The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam has inundated large areas of southern Ukraine, leaving tens of thousands of people at risk of losing their homes. The disaster, for which Russia and Ukraine blame each other, also has far-reaching consequences for agriculture and ecology in southern Ukraine. Government representatives in Kyiv are calling it an “ecocide” perpetrated by Russian attackers.
Scientific American’s German sister publication Spektrum der Wissenschaft spoke with zoologist Oleg Dudkin, director of the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds—one of Ukraine’s largest and oldest environmental nongovernmental organizations.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
You’re speaking to us from Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv. Is everything quiet where you are?
The past few nights, we had several dozen Russian missile attacks, but all of them were intercepted by our air defenses. Now it is more or less quiet here in Kyiv, and we are trying to get a picture of the situation in the south.
What do you know about the situation in the affected region?
The situation there is catastrophic. The picture is changing from hour to hour, but it is already clear that a huge area is flooded between the dam and the mouths of the Dnipro and Southern Buh rivers at the Black Sea. The most important thing now is to help the many people affected and get them to safety. That effort is going pretty well.
What do we know at this stage about how the disaster will impact the environment and agriculture?
It is already quite clear that we are looking at an ecological disaster of enormous proportions. This will probably have prolonged consequences for nature and agriculture and therefore for people. The affected region is used intensively for agriculture and is of outstanding ecological importance, even beyond Ukraine.
Can you describe the consequences in more detail?
It’s too early for a thorough assessment, of course. But take the issue of flooding for agriculture and for soils in general. Some places in the region grow rice, for example, with very heavy use of pesticides. The region also has a big problem with groundwater salinization because of intensive irrigation over the years. So those pesticides, salt and huge amounts of oil that entered the Dnipro River from the disaster are mixing with the clean water from the reservoir, blending into a toxic broth that is washing over everything. Our government estimates that up to 500 tons of oil could end up in the river. This is one of the big concerns we have, and it will have consequences for nature, for agriculture and for people’s drinking water. And on top of that, the destructive power of the floods is threatening some important protected areas.
Which particularly valuable ecological areas are being affected by the disaster?
Dozens of protected areas, including internationally significant ones, are being impacted. The whole region, the Dnipro River itself, its delta and the adjacent estuaries, together with the Black Sea coast, are among the most important breeding and resting areas for many birds from all over Europe during their migration to Africa and back. This means the disaster will not only affect “our” birds; many, many migratory birds from the rest of Europe will also suffer.
We are in the middle of the breeding season for the vast majority of bird species. What consequences will the disaster have for them?
Let’s just take the delta of the Dnipro. This is a huge estuary with small islands, riparian forests, shallow water zones and huge reed beds. Because of its high ecological value, it is protected and designated as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. And by the way, we have several other protected areas in the region. Dozens of species of rare birds are found there, and thousands of pairs are breeding right now. Their nests may be destroyed, or the water they fish from may be polluted. This is the most important breeding area for many endangered species. For example, we have the most important pelican colony there and hundreds of Squacco Herons, as well as otters and the endangered European mink. This area is also an outstandingly important source of clean drinking water.
What is the situation on the nearby Crimean Peninsula, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014?
We have a very valuable and very fragile steppe ecosystem on the Crimean Peninsula—among the most valuable in Europe. We have to assume that a large part of it will be destroyed or severely damaged by the Russian occupation. How much, we cannot say now, because we have been prevented from continuing our research and monitoring on the peninsula.
Even before the current disaster, the ongoing war has had drastic consequences on nature in the region. What do you know about this?
The fighting around Kherson, especially around the bridge over the Dnipro, is among the worst of the war. It caused large fires, for example, in the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve southwest of Kherson, one of the largest and most important biosphere reserves in the country. The fires were so extensive that they could be seen from space. As a result, unique habitats continue to be destroyed.
The war has been raging in other parts of the country for almost a year and a half. What does it look like there?
We cannot even begin to estimate the full extent of the consequences of the war on nature. But the impacts are extremely bad wherever there has been warfare. Let’s take the region of Polesia in the north. There, the fighting has set fire to huge areas of moorland. The moors there are very old and ecologically valuable. As a result of the fighting and shelling, large peat fires occur time and again. These fires, some of which are underground, simply cannot be brought under control, even under normal conditions. This means that not only have forests, fields and meadows been destroyed by the fires, but also the flames continue underground. This, of course, releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases from the peatlands. Beyond a natural disaster, it is likely also a climate catastrophe.
Is it even possible to protect nature under such conditions?
Yes, we are continuing our work, with the help of our partners. The German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, for example, supports us. We have a large protection program for bison in the region around Mykolaiv. We are also working to protect barn owls in Zakarpats’ka Oblast when the situation allows. Unfortunately, other projects had to be paused because there are too many land mines in the protected areas or because fighting is raging. And one quarter of our protected areas are now under the control of the occupying forces.
Before the war, there was very close cooperation between conservationists from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. As a result, many cross-border projects were created. Will this happen again when the war is over?
If it will happen again with Russia, I truly cannot say. But certainly it will happen with our friends in Belarus.
How important is nature to people in times of war?
Very important, I can assure you. I’ll give you an example from last weekend. Despite the constant threat of attacks, we offered a bird excursion to the Kyiv Botanical Garden. The attendance was huge. People love nature, and contact with nature gives many of us psychological strength.
What species of birds did you and other birders see?
We have seen a whopping 72 species, including rarities for a big city, such as the European Honey Buzzard and Red-breasted Flycatcher. The happy, carefree song of the Eurasian Golden Oriole, especially, moved many.
This article originally appeared in Spektrum der Wissenschaft and was reproduced with permission.