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Petition to the White House (full text, mobile version)

We are urging the White House to react to the explosion of the Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine as an ecocide.

 

In the early hours on Tuesday June 6, the dam of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant in Ukraine was blown up by Russian troops. The dam was holding a total volume of 18,200 million cubic meters of water in a reservoir that is part of the Dnipro river system. That water is now rushing downstream, depleting the Dnipro, drowning whole ecosystems, bringing with it hundreds of tons of oil from the destroyed hydroelectric plant, dislodging land mines, washing up human bodies from cemeteries, and more. Ukraine may see another desert appearing in the next few years. This is an ecological catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, the full scale of which will not be possible to fully assess for at least several months.

 

The US government has long been taking a leadership position in supporting sustainable development worldwide and managing climate change risks on federal and global scale. In this regard, environmental concerns here align very well with the official foreign affairs policy on the war in Ukraine. The US openly condemns the Russian invasion and is the largest donor of military assistance to Ukraine. The American government has supported the special tribunal to prosecute Russia for war crimes in Ukraine. The case of the Kakhovka Dam explosion is one of the many Russian war crimes, but it is also one with a unique and devastating environmental impact. Hence, the combination of ecocide and genocide beg for a statement that draws on the USA’s environmental agenda and the human rights agenda in an unprecedented way and highlights the multifaceted nature of the damage and destruction caused by the Russian troops.

 

We are calling on the White House to make such a statement, to commission an expert investigation of the Kakhovka Dam explosion and its environmental consequences, to debate options for a response to this specific war crime as an exceptional and particularly heinous act against nature and humanity, and to pursue further action in support of Ukraine. Seeking environmental justice and preserving democracy all around the globe is a primary interest to the leaders of the free world. 

 

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called (1) the flooding a “devastating” “ecological catastrophe”. Ukraine's deputy foreign minister Andriy Melnyk described (2) it as “the worst environmental disaster in Europe since Chernobyl”, President Zelensky (3) — as “the largest man-made environmental disaster in Europe in decades”. While the full consequences of the ongoing flooding are impossible to assess yet, it is clear that they are catastrophic not just for Ukraine, but for many neighbouring regions (4). What we know already has been summarized (5) perfectly by Iulia Markhel, the coordinator of Let's Do It Ukraine SOS, the country's largest environmental NGO: “Animals, species, will be destroyed. It will change the climate of the whole region. Ukrainian agrarian lands have likely been destroyed. The area will be flooded. The places the water will leave will turn into deserts; the places the water will stay will become swamps.” We are providing an overview of the available evidence for environmental effects of the Kakhovka Dam destruction below for your convenience.

 

The reservoir held more than 18 cubic kilometers of water. “It is 90 times bigger than the largest dam reservoir in the UK,” explains (6) Dr Mohammad Heidarzadeh, senior lecturer at the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering at the University of Bath. This amount of water rushing downstream means unseen levels of depletion in the Dnipro river, which is leading to the death of fish and other aquatic life, as well as profound disruption of the rest of the ecosystem.

 

The Dnipro basin is home to unique and fragile ecosystems, its biosphere reserve holding protected status since 1927. Oleksii Vasyliuk, biologist and founder of the Ukrainian Nature Protection Group (UNCG), reveals (7) that 48 protected areas are at risk, including "one biosphere reserve, three national parks, one regional landscape park, sixteen reserves, three nature reserves, twenty-two natural landmarks and two parks-monuments of garden and park art will be partially or completely affected by flooding". The UNCG’s report (7) details the terrifying consequences for more than three hundred species. “The steppe areas, which are home to many rare Red Data Book animals (see IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) (8) , will be flooded,” echoes (9) Oleh Lystopad, ecologist and expert of the Network for the Protection of National Interests (ANTS) “According to Mykhailo Rusin, PhD in Biology, Nordmann's birch mouse (Sicista loriger) is at risk of 70 per cent extinction. It is likely that the falzfein gerbils  (Stylodipus telum falzfeini, another endemic species of Kherson region) and the sandy scops owl (Otus icterorhynchus) will go extinct; this is a disaster for these species. Hundreds of hectares of spawning grounds in the Kakhovka reservoir are also at risk, as they will be devastated by the explosion.” “<The explosion and subsequent flooding> may lead to the Nyzhniodniprovskyi National Nature Park to disappear, which is more than 80,000 hectares of protected land,” says (10) Fabrice Martin, Country Director at CARE Ukraine.

 

The water flow in the Dnipro is affected by the flood not just downstream, but upstream, too. “As the reservoir empties the water level in the reservoir drops dramatically and the upstream level also drops as a result of what’s termed backwater effects. The resulting drop in the river water level can have an impact many tens or even hundreds of miles upstream of the head of the reservoir”, explains (6) Roger Falconer, Professor of Water Management at Cardiff University. “The upstream reduction in water levels will also invariably affect ground water levels, particularly close to the river, which can in turn affect the characteristics of wetlands, habitats etc.”

 

Farmland downstream of the destroyed dam has been immediately affected by the flooding and crop destruction. According to provisional estimates published (11) by the Ukrainian Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food, around 10,000 hectares of farmland will be flooded on the right bank of the Dnipro River, in the Ukrainian-controlled Kherson region. The ministry said it believed the impact was more severe on the left bank, currently controlled by Russia. More than that, about half a million acres of fertile farmland rely (12) on the Kakhovka reservoir for irrigation. The Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food expects water supply interruption to 31 field irrigation systems. “The terrorist act at the Kakhovka hydroelectric station actually left 94% of irrigation systems in Kherson without a water source, 74% in Zaporizhzhia and 30% in Dnipropetrovsk regions (...) The fields in the south of Ukraine next year can turn into deserts,” according to the ministry.

 

The water rushing downstream from the dam is heavily polluted. “Potentially 600 or maybe even 800 tons of oil have been released into the water”, according (13) to the Ukrainian Environment Minister Ruslan Strilets. This oil is in the Dnipro, in the Dnipro Estuary, and now heading for the Black Sea. It is well known that oil spills “bring consequences that can be felt for decades” (UNEP) (14), and the fact that this oil spill originated deep within the continent, in an area with abundant wildlife, only makes the impact more catastrophic. The pollution does not stop with the oil, either. “In the southern regions of Ukraine, there are metallurgical plants that had corresponding waste dumps,” says (9) ecologist Oleh Lystopad. The many corpses carried by the floodwaters, both from recent deaths in the flood and the multiple cemeteries it destroyed, could lead to "deterioration of water quality due to decomposition of dead organisms," warns (15) the NGO Ecoaction. The flooding of settlements means that the water carries unusually large amounts of pollutants from sewage pits, agricultural lands, gas stations, landfills and other sources into the sea. The Dnipro is also now carrying the thousands of tons of eroded soil and toxic sludge that have accumulated at the bottom of the Kakhovka reservoir over the years. This sediment, contaminated heavy metals and other pollutants, were retained by the dam and are now dislodged by the flood, as explained (6) by Dragan Savic, CEO of KWR Water in the Netherlands and Professor of Hydroinformatics, University of Exeter. The effects will be felt by every country with access to the Black Sea, says (16) ecologist Vladyslav Balinsky.

 

The flood has dislodged land mines, too. Erik Tollefsen, head of the Red Cross's weapon contamination unit, says (17), "We knew where the hazards were. Now we don't know."All we know is that they are somewhere downstream." Nataliya Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for Ukraine's military South Command, confirms (17): "Many anti-infantry mines have been dislodged, becoming floating mines. They pose a great danger," she says, explaining that they were likely to explode if they collided or hit debris.

 

Additional grave concerns are caused by the potential effects of the flood on the Zaporizhzhia Power Station — the largest nuclear power station in Europe. <...> The International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi believes (18) the plant should have enough water to cool its reactors for several months from a pond located above the reservoir of the dam, but less immediate nuclear safety is still at a threat. “However, the use of this protocol will require significant Russian goodwill,” highlights (19) Victoria Voytsitska, former Ukrainian MP and Secretary of the Rada's Committee on Fuel, Energy, Nuclear Policies, & Security, “because the procedure will require the de-mining of the part of the Dnipro's left bank where the NPP is located. International pressure on Russia would be critical here.”

 

According to the Stop Ecocide Foundation, the group behind the proposed ecocide law as part of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the definition of ecocide is “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”. There is no doubt that the explosion of the dam in Kakhovka is an ecocide.

 

The importance of an urgent response from environmentalists is hard to overestimate. The Kakhovka Dam destruction is a cause of an ecocide of unseen proportions that will affect global sustainability and American allies. The risks of environmental, humanitarian and public health disasters need to be assessed and possibly minimized. The US cannot stand aside.

 

Signed:

FAR USA (American Feminist Anti-War Resistance)

 

Sources:

(1) https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2023-06-06/secretary-generals-remarks-press-encounter-the-situation-ukraine

(2) https://twitter.com/MelnykAndrij

(3) https://twitter.com/ZelenskyyUa/status/1666052695445196801?cxt=HHwWgsC-ka6GgZ8uAAAA

(4) https://www.iflscience.com/ukraines-dam-collapse-may-be-europes-biggest-ecological-disaster-in-decades-69283

(5) https://www.politico.eu/article/dam-sabotage-ukraine-worst-environmental-disaster-chernobyl/

(6) https://www.sciencemediacentre.org/expert-reaction-to-reported-attack-on-ukraines-kakhovka-dam/

(7) https://uncg.org.ua/en/the-consequences-of-the-russian-terrorist-attack-on-the-kakhovka-hydroelectric-power-station-hps-for-wildlife/

(8) https://www.iucnredlist.org/

(9) https://zaborona.com/kahovska-ges-odna-z-najbilshyh-tehnogennyh-katastrof

(10) https://www.care.org/news-and-stories/press-releases/ukraine-explosion-of-kakhovka-plant-displaces-nearly-1900-households-floating-landmines-and-oil-spill-pose-further-threat/

(11) https://minagro.gov.ua/en/news/significant-damage-agriculture-ukraine-was-caused-destruction-kakhovska-hydro-electric-station-russians

(12) https://news.sky.com/story/ukraine-war-ecological-catastrophe-five-environmental-impacts-of-nova-kakhovka-dam-collapse-12898154

(13) https://www.politico.eu/article/dam-sabotage-ukraine-worst-environmental-disaster-chernobyl/

(14) https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/how-manage-damage-oil-spills

(15) https://en.ecoaction.org.ua/destruction-of-the-kakhovka-hpp-preliminary-conclusions.html

(16) https://suspilne.media/498616-akso-korotko-naslidki-budut-zahlivimi-ekolog-vladislav-balinskij-pro-situaciu-na-kahovskij-ges/

(17) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-65835742

(18) https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/update-164-iaea-director-general-statement-on-situation-in-ukraine

(19) https://ukraineworld.org/articles/analysis/ecocide-kakhovka-dam 

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