Translated by Alastair Gill
The Ukrainian government and Ukrhydroenergo are set on building a new hydropower plant on the site of the one blown up by Russian forces in June 2023. Meanwhile, environmentalists are speaking out against the construction project, which could cause serious harm to the surrounding area. Read on to find out how the situation is unfolding.
On June 6, 2023 the dam of the Kakhovka hydropower plant (HPP) on the Dnieper in southern Ukraine collapsed following an explosion. The dam’s destruction resulted in a large-scale environmental catastrophe caused by the sudden, rapid, and uncontrollable release of the water in the dam’s reservoir.
As a result of the destruction of the Kakhovka dam and the resulting discharge of water from the reservoir, whose surface covered an area of 215,500 hectares and was used for shipping, irrigation, water supply, fishing, and recreation, Kakhovka reservoir simply ceased to exist, leaving most of its bed exposed. It soon dried up.
On its way downstream, the released torrent of water from the reservoir washed away houses and people and flooded agricultural fields, which not only created an environmental disaster, but also resulted in immense financial losses.
What is Ukraine planning to do with the former Kakhovka reservoir?
Just over a month after the catastrophe, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine passed a decree on the reconstruction of the reservoir and dam of the Kakhovka HPP. And four months after the disaster, in October, the government approved another document, a 2023 law “On the prevention of the misuse of the lands of the Kakhovka reservoir”, which has banned the formation, transfer of ownership, or use, as well as any change in the purpose of the land occupied by the Kakhovka reservoir.
The bill has been presented in the Ukrainian parliament and has already been criticized by the Verkhovna Rada’s scientific advisory body, the Central Scientific Expertise Directorate. The bill’s provisions are neither consistent with each other nor with other Ukrainian legislative acts, and therefore require technical, legal, and editorial revision. And this is not the only criticism of both the act itself and the idea of restoring the Kakhovka hydropower plant as a whole.
Yet it is clear that Ukrhydroenergo is firmly set on rebuilding the hydropower plant and dam. Oleh Terletsky, deputy chairman of Ukrhydroenergo’s supervisory board, has said that the company is focused on large-scale projects, and the construction of smaller facilities is of little interest.
At the same time, Terletsky said that as long as Ukraine remains under threat from Russia, no construction work will be carried out on the site of the former Kakhovka reservoir. After the war, however, new structures will be built to store water in the upper part of the reservoir, and work will be carried out to drain its lower part.
After this, according to a Ukrhydroenergo representative, tests and studies will be carried out. Options for restoring the hydropower plant will be proposed based on the conclusions drawn, and only after that will the environmental impact assessment procedure be carried out.
They will then determine how the construction of the dam and power plant will be carried out. The company has not yet provided any more details about the Kakhovka HPP, citing non-disclosure requirements prohibiting the publication of “a large amount of information” due to the war.
‘There is no alternative to restoring the Kakhovka reservoir’: scientific institutions refute Ukrhydroenergo’s statement
This was the unequivocal title of a text published on Ukrhydroenergo’s official website. Moreover, the publication claims that “This is reported by leading scientists from the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Agrarian Sciences, which recently carried out field research on the bed of the Kakhovka reservoir, at the initiative of Ukrhydroenergo.”
The text reports that as part of the first stage of the pilot project, Ukrhydroenergo is collaborating with Ukrhydroproekt and the State Environmental Academy of Postgraduate Education and Management to develop recommendations for a comprehensive assessment of the current state of the Kakhovka reservoir and its adjacent territories.
However, the most interesting claim made in the article is that in August-October 2023, scientists from various institutes of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, including the Schmalhausen Institute of Zoology and the Institute of Archeology, allegedly conducted fieldwork and other comprehensive research. According to environmentalist Oleksiy Vasyliuk, head of the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group and a UWEC Work Group expert, these are precisely the institutes that were least likely to provide conclusions that the Kakhovka reservoir should be restored: it is in the scientific interests of both institutes to respectively study the fauna that now inhabits the area and conduct archeological research at the bottom of the former artificial reservoir.
After being contacted by representatives of the UWEC Work Group, the Institute of Zoology stated that the agreement with the State Ecological Academy had not yet been fulfilled, and field research had not been carried out.
“Zoologists only conduct analyses of the state of the animal world and development prospects, and the economic, environmental, and hydrological institutions will carry out their reviews,” said Viktoria Ivanova, the scientific secretary of the Schmalhausen Institute of Zoology. “Only after this will there be a final conclusion. There’s more than one stage of research; everyone’s still working, but our zoologists haven’t even gone there yet.”
Viktor Chubai, director of the Institute of Archeology, confirmed to UWEC in a telephone conversation that field work had been carried out, but said that the “news” from Ukrhydroenergo came as a surprise to him.
“We have established that there are 95 archeological sites on the territory of the reservoir that could potentially be damaged or have already suffered, first from flooding and then from a sharp decline in water levels,” he said, adding that his colleagues had already analyzed 15 of these sites.
“Our conclusion is that it is necessary to conduct archeological exploration to establish exactly what remains after all the sites spent almost half a century under water, and, secondly, to determine how many archeological sites need to be excavated. According to Ukrainian law, everything located on land allocated for future construction must be excavated. This is our conclusion, and we provided it in writing a month and a half ago,” said Chubai.
He also noted that the categorical statements issued by Ukrhydroenergo are “words for the sake of words,” describing them as unfounded. Both the civil and scientific communities of Ukraine are outraged by the uncontested plans, while in the eyes of the public the government has been too hasty in making these proposals.
Ukrainian environmentalists resist
Fourteen Ukrainian public environmental organizations have come together to form a coalition called Kakhovka Platforma, the aim of which is to develop models for integrated solutions for the recovery of territory around the Kakhovka HPP.
Kakhovka Platforma has already written a letter to Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shmyhal addressing the issue of government approval of a pilot project to restore the Kakhovka hydropower plant.
As the authors of the letter note, the options for rebuilding the Kakhovka HPP can be divided into three groups:
- Abandoning the Kakhovka HPP and reservoir, the result of which will be the restoration of the ecosystems of Velykyi Luh to something close to their previous form, which are of great environmental and historical significance. Water supply issues will be resolved via the transfer of water intakes to the Dnieper River bed, the reduced water consumption, and the transition to more efficient technologies in the agricultural sector and metallurgy. At the same time, renewable energy should replace the energy formerly produced by Kakhovka HPP, thereby closing the energy production deficit with the capacities of the Kakhovka HPP by replacing them with alternative options for the generation and storage of energy, and shipping can be restored by improving the suitability of the Dnieper channel for navigation;
- Restoration of the reservoir to its previous size and the reconstruction of the Kakhovka hydropower plant (probably in a modernized form), as well as related infrastructure (water intakes and canals). This option is being actively promoted by Ukrhydroenergo;
- Other options (of various degrees of feasibility). For example, by rebuilding the power plant with a smaller reservoir (in particular, by diverting a channel of the river and only there raising the water level within the limits of the diverted flow) and the reconstruction of the hydropower complex.
Kakhovka Platforma has yet to receive a response to its letter, and Ukrhydroenergo continues to make loud statements. For now, neither restoration nor full-fledged research will be possible until the left bank of the former Kakhovka reservoir is completely liberated, due to the proximity of ongoing fighting. The issue has therefore been put on hold for now, which contributes to the restoration of the Velykyi Luh ecosystem.
However, it is now essential to continue dialogue and insist on developing solutions and strategies that will both satisfy the economic needs of the region and prevent the creation of a morally questionable and technically outdated copy of the Kakhovka hydropower plant.
The UWEC Work Group will continue to monitor developments in the aftermath of the destruction of the dam and draining of the Kakhovka reservoir, which is yet another catastrophic result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Read more about the key issues surrounding the Kakhovka HPP in our articles:
- Explosion of the Kakhovka Hydropower Plant: What are the environmental consequences?
- Black Sea heals its wounds: 4 months after the Kakhovka catastrophe
- Is it time to restore Velykyi Luh?
- Blasting of Kakhovka Dam – a “green choice” test in Ukraine’s revival efforts
Main image: Part of the riverbed, located on the territory of the Kamianska Sich National Park, is covered with meadow plants. Source: Serhiy Skoryk