Expert: Flooding in Kakhovka could spread Chernobyl contamination

Flooded area in Kherson.
Flooded area in Kherson. Source: SCANPIX/AFP/GENYA SAVILOV/AFP

Destruction of the Kakhovka Dam caused an unprecedented environmental disaster, which could spread radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster together with the bottom sediment of the reservoir, Oksana Stolyar, professor of biology and molecular biology at the Ternopil Volodymyr Hnatiuk National Pedagogical University, told ERR.

Stolyar said that it is now impossible to say with certainty the extent to which radioactive compounds could be dispersed by flooding. "Ukraine's water quality has been minimally monitored," she told ERR. The professor said, that fuel, fertilizers and various other chemicals, as well as human and animal corpses along with (household) garbage are currently the things causing the most harm to the environment. Cemeteries, restrooms and landfills pollute the reservoir water, in addition to industrial locations.

"The water smells strongly of chemicals and decomposition, and there are visible animal and human remains. The likelihood of infectious disease transmission is extremely high," she said. "We are expecting a cholera outbreak."

Stolyar emphasized that the situation is especially dire on the left bank of the Russian-occupied Dnipro River, where the Russian government is doing nothing to assist the local population: "They are dying in their flooded homes."

In the flooded area, including the cities of Kherson and Mõkolajiv there is no clean water. According to Stolyar, drinking water is transported from all over the country to the west bank, which is under Ukrainian authority. The professor warned that outbreaks of infectious disease epidemics are more likely to occur in these urban areas.

"Because of its fertile soils, this is one of the largest agricultural regions in Ukraine as well as a most densely populated one," she explained.

This region is one of Ukraine's most productive agricultural lands due to its rich, moist soil and abundant sunlight. Stolyar said that these precious soils may now be irretrievably lost or that it will take a lengthy period of time to make them usable again. In turn, the destruction of arable land will harm the export potential of Ukrainian agriculture. An estimated 10,000 hectares of cropland on the right bank of the Dnipro have been flooded. On the occupied left bank, according to Stolyar, the territory is significantly larger.

According to the Ukrainian newspaper, 31 agricultural irrigation systems that irrigate a total of 584,000 hectares of agriculture in regions of Dnipro, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have become ineffective, which includes 94 percent of the irrigation systems in Kherson, 74 percent in Zaporizhzhia and 30 percent in Dnipro. According to the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine, even desertification cannot be ruled out in the inundated lands once the water recedes.

Total ecological destruction

Stolyar said that the collapse of the dam has essentially annihilated the local ecosystem. "In 2021, we studied freshwater migration ways in the Kherson region's wetlands. They were generally in a very good shape, indicating that the water was likely not heavily polluted. However, we cannot say that the Dnipro River was very clean, as it is still Ukraine's largest river and the country's largest industrial area was located along its banks prior to the war," the professor explained. It was from these industrial areas that the flooding spread most of pollutants, she said.

The health authorities of Ukraine and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predict that the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts will see a mass fish die-off due to a sharp decline in water levels within the next three to five years. Due to pollution and drought, the flora and fauna displaced from the reservoir will disappear. Massive quantities of freshwater containing toxins are flowing into the Black Sea, posing a threat to its biodiversity as well.

Marko Vainu, a researcher at the school of natural sciences and health (SNSH) , said on the program "Terevision" that it is now impossible to predicts how long the water will flow out from the reservoir; likewise it is impossible to predict whether or not the reservoir will be completely emptied. "Since the water has invaded the human settlements there, we don't even know what it has taken with it," Vainu said.

"The problem is that as the water floods the streets and takes everything in its path, it pollutes the river. Some of the pollution also ends up in the Black Sea," he said.

Vainu said that the river's previous condition was not that good: "The big dams built during the Soviet times have not been good for the river; it was certainly not a clean river." The researcher explained that the accumulation of sediments and obstructions within the dams impedes the movement of fish. There are more than five dams in total. "The greatest problem upstream of a damaged dam is the rapid drop in water level, which prevents fish and other aquatic life from migrating downstream. They dehydrate and perish. Those who survive can still fall victim in the Black Sea's salt water, Vainu said.

There are also a number of protected, small islands in the river delta where a diversity of birds nest. "They will miss this year's breeding season because the water probably washed away their eggs and nests," the researcher said.

The Ukrainian Defense Forces reported on June 6 that the dam of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant dam in Kherson was blown up by Russian occupation forces. The dam and turbine room have been completely destroyed and cannot be repaired. The explosion resulted in extensive flooding and an ecological catastrophe in Kherson Oblast. Ukrainian authorities reported that the depletion of the Kakhovka reservoir poses a threat to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station's cooling systems.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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