Last week’s collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River in Ukraine is one of the largest environmental disasters the Black Sea region and Europe has faced in decades. Most likely caused by an explosion set off by Russia — whose forces have occupied the dam since 2022 — Nova Kakhovka’s destruction has far-reaching environmental, economic, and humanitarian consequences that will affect not just Ukraine and the Black Sea region, but also the Middle East and Africa.

Almost two weeks after the dam breach, thousands of houses on both sides of the river are still under water. From a humanitarian perspective, the situation is calamitous. On the right bank of the river, under Ukrainian control, thousands of people had to be evacuated. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Ukraine convened together, on June 15, in an emergency meeting to organize relief efforts to assist those caught in what the Alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called “outrageous destruction” and a “humanitarian catastrophe.” In turn, the European Union has activated its Civil Protection Mechanism, and several European countries and citizens’ initiatives are sending urgently needed generators, shelter equipment, and water pumps. On the left side of the river, occupied by Russia, the flooding and resulting humanitarian situation is even worse. Moscow does not permit any international aid organizations to help local people in need. The occupying authorities have confirmed 17 flood-related deaths, though the real numbers are likely significantly higher. Furthermore, the Russian occupiers have prevented evacuations and shot at rescuers across the river, killing three. Landmines are floating freely, putting even more people at risk. According to the United Nations, about 700,000 people in the region lack access to clean drinking water.  At the same time, because of the destruction of extensive irrigation and water transit networks in the area, the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula will soon begin to experience water shortages, and much of Ukraine’s fertile land along the Dnipro riverbank could be transformed into a desert.

The devastating ecological consequences of the dam’s destruction are mounting week after week and will continue to unfold in the years to come. “This is only the beginning of seeing the consequences of this act,” the U.N.’s top aid official, Martin Griffiths, said. The Dnipro is carrying entire houses and countless animal cadavers out to the Black Sea basin. Ukrainian authorities estimate about 28,000 fish have died due to the draining of the Kakhovka reservoir. The cooling pools of the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) are already dangerously low, increasing the risk of a nuclear disaster that could affect many neighboring countries. The power plant was shut down months ago, but the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), warns that the dam’s destruction has created an even more “dangerous situation.”

Still, the most devastating consequences will be felt in the agricultural sector, further reducing local and global food security, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. The Nova Kakhovka dam enabled the irrigation of some of Ukraine’s — and the world’s — most fertile agricultural land. The U.N. forecasts an additional 30% reduction of Ukraine’s agricultural production and export in 2023. In 2022, due to Russia’s invasion, the country’s production had already been reduced by 37%. The flooding that has affected 40 towns and villages has most likely destroyed the crop fields along the river. Worse, the water flooding the Dnipro River banks has been contaminated by about 150 tons of oil products and several types of hazardous chemicals; as a result, the Ukrainian authorities have banned drinking (for both humans and animals), swimming, and fishing in these waters. Farmers fear the ground could be so contaminated that it will spoil yields for years to come. Agricultural experts estimate the damage may encompass up to 500,000 hectares of agricultural land and last for five to seven years. This year’s losses due to the dam’s destruction are forecasted to reach 4 billion tons of grain and food oil crops, worth as much as $1.5 billion.

On the day of the dam’s collapse, global wheat prices spiked. This surge adds to already-high prices caused by Russia’s war and affects countries closest to the Black Sea region as well as those located further away but most dependent on grain imports. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Somalia, and the Republic of Congo are all highly reliant on Ukrainian grain, as are Mauritania and Somalia (according to the U.N. Comtrade database). The U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) also depends on Ukrainian wheat — Ukraine is the WFP’s single largest source of grain — and its humanitarian operations will be affected by high prices and shortages due to the floods and contamination. Millions of Ethiopians, Yemenis, Afghans, and Somalis living in impoverished or dangerous situations all rely on Ukrainian grain from the WFP for survival. Russia’s repeated threats to cancel the Ukraine maritime grain deal and its navy’s frequent blocking of ships transporting Ukrainian grain out of the Black Sea further add to food insecurity around the world and artificially increase grain prices.

With the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam, Russia may have contributed to yet another looming world food crisis, while definitively creating an ecological catastrophe in the Black Sea region and a humanitarian disaster. Last summer, Russia’s scorched-earth tactics deliberately burned or looted Ukrainian crop fields; this year, southeastern Ukrainian farmers face calamitous flooding. The Ukrainian Prosecutor’s Office has launched an investigation into “ecocide” by Russia, and Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) claims to have collected audio recording evidence that the Russian authorities were behind the dam’s collapse. If incontrovertibly proven to be an intentional act, then the International Criminal Court (ICC) could prosecute the dam’s destruction as a war crime, crime against humanity, or an environmental crime. Either way, the ecological and humanitarian consequences of this act are devastating for Ukraine and the wider Black Sea region, but its costs will be felt even farther afield, including by the Middle Eastern and African countries most chronically in need of international assistance.


Dr. Iulia-Sabina Joja directs MEI's Black Sea Program and teaches European security as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and George Washington University. Her research focuses primarily on European and Black Sea security. 

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