War takes toll on Ukraine water infrastructure and environment

Water from the Kakhovka Reservoir is critical for villages and towns in the region as well as irrigation. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (pictured) also relies on it for cooling water. Photo credit: ihorbondarenko, stock.adobe.com

A new study takes a closer look at how Russian military action is targeting dams at reservoirs, as well as water supply and treatment systems, leaving some 16 million Ukrainians without adequate access to water and sanitation services over the last year of war.

The study identified 64 reported military impacts on Ukraine’s water sector — 49 realized and 15 potential. The impacts include incidents that range from water-transfer interruptions to surface water pollution due to military actions. The study also covers damage to pipelines, wells and dams; interrupted operation of a hydroelectric station and pumping and filtering stations; and general disruption to the operation of water and wastewater treatment facilities.

“Within the first three months of the conflict, it became clear that this conflict and its impact on freshwater resources and water infrastructure would impact both the livelihoods of local civilians and the global food supply, reflecting the importance of water resources for the agriculture of the region,” states the new study published in Nature.

The study was undertaken early on in the armed conflict, and its authors note that many additional attacks on Ukraine’s water infrastructure have occurred since the middle of 2022. Restoring water access and providing emergency supplies to cities and other areas involved in intense fighting has been extremely challenging.

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According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, approximately four million people have been reached through operations and maintenance support to water service providers and damage repair. Another 1.85 million have received cleaning and sanitation-related household items, while some 1.17 million received emergency water supplies.

Ukraine’s water infrastructure includes large multi-purpose reservoirs, hydropower dams, cooling facilities for nuclear plants, water reservoirs used for industry and mining, and extensive water distribution canals and pipelines for irrigation and household purposes.

North of the Ternopil region, shelling led to the damage of six reservoirs storing mineral fertilizers, causing the pollution of the Ikva River, the tributary of the Styr River. This resulted in a major increase in ammonia and nitrate concentrations, leading to a mass fish death.

“Of special concern,” the study’s authors say, “are large reservoirs along the Dnieper River, which are critical for energy production, cooling of nuclear power plants, sustaining agriculture and seasonal flow regulation.”

Breaching of dams along the Dnieper River poses a danger of secondary radioactive pollution due to uncontrolled release of radioactive material accumulated in the sediments and associated with colloidal materials in surface waters after the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986.

Ukraine officials say water levels in the critical Kakhovka Reservoir remain below normal, particularly considering the current spring thaw. Since November, a Russian-controlled hydroelectric power plant at the lower end of the reservoir has left sluice gates at the plant open, dropping the water lower than it has been in decades. The water is critical for villages and towns in the region and irrigates around half-a-million acres of farmland used to grow grains and vegetables. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant also relies on it for cooling water.

The Ukrainian government has tried to stem the flow by releasing water from other Ukrainian-controlled reservoirs.

The study states that remote-sensing images showed polluted wastewater released into the Kakhovka Reservoir when the wastewater treatment plant near Zaporizhzhia ceased operation.

The study points to the Pacific Institute’s open-source database Water Conflict Chronology, which has documented some 1,300 instances of violence that have impacted water and wastewater infrastructure dating back to 2,500 BC. The database records instances where water and water systems trigger conflicts; are used as weapons in conflicts; or are targets or casualties of violence.

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