Who and what may suffer most from Kakhovka dam destruction – expert interview

19 June, 11:39 PM
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The consequences of the Kakhovka HPP explosion not only destroy the ecosystems of the region, but also make certain areas uninhabitable and destroy the economic potential of the region (Photo:REUTERS/Inna Varenytsia)

The consequences of the Kakhovka HPP explosion not only destroy the ecosystems of the region, but also make certain areas uninhabitable and destroy the economic potential of the region (Photo:REUTERS/Inna Varenytsia)

Sudden floods, the “drying” of the local climate, the lack of drinking and technical water, and the impoverishment of the soil will radically change the lives of the residents of Kherson Oblast in the coming years, Kherson State University professor Ihor Pylypenko said in an interview with NV on June 19.

The largest man-made disaster in Europe in the last decades is what experts call the events stemming from Russian forces blowing up the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP) dam on June 6. This led to a rapid drop in the water level in the Kakhovka water reservoir and flooding of the downstream Dnipro River basin.

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There were casualties, a significant part of the population of the city of Kherson and nearby villages had to be evacuated. Hundreds of tons of machine oil got into the water, as well as the contents of dumpsters, fuel storages, warehouses with chemicals, fertilizers, and animal burial grounds, etc. The Dnipro River flooded tens of thousands of hectares of forests and fields, destroying animal habitats.

The White House declared that Russia was responsible for the devastation caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka HPP, while the MEPs called the destruction of the Kakhovka HPP a Russia war crime.

NV: What is the most serious, most damaging environmental risk caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka HPP?

Pylypenko: Humans have created a huge artificial ecosystem. Therefore, we cannot talk about exclusively environmental issues. I would say this is rather a socio-ecological problem, where a human is at the top and owner of this system, who, having fit into this system, uses its water resources.

Imagine the ancient Egyptian civilization that arose on the banks of the Nile River, and suddenly the Nile does not exist anymore. We do not say that we have some kind of civilization there, but people drew upon on this water resource via their settlement system, economic activity, and now there is no water. That is, now there is no reservoir, which functioned not only for storing and accumulating water, but also for distributing it for various economic needs.

The issue of environmental risk is extremely complex and very difficult to answer. From my point of view, the population will be the most affected link in this chain of interaction “nature-population-economy.”

NV: What will happen to the agricultural lands that are now without the irrigation on which they depended so much? What processes for the soils in the region are threatened by the consequences of Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka HPP?

Pylypenko: We have a rather colorful soil system there. But the areas that used the central irrigation system will suffer the most. They will be characterized by an increase in the level of salinity. And this will lead to loss of soil fertility. Although, let’s say, depending on what year it will be, what the soil’s moisture reserves are, perhaps the soil will still be able to produce crops for some time.

For example, we will switch to crops that require less moisture, cutting down on growing onions, eggplants, sweet peppers, tomatoes, etc.

This problem will be less on sandy soils, where irrigation was localized, using underground aquifers. Therefore, we hope that the level of underground water that was formed there will allow our farmers, in particular small ones, to continue growing agricultural crops, primarily vegetables, in particular in closed soil, i.e., in greenhouses, for many years to come.

As for cultivation in open ground, on sandy soils, where the parent rock is based on sand, and the groundwater is relatively shallow, in principle, we can continue growing melon crops. Let’s put it this way, the well-known Kherson watermelons, which most Ukrainian consumers know, are also grown in areas unaffected by the dam’s destruction. They will grow there, although there are risks. It depends on whether the spring period is wet, whether there is enough water to produce a crop.

NV: So, will the most difficult thing be with vegetable crops?

Pylypenko: Yes. And I’m more interested in the vegetable set in the hierarchy, let’s say, of consumer values. I think that all Ukrainians felt the absence of Kherson Oblast on the Ukrainian vegetable market even last year. Undoubtedly, the vegetable growth is observed in other regions of the country, in particular due to the use of greenhouse farming. But you understand that the resources of heat, relatively speaking, of the forest-steppe, Prykarpattia region and Kherson Oblast or Mykolayiv Oblast, are incomparable. It is another set of temperatures.

NV: Is the soil salinization reversible?

Pylypenko: This process can be remedied only by irrigation.

NV: Environmentalists also talked about the threat of desalination of the Black Sea. How serious is this problem?

Pylypenko: This phenomenon is certainly observed. The sudden release, as we can already say, of about 8-10 cubic kilometers of water into the north-western water area of the Black Sea leads to a rapid drop in the salinity level in the north-western part of the sea. This certainly affects marine organisms throughout the ecological chain. This can affect their habitats, moving them along the coast. But we remember that the Black Sea still has a layer of hydrogen sulfide, and they cannot move there very quickly to the depths. It is important here what the sea will be like from the point of view of storms, the main directions of the winds, what is the nature of the winds in June, how the mixing of water layers will take place – the lighter, fresh water that came from the Dnipro River, and the heavier, salty water from the Black Sea. In principle, under normal conditions, the flow, which will then go along the coast of Romania and Bulgaria, will gradually lead to the dissolution of this fresh water in huge masses and layers. This volume is not fatal for the Black Sea. Hopefully, physical and chemical processes will absorb this fresh water relatively quickly and level the salinity in the near future. But again, it is too early to say clearly, because everything will depend on the nature of the winds.

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NV: Can the consequences of Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka HPP affect the climate  of the region?

Pylypenko: Since the creation of the Kakhovka water reservoir, Ukraine has carried out research into microclimate changes, first of all, around the water reservoir. There was an increase in humidity, a certain decrease in peak temperatures in summer. Even despite we had such a huge area (of water), the effect of the breezes was quite noticeable, which worked in the conditions of anticyclonic summer weather. Breezes are winds that change their direction during the day: they blow from the water body to land during the day, and the opposite at night. The Kakhovka water reservoir had some influence on the formation of local precipitation in the summer. So, of course, this will influence the microclimate. Namely, this will cause a decrease in this share in the formation of local precipitation. Climatologists would say more precisely about this. That is, we can assume that the amount of precipitation will become somewhat less.

From the point of view of growing agricultural crops, these breezes, which were more humid, reduced the risks of so-called atmospheric drought. At the same time, it will affect the microclimate from the point of view of a decrease in atmospheric humidity and a massive shutdown of irrigation.

Therefore, it will become increasingly uncomfortable for people, and not only due to the destruction of their economic activity – the functioning of agriculture, but also due to the living conditions: lack of drinking and technical water, microclimatic changes.

NV: Last fall, Ukraine’s Military Intelligence warned that if the dam were blown up, the scale of the ecological disaster would go far beyond the borders of Ukraine and affect the entire Black Sea region. What do you think about that?

Pylypenko: One of the questions was about the desalination of the Black Sea. This is also a factor. If, for example, there will be no mixing of water layers, or the conditions will be such that this wedge of fresh water will mix very slowly, this can affect fishing, for example, in the western part of the Black Sea, near Bulgaria.

I still think that the influence there is more prolonged in time, and it threatens Europe, the Black Sea region. The Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, which houses six reactors with a capacity of 1 million kW, remains under Russian control. And this NPP is a hostage to the water levels in Kakhovka reservoir. It’s good that the cooling pond there is completely filled, but we don’t know what will happen to it next. Nothing prevents (the invaders) from lowering it. And this is a huge uncertainty. I think that the presence of IAEA representatives there may one day become part of blackmailing Ukraine.

NV: How do the consequences of this disaster affect flora and fauna, and are some species really at risk of extinction?

Pylypenko: The Nyzhniodniprovsyi National Park is completely flooded. In particular, artificial ecosystems, such as on the territory of the Kakhovka water reservoir, are suffering. It actually does not exist anymore. The other day, colleagues from the natural reserve fund of Odesa Oblast demonstrated hundreds of newts – a protected species – that were washed ashore. That is, these amphibians were thrown out of their usual habitat. It is not known how many of them were killed. The damage can be assessed only when the water completely recedes. So far, scientists are trying to predict the consequences for individual species and groups according to the areas they are engaged in.

For example, scientists who make a forecast for vegetation assume that nothing significant will happen for classic floodplain vegetation. But here is the animal world that has adapted to a situation where the floodplains have not been flooded for a long time... New species appear that do not have the evolutionary mechanisms to escape from the rising water. This is a huge problem, especially since it happened in early June, when many animals produce offspring. The fry is either still in caviar, if we talk about fish, or have just hatched. It has no way to save itself. And then a huge wave sweeps it away.

NV: Is there a scenario in which the ecosystem could return to the state it was in before the dam was built?

Pylypenko: I don’t think so, because a cascade was created after the construction of the Kakhovka HPP. That is, the Kakhovka HPP was the second, and several other HPPs were later built on the Dnipro River. All of them also had an impact.

But everything has changed for the coming years. Where people used to go to the summer houses, now they will come there rarely, probably in late July. Where they had gardens, where they planted grapes, where fruit trees grow, now it will all get wet, or it will remain flooded.

NV: Are the flooded territories of the region able to return to the normal state and how long that would take?

Pylypenko: As I said, maybe not too much will change for reedbeds, and they will reproduce the characteristics they had before.

From the point of view of, for example, steppe areas that were closer to water, they will lose their steppe characteristics and become, for example, meadows, or meadows will turn into aquatic vegetation. This issue will be determined by the water level. What will it be, no one knows for sure. What will be the water regime? What will be the nature of the winds? For low-lying areas, such as the left bank of the Dnipro River in particular, a fluctuation of 10, 20, 30 cm can be significant and even decisive. Important factors in the functioning of the basic ecosystem are now difficult to predict long-term. Most likely, the analysis of the left and right banks from 1930s will be most instructive now. Based on this, we can start thinking what we should do next.

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