Kakhovka Dam Breach in Ukraine Caused Economic, Agricultural and Ecological Devastation That Will Last for Years

Conor here: The following piece shows how the fallout from the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam will be long-lasting for agricultural operations in “Europe’s Breadbasket.” The incoming cluster bombs won’t help:

By Susanne Wengle and Vitalii Dankevych. Wengle is an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. Dankevych is a doctor of economics with a focus on agriculture at Polissia National University. Originally published at The Conversation.

When an explosion breached the Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine on June 6, 2023, much analysis focused on near-term impacts, including the flooding of the city of Kherson, threats to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and consequences for Ukrainian military forces’ expected spring offensive against Russian troops.

But the most severe long-term effects will fall on Southeast Ukraine’s farmers.

Villages there were flooded. Roads, train tracks and irrigation canals were washed away. Crops in fields and orchards in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia region were inundated, then left to shrivel after the water drained.

The long-term ecological disaster will unfold over decades to come. Crimea, once a region known for its sunny beaches and rice fields, could dry up without irrigation.

We are a U.S. political scientist with research expertise on the post-Soviet region and a Ukrainian economist who studies agriculture. While the long-term effects of the dam break are difficult to calculate, we believe that it will have a lasting impact on the climate of southern Ukraine.

Farmland that is no longer irrigated and cultivated because canals are destroyed and the reservoir drained will dry up, becoming more vulnerable to soil erosion and dust storms. Agricultural production could be reduced for years to come, with impacts that ripple through supply chains and affect food security around the world.

As we see it, the dam explosion has all the hallmarks of a scorched-earth strategy, intended to destroy anything that might be useful to the enemy. It is hard to imagine any country inflicting damage this sweeping on its own soil.

A Fertile Farming Region

Like other Soviet hydroelectric projects, the Kakhovka Dam and power plant were hailed as harbingers of progress and a bright socialist future when they were built in 1956 on the Dnieper River. The North Crimean and Dnieper-Kryvyi Rih canals, constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, transported water from the Kakhovka reservoir to Crimea in the south and the Kryvvi Rih iron ore basin and Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the north.

Local villages and towns came to depend on water and electricity from the dam and its reservoir. Some 545,000 acres (220,000 hectares) of arable land in these two regions are irrigated, including over 20% of Kherson’s farmland.

Kherson’s farms grow watermelons and tomatoes. The region’s cherry, apricot, peach, apple and plum orchards produce Ukraine’s sweetest fruits. Southeast Ukraine also grows vast quantities of soy and sunflower seeds, mostly destined for global markets.

Flooded Fields, Toxic Water

The dam breach inundated fields along the Dnieper’s banks. By July 1, the Dnieper River near the Kherson post had returned to its natural level, although a number of settlements in the territory temporarily occupied by Russian forces remained submerged.

Based on conditions that have been reported so far, we expect that this year’s crops in the flooded zone will be waterlogged, and much of the harvest will be destroyed. Valuable perennial crops that relied on irrigation infrastructure fed by the reservoir will be flooded and then parched. Rich and productive topsoil may be washed away.

Farther downstream, the lower Dnieper, Southern Bug and Inhulets river basins have been polluted, imperiling agriculture and drinking water for southern Ukraine. During the dam breach, 150 tons of oil leaked out, and at least 17 gas stations have been flooded. There is widespread concern about impacts on the region’s wildlife, including many types of nesting and migratory birds.

After the Flood, Water Shortages

Flooding from the reservoir also imperiled infrastructure that is critical for Ukraine’s agricultural exports, including irrigation canals, hydraulic pumping stations, river ports and grain terminals.

Most importantly, without water from the reservoir, the fields of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Crimea will dry out. Coastal towns on the Sea of Azov, most importantly Berdyansk, have lost their main source of drinking water.

Crimea is particularly dependent on irrigation. Before Russia annexed it in 2014, Crimea’s farms planted rice and corn. After the annexation Ukraine blocked water from flowing to Crimea. When Russia captured Kherson in March 2022, it reopened the North Crimean Canal and allowed the peninsula’s reservoirs to fill.

Without the Kakhovka Reservoir, however, Crimea is unlikely to receive irrigation water for at least a decade. Effectively, the peninsula will turn into a desert with a naval base.

Fewer Exports, Higher Prices

Beyond Ukraine, the dam breach will critically affect global food supplies. Southern Ukraine’s sunflower seeds, soy and cereals are major ingredients for industrially processed foods and livestock feed. They provide the proteins and lipids that are the building blocks of the 21st-century diet.

After these commodities are harvested, they have to be dried, transported domestically, stored and then shipped internationally. Many facilities along the Dnieper and its tributaries are key nodes in the supply chains that connect Ukrainian farms with world markets.

Storage elevators and loading terminals at the port of Kozatske, located just downstream of the dam, were inundated within hours of the breach. The upstream ports of Kamianets-Dniprovska, Nikopol and Enerhodar are closed and likely will be inoperable for years to come.

Global food commodity prices shot up hours after the dam broke, as global grain traders anticipated food commodity shortages. U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths told the BBC that the impact on food security could be significant.

“… That whole area going down towards the Black Sea and Crimea is a breadbasket not only for Ukraine but also for the world,” Griffiths told the BBC. “It is almost inevitable that we are going to see huge, huge problems in harvesting and sowing for the next harvest. And so what we are going to see is a huge impact on global food security.”

An Uncertain Future

Loss of the Kakhovka Dam is the latest blow to a region that has suffered heavily during the war. Most fields along the lower Dnieper are littered with mines. NASA satellite images show crops planted in 2022 that were never harvested.

Before the dam breach, the area under cultivation in 2023 in Ukraine had already contracted by 45%, and overall yields had fallen by as much as 60% compared with 2021 before the war. With the loss of the dam and reservoir, harvests are likely to shrink further.

Many residents of the area’s 80 inundated villages are farmers. If and when they are able to return to their land, the fields and orchards may not be able to produce and earn enough to sustain their families, who have already suffered grievously during heavy fighting in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

In 1941, Joseph Stalin ordered Soviet troops to destroy the predecessor of the Kakhovka Dam to slow the advancing German army. It was not rebuilt until 1956. Even if postwar relief efforts can replace the Kakhovka Dam more quickly, we expect that droughts between now and then will virtually destroy rural life in southeastern Ukraine as it existed before June 6.

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  1. Polar Socialist

    Readers are also reminded that between 2014 and 2022 the Ukrainian government closed the irrigation systems along the Crimea canal (by shutting down the canal itself ), thus causing many of the consequences mentioned here in most parts of Kharkov and Zaporozhye oblasts.

    Even if “it is hard to imagine any country inflicting damage this sweeping on its own soil”. Assume a country ruled by bunch of oligarchs with the help of self-sacrifice-is-sacred-and-no-price-is-too-high-death-cultists and supported by The Neoliberal West, and suddenly it’s much easier to imagine.

    1. GramSci

      Imagine a country run by Nazi oligarchs with a vendetta against Russian speakers.

    2. bdy

      I was under the impression that since the annexations, the affected territories are Russian soil?

      1. Polar Socialist

        If you believe in referendums and such, then yes. If you believe in rules based international order, then nope.

        Either way, between 2014 and 2022 about half (or so) of the areas affected by the closure of the Crimean canal were controlled by the Ukrainian government. A lot of agricultural land on the left bank of the Dniepr relied on the irrigation provided by the Crimean canal. While Crimean farmers were getting water supplied by Russia (albeit not in adequate quantities), Ukraine pretty much left the farmers in Kherson and Zaporozhye areas on their own.

        Reopening the irrigation system has been pointed out as a big reason why a lot people in Kherson area voted for independence and then joining the Russian federation. That and returning to the Russian markets, too: until 2014 a lot of the agricultural products from Kherson went to Crimea, now that market is back.

    3. hk

      To the Ukrainian Nazis, Kharkov, Zaporozhiya, Kherson, and Odessa, let alone Donetsk and Lugansk, and certainly Crimea, are not “their own soul,” or, at least, they are not inhabited by “their” people.

    4. Ignacio

      I would add to your well-pointed commentary that the Collective West is not just turning a blind eye to these scorched earth policies run by no other than the Zelensky regime. The Collective West is the enabler of these. It all started with the Bucha stunt that showed Zelensky he could go for any other thing like this or worse with the seal of approval of the White House and the C.W. who would always blame Putin for whatever goes through. Lately it seems the CW might be on cold feet regarding the supposed ZNPP stunt which, by projection, should be blamed to Putin scorched earth policies.

      The Collective West, the Garden, feels that it is able to pull all the stunts they can in the Jungle. What a shame! Josep Borrell made such a big mistake with his metaphor!

    5. Teder

      The ‘ultranationalist’ western Ukraine has no regard for the peoples of eastern and southern Ukraine, except for possibilities of plunder. So, they can shrug off damage done to the Russian sector of the Ukraine, most of which has returned to Russia.

  2. LawnDart

    Well, looks like this year we’ll see over a billion hungry people in the world– we were close for a few years with hundreds of millions, but this dam thing will likely put us over the billion mark.

    Blowing-up the dam was a horrific crime, a crime against humanity, and it really should be a war crime, but I’m not sure that it is– perhaps not, according to “the rules.”

    Can anyone step up to clarify?

    For reference:

    U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Law of War Manual

    5.6.3 Objects That Are Military Objectives. Military objectives, insofar as objects are concerned, include “any object which by its nature, location, purpose or use makes an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.”

    This definition of military objective may be viewed as a way of evaluating whether
    military necessity exists to attack an object. It may also be applied outside the context of
    conducting attacks to assess whether the seizure or destruction of an object is justified by military necessity.

    [From a large PDF, link follows]


    And for global hunger (freakin depressing read from the UN):

    The State of Food Security
    and Nutrition in the World 2021


  3. John R Moffett

    I think part of the US/NATO strategy is to make sure that the parts of Ukraine that have become Russian territory are thoroughly destroyed and littered with munitions to prevent economic recovery after the war. I agree that blowing up the dam was a crime against humanity, and I think that the US/NATO justify the act through their intense, self-imposed Russiophobia.

  4. John

    No price too high for the defeat of Russia. How often that sentiment is expressed in the EU, in NATO, in the DC Bubble; expressed by people who are quite comfortable and expect to pay nothing at all.

    1. Thomas Schmidt

      I recall the Peggy Noonan column called “The Protected and the Unprotected,” explaining the rise of Trump in 2016. The Protected dealt with Trump but not the underlying disease. They expect to pay nothing at all, but in a government that supports itself by threat of force (taxation) instead of fraud (theft of dollar value through printing) they’re going to have to work to earn their pay, soon. The nice part is that the sanctions they kicked off to implement their defeat of Russia will destroy their ability to print dollars and have the world pay for them. Interesting times.

      1. John

        Thanks for the reminder. At the time, that column really hit me as it explained a lot about the world we live in. Since reading it in 2016 my view of the world has changed. I now see the necessity of decentralization (so that the decisions are made at the local level), as that is the only way I can visualize to make the “protected” accountable. Presently on so many issues, our decision makers only have upsides to their decisions, while the unprotected live with the downsides of decisions. Until, the decision makers are connected to the consequences, both good and bad of their decisions, nothing will change.

  5. timbers

    A theme that pops up a lot in comments at various sites, is that the manner in which Russia conducts this war allows various actors to deliver enormous crushing blows upon The Little People (as the article shows us) while the elites are graciously granted immunity. Thus giving the elites little reason to end the war which they feel no ill affects from and are even allowed to profit and enrich themselves by. The fact the Kremlin has admitted to knowing of decision center targets yet has not destroyed them, that the Ukraine leadership is largely unscathed and if fact is being rewarded and enriched, is hard to take and it is not unreasonable that this may be prolonging the war (which incredibly some say is a good thing).

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      BoJo and Biden blew up early negotiations. I don’t know how Russia gamed this out, but I see two outcomes within two years (give myself some time): a total wreck in the former Ukraine where there isn’t anything like a nation state, Somalia in Europe, or Zelensky removed quickly by a junta capable of running the remains and gaining a measure of foreign support especially for agricultural exports and transit fees.

      Only the latter is a reasonable option for the “little people”. The West is untrustworthy.

      Going after decision centers early makes Zelensky a martyr even if he’s not directly targeted. Then there is the global audience. The behavior of the SMO is very different than US aggression. Even though the biggest US transgression kicked off twenty hears ago, Biden was a major supporter. He didn’t use his tough guy persona to stand up to Shrub but browbeat democrats into going along. Ukrainian elites simply aligned with one of the worst people in the world to make arguments about aggression.

    2. ISL

      If you refer to the proposed new security agreements Putin presented to the west in December before the SMO, Russia’s goals are explicitly stated – which since the west dismissed Russia’s security concerns. These goals are being implemented by the de-militarization and bankrupting of NATO. Putin is a man who says what he means and means what he says, and yet Tis a mystery!

      Its the boiling frog strategy to avoid triggering a nuclear war, which was coming once the US can field hypersonic missiles and places them in Poland – handing the planet’s future to skynet.

      How these documents have been memory holed in the west is impressive.

  6. eg

    That the cluster bombs won’t be used in urban areas may come as a surprise to the separatist regions that the Kiev regime has been shelling with similar ordinance since 2014.

    But I’m sure the spirit of Madeline Albright looks upon that and those affected by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam and smiles, “it was worth it” …

    1. Polar Socialist

      A few months ago Russia activated a newly build water pipeline bringing 300,000 cubic meters of fresh water per day from Don to Donbass. Not nearly enough for irrigation and population, though. And, of course, strongly condemned by The International Community. Apparently one just does not improve the quality of life in the areas one ‘occupies’.

      Needless to say, the whole region of Novorossiya is more of less dependent on a network of pipelines and channels for it’s fresh water. Unfortunately the water flow depends on electricity, which is available only intermittently due to a shelling by an unknown actor.

  7. The Rev Kev

    With the Kakhovka dam destroyed for the moment, it will convince the Russians of one thing. Before they spend the time, money and work to rebuild this dam and rehabilitate of those farmlands and cities, they will have to make sure that the Ukraine is never again in a position where they can do it all over again. And that means that the Zelensky regime has to go in its entirety. It’s military, it’s Nazi formations, its whole ideology. If a crazy neighbour burned down your shed, would you spend the money to rebuild it if you knew that he wanted to do it again as soon as it was finished? Same thing here.

    1. Thomas Schmidt

      It’s a little like Hitler late in the war continuing it not because he thought it winnable but to punish the German nation that had failed him. There’s one German general who is a hero to me: given the order to destroy Paris before evacuating, he demurred. Zelensky almost got permission to destroy the nuclear plant. Nothing but upside for him; it might work. Nothing but downside for locals on both sides.

      1. BeliTsari

        I keep thinking of Albert Speer, scooting about in a bright orange BMW 328, strafed by Lancasters & Hitler, never suspecting his bunker might get pumped full of nerve gas by his dashing totally innocent architect sidekick; as Hanna Reitsch swept der führer & Eva off under the Brandenburg Gate, the Red Army shaking gnarled fists in despair.
        Oh, that’s BS propaganda?

    2. Synoia

      If it were only the Zelensky regime one could agree. But it is not just t Zelensky t, and there lies the real issue.

      Zelensky and his Government were apparently installed by coup, and now reported to be very similar Germany in the 1930, or Israel since 1948 to the present.

      I come from a family, whose bread winner was drafted for WW2, sent to Palestine and emerged with observations and examples of atrocities which appear to have had little or no support for the war against Hitler.

  8. Thomas Schmidt

    As we see it, the dam explosion has all the hallmarks of a scorched-earth strategy, intended to destroy anything that might be useful to the enemy. It is hard to imagine any country inflicting damage this sweeping on its own soil.

    Boy is that elegantly phrased. It neither blames Ukraine nor Russia. The dam destruction sure seems like it’s meant to scorch earth (parch, too) that Russia has already annexed for 9 years now. It also damages and threatens territories Russia has annexed for one year, and seems highly reluctant to give up.

    We hope the rest of the Western media can adopt this framework and then draw conclusions. It’s a catastrophe for the people of the region and a tacit admission that Ukraine does not expect to recover Crimea.

  9. synoia

    The UK destroyed German dams in WW2.

    Operation Chastise, commonly known as the Dambusters Raid.

    The Möhne and Edersee dams were breached, causing catastrophic flooding of the Ruhr valley and of villages in the Eder valley; the Sorpe Dam sustained only minor damage. Two hydroelectric power stations were destroyed and several more damaged. Factories and mines were also damaged and destroyed. An estimated 1,600 civilians – about 600 Germans and 1,000 enslaved labourers, mainly Soviet – were killed by the flooding.

    War is Hell. But, one cannot condemn one action when one supports another very similar action.

    Thus, knowing a little history, I really cannot square the circle. If one action is condemned now, how can can another very similar be praised?

      1. Synoia

        I have to agree. However that is nont what we were taught .

        I must now reconsider the actions of the British in the Boer war, where they rounded up the Boers , the Afrikaans farmers, and put them in crowded internment camps where they died of Diphtheria.

    1. ChrisPacific

      I can remember reading a book about this or studying it in school (can’t recall which). The focus was very much on the engineering and aerodynamics challenges involved and the problem solving aspect, and it was presented as a triumphant success enabled by British ingenuity and creativity. That’s likely true as far as it goes, but it also killed a great number of civilians including many POWs. I don’t remember this being mentioned at school. Judging by the Wikipedia page, not much has changed in terms of how it’s viewed – the civilian casualties are mentioned, but without comment or judgement.

      I find myself recalling all this and reflecting on selective morality when I read all the hand-wringing about the dam breach in Ukraine.

  10. Ghost in the Machine

    I knew war would be part of The Jackpot. Very depressing watching it happen.

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