Environmentally, economically and in terms of pure human suffering, the destruction of the Kakhovka dam unleashed untold damage. Months later, many communities are still reeling.
By Jeffrey Gettleman
September 3, 2023
The New York Times
Sunset along the Kakhovka Reservoir in central Ukraine, especially in summer, used to be gorgeous: kids played in the shallow water near the shore, men fished and young couples walked under the pine trees as the last traces of sunlight reflected off the water.
But after the destruction of a major dam just downriver, that shimmering lake, one of Europe’s biggest, simply disappeared. Now all that remains is a 150-mile-long meadow.
For 60-plus years, the Bezhan family ran a fishing business on these shores. They bought boats, nets, freezers and enormous rumbling ice-making machines, and generation after generation made a living off the fish. But now there are no fish. “If the war ended tomorrow, and I don’t think it will,” said Serhii Bezhan, the family’s broad-chested patriarch, “it would take five years to rebuild that dam and then at least two more for the reservoir to fill up. Then it would take another 10 years for the fish to grow — for some species, 20.”
He looked away as his eyes misted up. “I’m 50,” he said quietly. “I don’t know if I’ll even be around that long.”
On June 6, seismic meters hundreds of miles away detected an enormous explosion at the Kakhovka dam along the Dnipro River. The reinforced concrete walls, more than 60 feet high and as much as 100 feet thick, crumbled, and 4.8 trillion gallons of water gushed out.
Scientific evidence indicates that the dam was blown up from the inside, almost certainly by the Russian forces occupying it. In one stroke, they unleashed epic floods on Ukraine and an ensuing drought that, taken together, brought a stunning level of destruction to the environment, the economy and the lives of civilians already enduring the hardships of war.
This summer, a team of New York Times journalists traveled hundreds of miles from Zaporizhzhia in central Ukraine to Odesa on the Black Sea to assess the full impact. What we found were homes still soggy and smeared with mud; dead fish lying in droves; underwater mollusk colonies destroyed; a drinking-water crisis; an irrigation crisis for farmers; entire communities without work; and a yawning sense of loss whose dimensions have not yet been established.
During this war, the Russians have deliberately bombed power plants and grain silos, leaving no shortage of scorched-earth brutality. But the destruction of the Kakhovka dam stands out as perhaps the single most devastating and punitive blow even if the military intent was to flood the area and slow down Ukrainian troops. The way Ukrainians see it, the invading Russians are simply expressing a hatred of the land — and the people — that they are claiming as theirs. This was a “katastrofa,” Mr. Bezan said. With no fish to catch, his family has been relegated to picking fruit from their orchard and selling it alongside the road.
Studying the Past
Dmytro Neveselyi, the towering young mayor of Zelenodolsk, looks more like a professional basketball player than the city administrator of a small town in the Ukrainian heartland. One afternoon this summer, he leaned over his desk and unfurled a World War II-era map. Mr. Neveselyi and other civic leaders have been combing old maps like this one to locate wells and other possible sources of water that this area used when there was no dam. “This is from the Nazis,” he explained, with a hint of amusement. “It’s the last good image we have of this area before the dam was built.”
The Kakhovka dam was an engineering marvel of its time, a mammoth project emblematic of the Soviet impulse to build bigger, if not always better. Completed in 1956, the hydroelectric dam blocked the Dnipro River to generate electricity. The water that backed up created the Kakhovka Reservoir, which irrigated farms and provided drinking water to central Ukraine’s growing cities. When the reservoir ran dry, a huge swath of Ukraine was left without running water. People stopped doing laundry. Some even used plastic bags to go to the bathroom.
Since then, some water service has been restored by connecting pipes to other, much smaller reservoirs. But thousands of people still lack clean drinking water and are at the mercy of water trucks that make the rounds.
So the search for alternative water sources goes on. The map that Mr. Neveselyi opened on his desk was a surprisingly clear black and white aerial photo taken by the Luftwaffe, the German air force, which was eventually discovered by American researchers and posted online. It all seems hard to believe, he said. “I spent my entire life on this waterside,” he said, as he walked along the dried-up lakeshore. “I still don’t believe what I’m actually seeing.”
A Farming Disaster
The vast agricultural heartland around the reservoir produced more than eight billion pounds of wheat, corn, soybeans and sunflowers and 80 percent of Ukraine’s vegetables each year, the Ukrainian authorities said. The reservoir was greatly responsible for that, irrigating more than 2,000 square miles. “I don’t mean to be too pessimistic,” said Volodymyr Halia, a commercial farmer near the town of Apostolove. “But I haven’t heard any solutions for irrigation. These farms will dry up unless we rebuild the dam.” Right now, that is impossible. The Russians still control the area. So the losses keep stacking up. This area’s farmers used to export their grain on river barges that tied up along the reservoir’s shores. The docks are still there. But instead of overlooking water, they sit astride miles of mud. It’s difficult to know how much of a “katasrofa” the dam breach will be. The Kyiv School of Economics, along with Ukraine’s government, believes the attack cost at least $2 billion in direct losses, a toll that will most likely increase as times goes on. “People were already so tired and stressed from a year of war,” said Tamara Nevdah, a local official who lives near the reservoir. “When this happened, people felt as horrible and demoralized as they did the first day of the war.” “And they’re still in shock,” she added.
The Kahovka Reservoir was a wonderland for birds. It served as a way station for migratory species on their journeys from northern climes to Africa. Islands in the lake and marshy areas downriver were nesting sites for great herons, glossy ibises, Eurasian spoonbills and others, said Oleksii Vasyliuk, an ecologist and zoologist.
But when the torrent of water cascaded downstream, it wiped out countless nesting sites, and the birds who used to nest near the lake have vanished as well. “We lost an entire generation,” Mr. Vasyliuk said.
Ukrainian environmentalists are also concerned about a rare species of ant that lived in the Lower Dnipro National Nature Park where chunks of the swamp have been washed away, and Nordmann’s birch mouse, a tiny, threatened mammal of the steppe whose habitat in the Oleshky Sands National Nature Park was overwhelmed by floodwaters.
In Odesa, 90 miles west of where the Dnipro flows into the Black Sea, Vladyslav Balinskyi, an ecologist, walked along the shore, glaring at beachgoers. “Nobody should be swimming,” he said. “They don’t know what’s in that water.” He rattled off pollutants that the flood had dumped into the sea: cadmium, strontium, mercury, lead, pesticides, fertilizers and 150 tons of machine oil used in the hydroelectric plant’s massive gears. Nearly every day he dives to survey the impact on marine life. “Fifty percent of the mussels have already died,” he said.
‘All Gone. Nothing. Trash.’
Liudmyla Mavrych stood in her living room, clutching a soggy scrapbook. A village clerk, she spent much of her life in the same little house in Afanansiivka, a quiet, pretty hamlet along a Dnipro tributary downriver from the dam. The wallpaper was peeling off her walls. The linoleum was peeling off her counters. Mud was smeared across her floors. The whole house smelled like an old, mildewy rag. Floodwaters had swallowed her home, like thousands of others. “Useless,” she said, peeling wet, sticky photos out of a scrapbook. One by one, she flung them to the floor. “We lost our home, we lost everything we owned and now we don’t even have any memories,” she said, getting more upset as she rapidly flipped through the damp photo album. “All gone. Nothing. Trash.”
Kherson, a port city on the Dnipro’s west bank, was one of the most flood-ravaged places in Ukrainian-controlled territory. Photos from those first days show rooftops sticking out from the water. But it was on the other bank, the east bank, occupied by Russian troops, where many more people are believed to have died. Mykhailo Puryshev, an experienced humanitarian worker, was one of the few Ukrainian civilians who dared to rescue people on the Russian side. According to video footage and an interview he gave, he sped across the river in a pink boat wearing a pink helmet. “I wanted to make sure the Russians saw me so they wouldn’t shoot me,” he said. When he arrived in Oleshky, in Russian-controlled territory, he saw people standing on their rooftops, surrounded by water, waving white flags and shouting, “Help!”
According to the Ukrainian and Russian authorities, dozens died on the east bank of the river. Mr. Puryshev said some were disabled people who had drowned in their homes. He rescued 10 children and two dogs and then got out. “The Russians didn’t do anything,” he said. “I didn’t see a single soldier anywhere.”
Oleksandra Mykolyshyn and Evelina Riabenko contributed reporting from several sites affected by the dam’s destruction.
Jeffrey Gettleman and Finbarr O’Reilly traveled hundreds of miles documenting the devastation above and below the dam, across the landscape and on individual lives.
Jeffrey Gettleman is an international correspondent and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of “Love, Africa,” a memoir.