Ecocide: The Catastrophic Consequences of Kakhovka Dam Demolition

Ecocide: The Catastrophic Consequences of Kakhovka Dam Demolition

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19 July 2023

What consequences does the destruction of Kakhovka dam by Russians has for people, nature and economy? How to quantify these consequences? How to bring Russia to responsibility for the ecocide? This article provides some ideas.

UN Secretary General  Guterres called Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka Dam a “monumental humanitarian, economic and ecological catastrophe in the Kherson region of Ukraine.” President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “Russia needs to bear full responsibility for the ecocide it caused through the Kakhovka dam destruction”.  

Russia has willfully and brazenly violated all the norms of the civilized world, engaging in the most heinous conduct against Ukraine’s civilian population and its environment. In Ukraine, environmental liability for ecocide exists as a criminal responsibility – imprisonment for a term of eight to fifteen years, for “[M]ass destruction of flora or fauna, poisoning of the atmosphere or water resources, as well as other actions that may cause an environmental catastrophe” (Article 441 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine). 

If there was ever a clear case for ecocide, the demolition of Kakhovka dam by Russian forces stands as the defining example. Will Russia be held responsible for that?

Currently, the  jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court is limited to four of the most serious classes of war crimes that distress the international community: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Ecocide would be the fifth serious crime. In 2021, an international expert panel of lawyers shared its proposal for a fifth crime of ecocide under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).  They defined ecocide as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”.

In March 2023, the European Parliament voted in support of including ecocide into the EU law. The Kakhovka dam disaster has prompted the EU to push ahead with its legislation on ecocide. 

Russian responsibility for intentionally destroying the dam has been established through a thorough analysis of the structural engineering plans of the Kakhovka dam, and scrutinizing seismic and satellite data related to the explosions. Only the Russian military, which controls the Kakhovka dam and had full access to the inner subterranean gallery of the power plant, could have engineered such an explosive rupture of the dam.

UN practice of environmental damage compensation

Destroying the environment is a war crime, as established by the United Nations International Law Commission in 2022. In every accepted definition, the ‘environment’ consists of the engineered human environment (managed forests, reservoirs and agricultural systems) and man-made infrastructure designed to reduce pollution, as well as natural ecosystems that provide services to both humans and nature. In estimating Ukraine’s post-war environmental damage, both Ukraine and Western donors and financial institutions will have difficulty sorting through acceptable methods for estimating and monetizing environmental damages as part of a compensation and reparations mechanism.

And that’s the crux of the matter. Before reparations can be appraised, the extent of environmental damage must be accurately assessed, and later valued in monetary terms. What is the value of an endangered species? How much is a hectare of destroyed marsh worth? What will it cost to restore a degraded wetland? What is the economic value of the full suite of ecosystem services that will be lost, possibly forever, because of the Kakhovka dam demolition? What are the full costs of environmental degradation of hundreds of thousands of hectares caused by destructive Russian military operations?

First, the various types of environmental damage must be defined, measured and evaluated. A precedent was set during the Iraq/Kuwait war in 1991, when Security Council resolution 687 (1991) stated that Iraq is “liable under international law for any direct loss, damage, including environmental damage and the depletion of natural resources … as a result of Iraq’s unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait”. Based on that resolution, the UN Compensation Commission (UNCC) found that losses to the natural environment as a result of war crimes, even those without a market value, are compensable, as were short-term ecological losses, awarding Kuwait $3 billion for its environmental losses, and $48 billion for other health and related economic losses. 

How to monitor environmental damage on the ground?

Monitoring and measuring environmental damages in a war zone is extremely difficult and dangerous, and manpower and equipment are scarce. But a good deal of monitoring can be conducted indirectly, by the extensive satellite monitoring systems of both the U.S. and Europe, many of which focus on changes in environmental variables. E.g. NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS), has a family of satellites that focus on measuring land use, soil moisture, vegetative cover, agricultural crop production, forest growth and associated diseases and water quality. 

Most importantly, these satellite systems can provide comparisons of the state of the environment ‘before, during and after’ the war – in other words, the very important time series profile of changes in key environmental variables that can be used to assess damages. They can be used to confirm whatever ‘ground truth’ monitoring may be available, which would be used to calibrate the satellite data and, using artificial intelligence, fill in gaps where there is no data available. Satellites and GIS technologies are already being used to assess infrastructure damage and consequences of forest fires and flash floods in Ukraine. These satellite systems, together with well-developed Ukrainian GIS technologies, will be invaluable assets for the ultimate assessment of ecological damage and reparations.

Socioeconomic consequences of Kakhovka dam destruction

The evidence of ecocide is clear in the case of the Kakhovka dam demolition, and the damages are on par with the more disaggregated but cumulatively damaging environmental destruction across the broad combat zone in Ukraine, over a span of 500 days of Russian military ruination.  Several weeks after the Kakhovka deluge, the waters have receded, leaving behind an ecological wasteland of trash, toxic pollutants, decomposing fish and remains of many other species, throughout the length of the affected river  – from upstream at the tail-end of 2,000 square kilometers empty reservoir, to downstream at the mouth of the Dnipro River estuary at Ochakiv, a distance of approximately 200 km from the dam. Debris and dead fish have also littered the shoreline of the northern Black Sea, turning Odesa shoreline into a ‘garbage dump and animal cemetery’. 

Khakovka reservoir stored 18.2 cubic km of water, which is roughly one-third of the total average annual volume that flows down the Dnipro River (54 cubic km). The reservoir covers a total area of 2,155 km2 (832 sq mi) and is 240 km (150 mi) long and up to 23 km (14 mi) wide. The dam itself is 30 m high [98 ft]. Its hydroelectric capacity is 351 MW, a small fraction of Ukraine’s total hydroelectric power production, which accounts for only 5% of Ukraine’s energy needs. During the Russian occupation of the dam, power from the Kakhovka HPP was cut off from the main grid. 

The abrupt release of water from behind the demolished Kakhovka Dam unleashed a surging wall of water which reached a peak of 5.6m (18.5 ft) in Kherson on June 8th, that swept through the river valley below the dam, all the way to the Black Sea, a distance of over 200 km (125 mi). Since the breach occurred in the early morning hours, at approximately 3 am, on June 6th, there was no warning for the over 80 unsuspecting towns and villages below the dam that were flooded on the right bank of the river. Settlements in the lower left bank, currently occupied by Russians, suffered even more since occupants were not provided any help and Russians were shelling Ukrainian teams who tried to save people from the left bank. 

The ecocide resulting from the dam disaster has far too many dimensions to tally properly. The commonly used phrase ‘adverse impacts’ is much too insipid a term to describe the horrendous economic, humanitarian and environmental consequences of this singular monstrous war crime. There are several notable categories of serious and longer lasting environmental damage that collectively comprise the ecocide caused by Kakhovka dam destruction: loss of irrigation water for farms and landscape desiccation; loss of water supply and sanitation (WSS) services for towns and other settlements; health concerns related to cholera and other pollution-related diseases. But most of all, massive habitat losses; long-term ecosystem degradation and reduction of numerous aquatic species and biodiversity, not only in the territories of the natural reserves of the immediate riverine/estuarine ecosystem, but in the much broader areas connected to those ecosystems. 

The most important function of the reservoir was that it served as the main supply of drinking and irrigation water to much of the Kherson Oblast and Crimea. Water from the reservoir flowed through several main canals and was further distributed through 12,000 km of irrigation canals and ditches, irrigating nearly 600,000 hectares, 90% of which are now in the Russian-occupied zone. 

According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Agriculture, the destruction of the dam will leave 584,000 hectares (1,440,000 acres) of land without irrigation, turning them into “deserts”. At its peak, during the Soviet era, irrigation sustained over 2 million hectares in this region, but neglect and poor maintenance degraded the system considerably, leading to a World Bank investment plan to upgrade the system in 2015. It will take a decade to reconstruct the dam and cost over $1 billion, should such an action be decided in the future.

The death toll has risen to 52 as a consequence of the floodwater, with Russian officials saying 35 people had died in Moscow-controlled left-bank areas and Ukraine’s interior ministry saying 17 had died and 31 were missing on the right bank of the river. More than 11,000 have been evacuated on both sides. Moscow has rejected United Nations’ offers to help people in Russian-occupied areas affected by flooding from the destroyed dam. Moreover, when Ukrainians tried  to evacuate people from the left bank, Russians shelled them.

Public health is the number one priority. Typically associated with the aftermath of such floods, is the transmission of communicable waterborne diseases like typhoid, cholera, leptospirosis and hepatitis A. Ukrainian officials are preparing for such outbreaks, but can do little for the people in the Russia-occupied zone of the left bank of the Dnipro River. The entire downstream section of the river is seriously polluted, and dangerous for people and the biota within, according to Victor Liashko, Ukrainian Minister of Health. 

Kakhovka reservoir provided drinking water for more than 700,000 people in southern Ukraine. Cities on the Dnieper River, including Kherson, Nikopol, Marhanets and Pokrov, are now short of WSS, according to the United Nations. Another 250,000 people in rural Kherson oblast depend on groundwater, which is of poor quality, with elevated concentrations of chlorides and minerals.  The international standard for chlorides (representing salinity) is 50-250 parts per million (ppm), while the total dissolved solids (TDS) standard is a maximum of 500 ppm.  37% of the groundwater wells in Kherson oblast fail these standards, with chlorides well above 500 ppm, and TDS > 1000 ppm.   

Ecological Consequences of the dam destruction

Though occupying less than 6 percent of Europe’s area, Ukraine possesses 35 percent of Europe’s biodiversity, making it the most biodiverse nation in Europe.  The Kakhovka environmental catastrophe comes on top of 500 days of Russian military destruction and persistent degradation of Ukraine’s environmental resources – its rivers, meadows, marshes, wetlands, forests, farms, and state parks and protected natural reserves.

Ecological habitats are the foundations for a rich array of species diversity. Degraded or destroyed habitats result in a large reduction in the number of species, decreasing biodiversity, and further endangering threatened species. The Kakhovka Reservoir was habitat to at least 43 fish species, 20 of which have commercial importance. 

Within the territory affected by the ecological catastrophe exist 38 rare habitat types protected under the Bern Convention, which have been identified and protected as part of the European Emerald Network.  Above the Kakhovka HPP dam at least 11 protected areas will be affected by desiccation, totaling over 250,000 hectares.

Kakhovka reservoir on June 15th, 9 days after destruction of the dam. Source: Ukrinform

The benthic [bottom] habitat in the reservoir and river downstream is at the base of the reservoir and riverine food chain, with a wide range of mollusks, mussels, worms and other flora and fauna that live in the muddy bottom layers. That food base has been mostly destroyed in the 2,000 square kilometer reservoir. Spring and summer is the usual period for fish spawning, bird nesting and feeding and resting areas for large flocks of migratory waterfowl. Several lifecycles of countless species are dependent on the Dnipro River estuary. River and reservoir ecosystems will be drastically modified and depleted.

Ukraine is in the center of an important migratory bird flyway, stretching from Central Asia to the Middle East.  The scale of the avian movement is awesome with over 2 billion birds, 2.5 million ducks and two million raptors migrating from their breeding grounds in Europe, Siberia and central Asia to winter in tropical Africa. The war has disrupted this flyway for many migratory species that nest, rest and feed in the agricultural fields, irrigation canals, marshes, rivers and lakes of Ukraine.  Recently, a survey of migratory birds in Kashmir showed significant declines in various species, attributing them to the war in Ukraine. The long conflict coupled with the Kakhovka dam catastrophe threatens not only Ukraine’s diverse bird populations but also biodiversity in general, including a significant number of rare and globally vulnerable bird species.

A number of very important habitats at the estuarine mouth of the Dnipro River protected under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance are seriously degraded and/or severely polluted, including the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO biosphere reserve; the Kinburn Spit Regional Landscape Park; and numerous smaller sites. 

The vast volume of fresh water has definitely disturbed the balance between the brackish water of the Dnipro River estuary and nearshore, and that of the Black Sea, greatly diluting the surface waters whose salinity is normally about 15 parts per thousand (for comparison, ocean water is 35ppt).  The reservoir water swept away with it agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, which will create a hypoxic dead zone, similar to the one occurring every summer at the Mississippi delta. This will further extend the period of adverse environmental conditions for the flora and fauna of the nearshore Black Sea, particularly for migratory fish and bird species dependent on the Dnipro River marshes as resting and feeding areas.

An additional potential problem is that radionuclides from the Chornobyl nuclear accident that have been buried in the sediment layers of Kakhovka reservoir for the past three decades have been flushed out, resuspended and carried downstream and redeposited in the estuarine marshes. There is considerable evidence that aquatic plants absorb these radionuclides, and their concentrations are magnified as they pass up the food chain through a process called biomagnification

The condition of the benthos is crucial not only for the riverine food chain, but also for achieving the desired “good” ecological status of all water bodies in the Kakhovka reservoir and downstream, which Ukraine must achieve under the transposed EU Water Framework Directive. Obviously, after the dam is blown up and the reservoir disappears, achieving “good” status will be much more difficult and expensive.

How to evaluate ecological damage?

How expensive? This should be determined by special programs of measures to restore the environment of the areas affected by the Kakhovka dam explosion, which are currently being actively discussed by the Ministry of Environment and its subordinate agencies and services. This raises many questions, the answers to which will largely determine the amount of money and effort required for environmental restoration. Of course, funding and resources are currently very limited.

For example, methods for protected areas stipulate that the condition must be restored to its ‘natural state’, although it is unclear on what basis. It is impossible to restore ecosystems to their pristine natural state when they have been altered for centuries by human activities. The UN Compensation Commission (UNCC) says that restoration means actions aimed at returning damaged natural resources or services to their ‘basic state’ – i.e., the state of natural resources and ecosystem services that would have existed if the incident had not occurred. 

As for the restoration of water resources outside the protected areas,  existing methods for water resources do not address restoration at all (although the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) recognized by Ukraine provides for the environmental remediation liability of the state!). These methods measure damage to water resources through the amount of eco-taxes and fees that were lost rather than through the funds needed for restoration. 

It is not clear how these discrepancies will affect the calculation of the costs of environmental restoration. Ukraine’s Ministry of Environment considers different approaches to the proper accounting of Ukraine’s post-war environmental damage. 

Calculating the Compensation for Ecocide

How does one put a price tag on the destruction of habitat, biodiversity, endangered species or nature itself? Ecosystems are like factories – they are physical assets that provide services. Damage assessment principles and methods for the environment and ecosystems as the basis for financial compensation for war damages are equivalent to those for private property, commercial enterprises and public infrastructure

For example, compensation should include the valuation of all components of assets (i.e. species, habitat) and company (ecosystem) value that were negatively affected by the war, directly or indirectly. The International Valuation Standards (IVS 2022) have long been applied globally to determine asset and company value within myriad compensation adjudications. There are comparable valuation standards and methods for the environment, ecosystems and valued ecological resources developed by the United Nations,  European Union, USAID and the U.S. National Strategy for Natural Capital Accounting.

A comprehensive study on the valuation of ecosystem services was conducted in 2020 by the U.K. Dept of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.  It covered over 25 typical services provided by habitats and ecosystems, ranging from food, genetic resources, biodiversity, climate regulation to esthetic experiences and hunting. And it covered a wide range of ecosystems, from open ocean, coral reefs to mangrove forests, marshes and freshwater wetlands. The mean value of the suite of ecosystem services for all ecosystem types was computed as $3500/ha/yr [in 2020 dollars]. The figures ranged from a high of $119,000/ha/yr for tropical forests to $1600 for grasslands.  Figures that more closely represent Ukraine’s ecosystems were inland and coastal wetlands, $49,000; cultivated areas, $8,000 and rivers and lakes, $20,700/ha/yr.

Another way of valuing the ecological services that habitats provide is to look at restoration costs in Europe and the U.S. For example, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers spent $710M for aquatic restoration projects in 2022. The agency restored, improved or protected 108,000 acres (44,000 hectares) in 2019, and 115,000 acres (46,500 ha) in 2021. This translates, on average, to approximately $13,000/ha of restoration costs. 

The U.S. Congress passed numerous ecosystem restoration-related provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA; P.L. 117-58), which was signed into law on November 15, 2021. The IIJA contains numerous provisions that authorized and funded federal ecosystem restoration activities. Some provisions directly addressed ecosystems or components of an ecosystem (e.g., actions to remove in-stream barriers); other provisions addressed ecosystem restoration indirectly (e.g., activities to restore landscapes after energy or mineral extraction). Collectively, these programs, distributed among several agencies, totaled $13.5 billion to be spent during the period 2023-2026.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Environment has developed its own restoration plan for monitoring and measuring the damage done by the Kakhovka dam disaster. The plan includes the resources to be monitored and the agencies and entities responsible for collecting the data, and providing the analysis.  Unfortunately, funding is lacking to fully initiate this project at the present time. 

“Après moi, le déluge” is a phrase uttered by Louis XV, expressing his indifference to the plight of his subjects after his death, knowing that he ruined the nation economically, thereby hastening the French Revolution. Given Putin’s remorseless scorched earth tactics against Ukraine’s civilian population during the past 500 days of war, the destruction of Kakhovka HPP [Hydropower Plant] is consistent with Putin’s callous indifference to the many war crimes and the flood catastrophe that he unleashed on Ukraine. Only a tactical nuclear explosion could be more catastrophic in its consequences. Maybe that was the intent – Putin’s signal for what may happen ‘apres le deluge’ – perhaps a terrorist attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant?

  • Eugene Stakhiv, Department of Environmental Science, Johns Hopkins University
  • Andriy Demydenko, Senior researcher, Division of Mathematical Environmental Modeling, Institute of Mathematical Machines and Systems Problems, NASU


The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations