from the ICC has visited the area affected by the flooding to investigate.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.