the ukrainian devastation

Kakhovka hydroelectric power station, Ukraine
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By SUSANNE WENGLE & VITALII DANKEVYCH

The most serious effects of the war will be the long-term ones, and will fall on farmers in southeastern Ukraine, including the portion that joined Russia by plebiscite.

When an explosion ruptured the Kakhovka dam in Ukraine on June 6, 2023, many analyzes focused on the short-term impacts, including the flooding of the city of Kherson, threats to the Zaporozhie Nuclear Power Plant and the fallout for the expected Kakhovka offensive. spring of Ukrainian military forces against Russian troops.

But the most serious effects will be the long-term ones, and will fall on farmers in southeastern Ukraine, including the portion that has already decided to join Russia by plebiscite.

Rural villages in this region were flooded. Roads, train tracks and irrigation canals were destroyed. Harvests in fields and orchards in the oblasts from Kherson and Zaporozhie were flooded and then left to wither as the water drained. The long-term ecological disaster, in turn, will unfold in the coming decades. Crimea, once known for its sunny beaches and rice fields, can dry out without irrigation.

We, the authors of this text – an American political scientist specializing in the post-Soviet space and a Ukrainian economist who researches agricultural issues – assess that, although the long-term effects of the dam failure are difficult to quantify, it will have a lasting impact, in particular on the climate of southern Ukraine.

Agricultural land that is no longer irrigated and cultivated, because the canals are destroyed and the reservoir drained, will dry out, making it more vulnerable to soil erosion and dust storms. Agricultural production could be reduced in the coming years, with impacts that will ripple through supply chains around the world and affect global food security.

In our view, the dam explosion has all the earmarks of a scorched earth strategy, designed to destroy anything that might be of use to the enemy.[1] It's hard to imagine any country inflicting such massive damage on its own territory.

 

A fertile agricultural region

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

Local towns and cities came to depend on water and electricity from the dam, as well as its reservoir. About 220.000 hectares of agricultural land in these two regions was irrigated land, including over 20% of Kherson's arable land.

Kherson farms grow watermelons and tomatoes. The region's cherry, apricot, peach, apple and plum orchards produce the sweetest fruits in Ukraine. Southeast Ukraine also grows large amounts of soybeans and sunflowers, mainly destined for global markets.[2]

 

Flooded fields, toxic water

The dam failure flooded the fields along the banks of the Dnieper River. By July 1, the Dnieper River, near the Kherson measurement post, had returned to its natural level, although several settlements on the left bank territory, previously occupied by Russian forces, remained under water.

Based on the conditions reported so far, this year's crops in the flooded zone are expected to become waterlogged, and much of the crop to be destroyed. Valuable perennial crops, which depended on the reservoir-fed irrigation infrastructure, once flooded will later dry up. The rich and productive soil layer may have been washed away.

Further downstream, the Dnieper, Southern Bug and Inhulets river basins were polluted, endangering agriculture and drinking water for southern Ukraine. During the dam failure, 150 tons of oil leaked and at least 17 gas stations were flooded. There is widespread concern about impacts on wildlife in the region, including various forms of nesting for migratory birds.

 

After the flood, water shortage

The flooding of the reservoir also endangered the infrastructure which until then was strategic for Ukraine's agricultural exports, including culverts, hydraulic pumping stations, river ports and grain terminals. Most importantly, without reservoir water, the fields of Kherson, Zaporozhie and Crimea will dry out. Coastal cities on the Sea of ​​Azov, most notably Berdyansk, have lost their main source of drinking water.

Crimea is particularly dependent on irrigation. Before reunifying with Russia in 2014, Crimean farms grew rice and maize. After reunification, Ukraine blocked the flow of water to the peninsula. When Russia captured Kherson in March 2022, it reopened the North Crimean Canal and allowed the peninsula's reservoirs to fill up again.

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

 

Fewer exports, higher prices

In addition to Ukraine, the dam failure will critically affect global food supplies. Sunflower seeds, soybeans and cereals from southern Ukraine are the main ingredients for European industrially processed food and animal feed. They provide the proteins and lipids that are the building blocks of the XNUMXst century diet.

after these commodities are harvested, they need to be dried, transported internally, stored, and then exported. Many facilities along the Dnieper and its tributaries are key points in the supply chains that connected former Ukrainian farms to world markets.

Storage elevators and cargo terminals at the port of Kozatske, located just below the dam, were flooded within hours of the failure. The upstream ports of Kamianiets-Dniprovska, Nikopol and Energodar are closed, and are likely to remain inoperative for years to come.

The global prices of commodities food prices soared hours after the dam broke, as global grain traders anticipated shortages of these commodities. UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths stated that the impact on food security can be significant.

"The whole area that goes down towards the Black Sea and Crimea is a breadbasket, not just for Ukraine, but also for the world," Griffiths told the BBC. “It is almost inevitable that we will have huge, huge problems in harvesting and sowing for the next season. And then what we're going to see is a huge impact on global food security."

 

an uncertain future

The loss of the Kakhovka dam is the latest blow to a region that suffered greatly 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 failure, the cultivated area in 2023 in Ukraine had already contracted by 45% and overall productivity had fallen by as much as 60% compared to 2021, the pre-war year. With the loss of the dam and reservoir, harvests are almost certain to decline further.

Most residents of the area's 80 flooded villages are farmers. If and when they are able to return to their land, the fields and orchards may no longer be able to produce and yield enough to support their families, who have already suffered severely during the intense fighting in Kherson and Zaporozhie.

In 1941, Joseph Stalin ordered Soviet troops to destroy the predecessor of the new Kakhovka dam, to also slow down the advance, for the time being, of the German army. It was not rebuilt until 1956. While post-war Russian efforts may replace the Kakhovka Dam even more quickly, it is to be expected that the current more severe droughts will virtually destroy rural life in southeastern Ukraine, as well as it existed before June 6th.

*Susanne Wengle Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame (USA).

*Vitalii Dankevych is a doctor in Economics and professor at the Faculty of Law, Public Administration and National Security, at Polissia National University (Ukraine).

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Originally published on the portal The Conversation.

Translator's notes


[1] The collapse of the Kakhovka dam was deliberately leveraged by the Ukrainian regime, with the pre-opening of the gates of all dams upstream of Kakhovka.

[2] The main source of sunflower oil used in cooking across Europe is southern Ukraine.


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