Interviewed with Eugene Simonov by Alexei Ovchinnikov
Translated by Jennifer Castner
We continue our analysis of the influence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on ecosystems. In this article, we discuss the ways that military hostilities have affected transboundary and those most “fluid” objects – rivers. Against the backdrop of climate change’s catastrophic consequences, rivers are one of the most important elements and indicators for ecosystems. They are, of course, extremely susceptible to both pollution and to infrastructure and landscape changes resulting from military operations.
We speak with Eugene Simonov, coordinator of UWEC Work Group’s team of experts, co-founder of the Green Silk Road Network, and foreign agent of the Russian Federation, about the war’s direct and indirect impacts and future restoration plans.
How important is the issue of river pollution caused by the military incursion in Ukraine? What do we know about this issue? What is the difference between military and industrial pollution?
During active military operations, it is quite difficult to assess the condition of water bodies. However, this work is in process. CEOBS and ZOI Network recently published a very useful report on breakdowns of water supply infrastructure and damage to hydraulic engineering facilities, as well as subsequent health and disease impacts. I don’t have anything to add to their analysis of the war’s consequences for water use, but we should talk about river ecosystems. I have to repeat that it is pretty difficult to evaluate the war’s direct influence on them.
If you can’t perform regular monitoring, ongoing tracking for the presence of polluting substances in water, then you also cannot see trends. And trend data can be unpredictable – we don’t know when bombardments and destruction that result in contamination of water bodies will occur.
In other words, we don’t have the data necessary to understand the big picture. Environmentalists around the world believe that biological indicators are the most useful indicators related to the status of water bodies. Living beings react quickly to poisonous substances and other negative factors. So, if a water body is significantly polluted by toxins, we would observe fish dieoffs.
During this war, however, examples of large-scale dieoffs of ichthyofauna have been infrequent. So far, I have only seen two such reports related to freshwater habitats. One of these cases had to do with an accident at a water treatment facility.
Since there are few such cases and it is impossible to hide fish kills, we have reason to assume that river contamination does not yet have large-scale biological consequences. In my opinion, if this were an issue, it would be reported in mass media.
On the other hand, sooner or later all terrestrial pollution incidents will eventually enter the water system and chronic water pollution could be seen in a number of regions. The Donbas is the most problematic in this regard – it is here that the war is destroying the greatest number of industrial targets.
As for the difference between industrial pollution and that caused by such abnormal phenomena as armed hostilities – it is naturally significant. We can install treatment facilities at industrial sites. That’s not possible during bombing. As a result, if any pollutants systematically end up in watercourses due to military operations, it will be much more difficult to clean up.
Since the war began, there have been several cases when dams and dikes were destroyed, resulting in flooding. We already wrote about the Oskil Reservoir and about the aftermath of the disruption of Kozarovychi Dam on the Irpin River. Today, experts are actively debating the possibility of a bomb destroying Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant. What ecosystem consequences related to that dam’s possible destruction would you highlight? How dangerous is it?
I would not only mention flooding, but also a whole set of problems related to the destruction of hydraulic engineering structures during this war.
It’s important to remember that each case is unique. Because, while damage to the dam at Oskil Reservoir simply led to the restoration of a more natural river flow regime and to the reservoir’s draining, the destruction of the dam on the Irpin River poured the Kyiv Reservoir’s waters out across the floodplain. These are completely different events, in terms of both consequences and impacts.
The greatest worry, from a primarily humanitarian perspective, is for the reservoirs on the Dnipro River. And right now – Kakhovka Dam. This dam could again suffer from either artillery shelling or be destroyed by a retreating army, as it was in August 1941, when the Dnipro Hydroelectric Station dam was blown up.
In the event that the dam is blown up, there will be a huge artificial wave of floodwater, dumping some portion of Kakhovka Reservoir water downstream. It will result in changes to the riverbed, wash away vegetation, and erode riverbanks. Essentially, it will flood the entirety of the Dnipro River’s historical floodplain below the Kakhovka Plant.
And don’t forget the sediments carried in reservoir water. These sediments can potentially contain a considerable volume of toxic substances. This is, perhaps, one of the main threats when a dam is destroyed. Given that the reservoir is located in a large industrial and agricultural area, it may have significant accumulations.
However, I don’t have any concrete data on the toxicity and location of those sediments in Kakhovka Reservoir. It could be assumed in the event of a break in the dam, toxic sediments immediately along the dam could be washed downstream. Other pollutants could remain along the Dnipro’s banks, spread by dust storms and then covered by new vegetation.
There is the additional threat that draining the reservoir may affect the safety of Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station. After all, Kakhovka Reservoir water is used to cool its reactors. Specialists and experts mention it from time to time. I understand them – there are much more likely threats, such as constant bombardments of the station itself.
The nuclear power station is fed by a huge cooling pond, separated from the reservoir by dikes and containing 43 million cubic meters of water. This means that temporary emptying of the reservoir will not affect the nuclear power station immediately. However, how much time and what measures are to be taken in the event that the reservoir is drained – these are pressing questions for engineers.
The last thing to note in the event of the dam’s destruction is that there are many population centers on the left bank floodplain. All of them would immediately be under water, something that could lead to human losses. We don’t know how quickly an evacuation could be executed during military operations.
About a quarter of a million hectares of irrigated lands are rely on Kakhovka Reservoir. These would cease to be irrigated. I don’t think that those water intake structures are deep enough to endure the process of the reservoir draining. Their restoration would require a great deal of money and time. So, emptying of this reservoir, especially during seasonal irrigation, has the potential to be a big loss for agriculture.
Today there is a lot of talk about plans to restore Ukraine. What must be done when it comes to water management practices? What should our attitude toward rivers be when rebuilding the country?
It is important that restoration be seen as an opportunity to make something better, more sustainable, and oriented toward environmental protection. A considerable part of today’s destroyed cities are our Soviet legacy; these cities were planned and built without considering river basin management or landscape principles.
As for ideas, we must consider the basics. For example, restoration must occur against a backdrop of improved overall river basin management plans – where rivers are viewed as a holistic natural-technogenic system and people and nature coexist. It would be a mistake to restore infrastructure along rivers only on the basis of administrative divisions.
Basin-level planning must change in the spirit of European laws, all the more so since Ukraine has chosen this development path. It means that the EU Water Framework Directive, a community action framework that devotes significant attention to river basin management, should be applied. The directive aims to bring water objects into “good ecological condition.” This means that basin management plans should provide for restoration of water ecosystems and their ecological functions. It also directs attention to water quality, artificial barriers located in basins, construction on floodplains, etc.
The natural flow of a considerable number of rivers was distorted during the era of Soviet industrialization and “land improvement.” It is clear that a considerable number of factories destroyed during the war will not be rebuilt because these industrial centers are outdated and unneeded. The questions of what to build in their place and how ecological damage to rivers and water bodies inflicted by Soviet industry can be addressed will need to be answered. A recently adopted European Union law aimed at restoring ecosystems can help.
If we talk about specific projects rather than principles, then we should revisit urban planning practices in river valleys. For example, the frequent practice of building on floodplains should be ended. Also, Ukraine still has plans to build a considerable number of dams on rivers, including for electricity production, plans that are absolutely unjustified economically or ecologically, and the European Union experience proves it.
It is also important to involve local communities in discussions and solutions for the management of rivers and other water bodies. Environmental education is needed to demonstrate the pros and cons of different methods for regulating water flow. People themselves must decide what is useful for their region, instead of following orders coming from above.
The war has both direct and indirect consequences, including for organizations engaged in river protection. I’ve heard that your colleagues recently faced retaliatory measures in Mongolia.
Yes, we really were faced with persecution that may itself be considered an indirect consequence of the war.
Back in 2014, I was extrajudicially expelled from Mongolia and appeared on a list of people posing a potential threat to that nation’s security. It had to do with the fact that I successfully convinced local officials and managers that there was no need to build large dams. I demonstrated to them that there are other means for solving water supply and electricity production challenges.
As a result of our numerous public statements in a variety of fora regarding the doubtful environmental safety and general usefulness of those projects, they did not build dams on rivers flowing into Russia. In early August, Mongolian officials and media announced the presence of a Russian government-led espionage network whose purpose was to purportedly prolong Mongolia’s energy dependence on Russia. This despite the fact that the country receives only 5% of electric power from Russia, but 15% from China.
These events resulted in accusations of “sabotage” and “participation in an espionage network” for my Mongolian colleagues and in particular for their cooperation with “foreign agents.” The latter is me. After all, in 2021 the Russian Federation declared me a foreign agent, and the Mongolian special services now say that it was “cover” for my subversive activities.
In the beginning of August, the Minister of Justice also declared that anyone expressing doubt in strategic development projects in Mongolia, whether it be the construction of dams, coal-fired power plants, or water diversions, will be charged with sabotage and espionage. Money for the damage caused by “missed opportunities” for implementation of projects will be collected from these “saboteurs”.
More than 130 organizations worldwide have already signed a letter speaking out against the persecution of environmental and civil society activists in Mongolia.
In reality, Mongolia “creatively” borrowed a European model for criticizing power dependence on Russia and, having deformed it, used it to lay the blame at the feet of civil society. Such indirect consequences of the war in Ukraine may occur in other countries too, because, unfortunately, enemies of nature use military rhetoric and war-time fears for their own purposes.
Against the backdrop of the energy crisis precipitated by the war, have other countries begun more actively building hydropower plants? For example, Turkey?
From an energy sector perspective, hydropower plant construction has no particular advantages. This year, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) finally openly declared that hydropower had become more expensive than solar or wind power. The hydroelectric power plant that we oppose in Mongolia will cost at least US$3,000 per kilowatt of installed capacity. If China, from whom the Mongolian government plans to obtain financing, built a solar farm instead of a dam, it would be two or three times less expensive.
There are no economic or energy sector benefits in the construction of hydropower plants. But there are benefits from large-scale construction projects in the form of employing a large number of people. This is a short-term fix for dealing with economic crises, demonstrated vividly by China. That nation is planning grandiose new construction projects, especially on floodplains. However, they are not building hydropower plants known to be unprofitable, but other sorts of hydro-engineering structures instead.
Construction of hydroelectric power plants in Mongolia can be one way of overcoming its “power dependence” on Russia, while actually being harmful when viewed through a lens of long-term development objectives. This is taking place right now, for example, in the case of the highly questionable Roghun hydropower plant being built in Tajikistan; today, the European bureaucracy is considering financing its construction.
Can you cite other examples of the way the war and the social, political, environmental conflicts that it provokes influence the situation with rivers?
There are some questions related to securing navigation on the Danube and about transboundary rivers shared by Russia and Ukraine, but we have not noticed any direct influence beyond that. However, if we look at it from a historical perspective, it can be observed that wars directly influence management of shared water basins, for example, the Amur and the Rhine.
In the 1950s, the USSR and China agreed to create a cascade of dams that were meant to partition the transboundary Amur and Argun Rivers along their entire lengths. It would have resulted in the disappearance of living rivers and their transformation into a series of dammed lakes.
However, after the 1969 conflict on Zhenbao Island, the Amur dam scheme was put on hold, essentially saving the river. That plan only began to be discussed again in 1986, and since that time we have worked hard to convince the parties of the meaninglessness and hopelessness of this project. Still, it can be concluded that a unique river was saved from technogenic transformation by an international conflict between countries in the mid-20th century.
Another example that impressed me is the Rhine River. If you go to the Alsace border area between France and Germany, on the German side you’ll see an overgrown streamlet. On the French Alsace side, you’ll see a huge channel containing roughly 90% of the Rhine’s water. It appears to be a gross and violent “abduction” of a river from its natural conditions. The whole river was taken as a war indemnity, having artificially changed its channel after Germany lost in World War I. I consider this an important lesson: we must not destroy living rivers for the sake of achieving political ends. Resolving challenges following a war should not be destructive for nature and humiliating for people. We remember what the Treaty of Versailles entailed.
As a result, it is important to underline that until the war is over, we cannot discern best solutions for the future management and protection of rivers. When hostilities end, borders will be established, and it will be possible to plan how best to organize the sustainable use of rivers and how to ensure they provide the maximum ecosystem benefits while preserving their intrinsic naturalness.