Thousands have been left stranded after the Nova Kakhovka dam was destroyed in Ukraine © Photo by ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP via Getty Images
Thousands have been left stranded after the Nova Kakhovka dam was destroyed in Ukraine © Photo by ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP via Getty Images

Nova Kakhovka dam collapse an ‘environmental and economic catastrophe’

8 June 2023

The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine has not only left thousands homeless, but threatens to impact food and agricultural supplies.

According to preliminary estimates by the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine, the loss of biological resources – including agriculture and fishing – will hit £228m.

The dam – situated in Russian-occupied Kherson Oblast in southern Ukraine –produces 80% of Ukraine’s domestic vegetable supplies.

Experts say the destruction of the dam will stop the water supply to 31 irrigation systems in the fields of Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya.

Without irrigation, the government said fields in the south of Ukraine will “turn into deserts” by as early as next year.

Mintec fruit and vegetable analyst, Harry Campbell, told Supply Management agricultural production in the area will not be able to recommence until the dam has been restored. 

But estimates suggest it will take 5-10 years to repair the dam – and only if the territory is no longer under conflict.

“Due to conflict in the area it is hard to say how long exactly this [restoration] will take,” he said.

“While there is conflict in the area, work on the wall is uncertain,” he said. 

A substantial amount of Ukraine's fruit supplies will also be damaged, Campbell said, all of which are “heavily reliant” on the dam for irrigation.

The United Nations' World Food Programme’s Ukraine country director, Matthew Hollingworth, said the destruction of the dam is “an environmental and economic catastrophe”, as well as a “humanitarian disaster.”

“The flooding of thousands of hectares of land and the impact on irrigation systems will destroy people’s livelihoods and affect food security long-term in the area – the most productive agricultural region of Ukraine,” he said.

He added: “Thousands of people have lost their homes and access to drinking water and food.”

However, International Food Policy Research Institute senior research fellow and former chief economist at the US Department of Agriculture, Joseph Glauber, said food production had already slowed in the area due to the ongoing conflict. 

Instead, he said, the biggest threat to emerge as a result of the dam collapse is a stall in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allows shipments of Ukrainian grain to leave the country without getting attacked by Russia. 

He told SM: “The much bigger threat is if this could lead to a block of the grain going out of the port of Odessa, because that really has been a lifeline for Ukraine, with 60% or so of their exports since the war began going out through the Black Sea,” he said.

Overland logistics routes add “significant costs” compared to shipping. “The Black Sea is really the cheapest way to get grain out of Ukraine, and so that agreement has been very, very important.”

While grain prices jumped following the announcement of the collapse, Glauber stressed that they have since begun to stabilise. Long term predictions on prices and the future of agriculture in the area remain hard to predict, as “so much of that is going to depend on the war itself,” he noted. 

Surrounding towns have been submerged in water following the incident, and almost 6,000 people have been evacuated around the Dnipro river.

Russian officials have warned that the main canal that supplies water to Crimea – which was annexed by Russia in 2014 – is receiving drastically less water. 

Europe’s largest nuclear power plant – which is in the Russian-controlled area of Zaporizhzhia – also sources water from the dam as part of its cooling process. However, the UN nuclear watchdog has said the plant is not at immediate risk as it has alternate water supplies that can be used for months if necessary. 

Ukraine has blamed the disaster on Russia, but Russia has insisted it was a “terrorist” attack carried out by Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian government noted that any estimates over the damage caused by the collapse are based on preliminary analysis, and final conclusions will only be able to be drawn once water levels stabilise.

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