The Kakhovka Dam collapse is an ecological catastrophe for Ukraine’s wildlife

Could this disaster finally make ecocide an internationally recognised crime?
A man searches the bottom of a dried Kakhovka reservoir, after Kakhovka dam explosion in Nikopol, Ukraine. Photo: Amadeusz Swierk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Floods, as they say, are acts of god, but flood losses are generally acts of man and should be punished accordingly. But what if both the floods and flood losses are caused by man? By many men, an army even, while a hot war rages?

The catastrophic collapse of the Kakhovka Dam in war-hit southern Ukraine, which has left thousands of acres of flooded farmland and homes, is pushing ecocide to the forefront of a charged international debate. Does the world need a bespoke mechanism to extract retribution for wanton and widespread crimes against the natural environment? Should ecocide be internationally recognised a crime as horrific as genocide?

It is certainly just as traumatic and gruesome, as shown by the unfolding humanitarian, economic and environmental aftermath of the Kakhovka Dam’s destruction. Shoals of fish have been left gasping on mud flats; a ragged trail of drowned birds’ nests, trees and plants runs through the area; tens of thousands of people are displaced, with nowhere to go, nothing to eat, no reliable sources of water to drink and no long-term source of livelihood. A hydroptic sweeping waste, to use the late great Cormac McCarthy’s words, has replaced once-rich fields on both sides of the Dnipro River.

Late last month, satellite images analysed by the BBC showed that the Kakhovka reservoir, one of Europe’s largest and a critical drinking and irrigation source for the region, was starting to dry up. This could turn southern Ukraine’s fertile land into desert by next year. The United Nations has said the devastation will have a “huge impact on global food security” because the area was “a breadbasket not only for Ukraine but also for the world”.

The emptying reservoir is also raising safety concerns at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant because it was its primary source of cooling water. Meanwhile, rare wildlife species endemic to Ukraine, including the Nordmann’s Birch Mouse, Tapinoma kinburni ant and a short-headed cornflower have lost their habitats to the waters and are under threat. The flow of fresh river water into the Black Sea is also thought likely to affect the aquatic ecosystem.

Unsurprisingly then, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has called the dam breach “an environmental bomb of mass destruction” and even his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, was moved to describe it as an “environmental and humanitarian catastrophe”, which he said was caused by a “barbaric act”.

But how to determine who committed the barbaric act, how to establish culpability and by what authority might it be punished?

The tragic aftermath of the Kakhovka Dam breach is the third time in just over 50 years that ecocide in the time of war is in serious international focus. The first was in the early 1970s, soon after the term ecocide was coined by Yale biologist Arthur W Galston to describe the deleterious environmental effects of Agent Orange, a defoliant sprayed by the Americans on enemy territory during the Vietnam war.

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