​Municipal workers remove dead bodies from flooded houses in Kherson, Ukraine on June 16, 2023, several days after the collapse of the Kakhovka dam.

Municipal workers remove dead bodies from flooded houses in Kherson, Ukraine on June 16, 2023, several days after the collapse of the Kakhovka dam.

(Photo: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

'An Act of Ecocide': Civil Society Groups Condemn Weaponization of Ukraine Dam

"The destruction of the dam represents the most serious single blow to the environment during the war," said one advocate.

"Dams must not be used as a weapon of war."

That's one of the key messages shared Tuesday in an open letter condemning "the weaponization of the Kakhovka hydropower dam, whose destruction has precipitated the manmade disaster unfolding in Ukraine, the impacts of which will be experienced by the environment and people for generations to come."

Signed by two dozen advocacy organizations from around the world, the letter recounts how "the destruction of the Kakhovka dam has severely affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people upstream and downstream, impacted over 40 protected natural areas with dozens of endemic species, exposed or carried to the sea the toxic sediments accumulated in the reservoir over the dam's 70-year history, inundated at least 50 settlements on both banks causing mass displacement, and cut off water up to 500,000 hectares of irrigated fields, among other impacts."

According to the signatories, "Restoring a new liveable environment will take many years if not many decades."

"Restoring a new liveable environment will take many years if not many decades."

Kyiv and Moscow have blamed each other for destroying the dam, which was under Russian control when it collapsed on June 6. Some, including the new letter's signatories, have made the case for attributing the dam's failure to cumulative damage generated since Russia invaded Ukraine last year.

"The bursting of the Kakhovka dam caused by the brutal Russian military invasion in Ukraine has reminded humankind that large dams can often be a weapon of mass destruction," says the letter. "Building dams upstream of populated areas can threaten the lives of thousands—in the case of Kakhovka, 40,000 people live in harm's way, at least 50 of whom have been already confirmed dead and up to a thousand are still missing. The deluge has also taken a heavy toll on natural ecosystems and biodiversity of the unique wetlands and valleys of the Lower Dnieper—one of Europe's largest rivers."

The United Nations on Sunday accused Russia of denying aid workers access to Moscow-controlled areas of southern Ukraine that are home to people suffering the most direct consequences of the dam collapse.

Oleksii Vasyliuk, chair of the Ukraine Nature Conservation Group, which co-organized Tuesday's letter with International Rivers, said in a statement that "this ecological catastrophe and large-scale destruction of nature provoked by the Russian invasion are undermining the future well-being of all of Europe," though its deadly effects could extend beyond the continent's borders.

The dam's disintegration has intensified concerns about the structural integrity of the besieged Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine and sparked multiple warnings, including those detailed in the new letter, about long-term harm to the area's drinking water supplies, wastewater infrastructure, and agricultural land. Given the region's role as one of the world's major "breadbaskets," fears are mounting that the global hunger crisis could grow worse as a result.

"The destruction of the dam represents the most serious single blow to the environment during the war," said Vasyliuk. "This is an act of ecocide against the environment and is a crime against humanity."

"Unsafe in times of peace, dams constitute a mortal danger in cases of war, violent conflicts, and terrorist insurgence," said International Rivers co-director Josh Klemm. "The weaponization of dams during wartime represents a real and growing threat."

In 2017, for instance, the U.S. bombed Syria's largest dam during its war against the Islamic State, endangering tens of thousands of civilians in the process.

"The weaponization of dams during wartime represents a real and growing threat."

The letter describes the destruction of the Kakhovka dam as a war crime and calls on the International Criminal Court to investigate it as such.

Even in the absence of war or sabotage, "dams are increasingly at risk of failure as decades-old dams reach the end of their lifespans, and climate change-induced floods threaten dams and communities located downstream," says the letter. "By 2050, most people will live downstream of a large, aging dam."

Pointing to the Ukraine Recovery Conference scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday in London, the signatories implored participating officials "to urgently rebuild more sustainably and avoid the inherent dangers and problems of rebuilding the 70-year-old dam and rehabilitating the obsolete plant."

"More than ever Ukraine needs support for its speedy and sustainable recovery," states the letter. "However, the destruction of obsolete Soviet infrastructure also brings an opportunity for economic, social, and environmental improvements by using new efficient and nature-friendly approaches and technologies while avoiding mistakes of the past."

According to the letter:

The restoration of the 350 MW Kakhovka hydropower plant has been estimated to cost over €1 billion, though the full cost is likely to be much greater when factoring in the restoration of the vast reservoir. It would also take years to complete, and restoring water supply from the reservoir to Crimea may take over a decade. Rebuilding the dam and its 2000 km2 reservoir would not represent the best path forward given its extraordinary expense, high environmental impacts, climate vulnerability, remaining threat of destruction, and availability of more sustainable solutions.

A comparable solar power plant, for example, would occupy less than 1% of the former reservoir area, cost a fraction of restoring the hydropower facility, and could be completed in less than two years.

Dedicated water supply systems and more water-efficient irrigation schemes that do not require restoring the dam can and must be undertaken immediately, rather than choosing an option that would take many years to complete. These efforts are already underway.

Developing solar energy in the former reservoir could serve to power pumps for new water systems while protecting native vegetation from drought. This could be complemented by wind farms to harness naturally strong winds in the valley. The emergence of over 1000 km2 of vacant land is a real opportunity to develop renewable energy and other nature-friendly economic activities.

"We are confident that under conditions of climate change, it will be optimal to restore natural ecosystems on the site of the already emptied water reservoir, which in the past has submerged the largest natural forest in the steppe zone of Ukraine," said Vasyliuk. "Restoration of the river flow will not only bring back the stability of natural ecosystems and restore biodiversity lost in the past, but also increase the quality of water used by people, thereby improving the quality of life."

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