Ukraine has considerable hydropower resource potential. It operates nine major hydropower plants, accounting for about 10 per cent of the country’s total electricity generation mix, which is dominated by nuclear power. A cascade of eight hydro plants is located on the Dnipro River. They were inherited from the Soviet era and suffered from poor operational and environmental performance.
After gaining independence in 1991, the Government of Ukraine’s energy and climate strategies consistently assigned high importance to rehabilitation and expansion of the hydropower sector. In the past two and a half decades, the Bank approved two loans, totaling US$340 million, in support of the government’s ambitious hydropower modernization program (the projects were completed). The main objectives of the Bank-supported projects were to increase hydropower generation capacity and improve the efficiency, reliability, safety and environmental performance of the hydro plants.
On June 6, 2023 it was breaking world news that the Russian-controlled “Nova Kakhovka” dam and hydropower plant collapsed in Southern Ukraine. For me, this was also a sadly personal story since I was member of the Bank team which prepared the first hydro rehab operation. I also had a chance to visit the plant.
Kakhovka was an integral part of the Bank-supported hydropower operations. The 350 megawatt facility was developed for multiple purposes. In addition to providing electricity to more than three million people, its large reservoir (one of the world’s largest) supplies water to the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula. The reservoir also provides cooling water for the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, whose reactors have been in cold shutdown mode lately. The Kherson region’s strong agricultural sector relies on the reservoir for irrigation. On the top of the dam runs a highway, which has gained military significance in the ongoing war.
Who is to blame for the recent disaster and what is at stake? As usual in this tragic war, the Russian and Ukrainian authorities trade blames. Some Western leaders have been quick to name Russia as the culprit. It is claimed, for example, that the Russians were expressly concerned that the Ukrainians might cross the Dnipro River and gain a foothold on the east bank. Currently, the river separates the warring sides. Under this narrative, the Russians blew up the dam to hinder the much-advertised and long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. (There are also some speculations that dam was in disrepair, which could also have led to the breach. After heavy rains and snowmelt in April-May, water levels rose beyond normal and satellite images showed water washing over damaged sluice gates. With Bank support, dam safety monitoring systems were installed at Kakhovka.)
However, at this point, it cannot be determined conclusively what happened to the dam and who is responsible. On the military side, it is likely the flooding will imperil both Ukraine’s offense and Russia’s defense. After the floods, military crossings over the much-widened Dnipro River become practically impossible. It is therefore unclear which military benefits more from the disaster.
What is clear, however, is that the resulting floods pose a large threat to tens of thousands of civilians, their homes and livelihoods. There are close to hundred villages and towns in the immediate flooding zone. Tens of thousands of people need to be evacuated in a country already flush with millions of internal war refugees.
The flooding and the shortage of irrigation water endangers crops. Wheat, one of the Kherson region’s big cash crops, traded higher and grain futures rose on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as flooding fears reached international markets, underscoring the disaster’s global repercussions. Ukraine is a major supplier of wheat, corn, barley and other food to Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.
There is also a high risk of an ecological disaster, including dangerous chemicals and tons of oil from the power plant spilling into the ground and the Black Sea, as well as endanger drinking water supplies. The situation will likely get worse over time for the water-deficient Crimea and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant where the missing cooling water from Kakhovka reservoir may prevent even a partial reopening of Europe’s largest nuclear facility.
In 1986, at Chernobyl Ukraine experienced how dangerous a nuclear power plant can be in peace time. Now the Ukrainians are experiencing how dangerous a hydropower plant can be during war time. If anything, this unfolding ecological and human disaster should give peace an urgent chance.
Istvan Dobozi is a former Lead Energy Economist at the World Bank, for several years managed the organization’s power sector operations in Ukraine. He was a core member of the bank’s nuclear safety study project commissioned by the G7, covering Ukraine and other former socialist countries operating unsafe nuclear reactors. For several years, he represented the bank at the G7 nuclear safety meetings. He also managed the bank’s power sector policy and investment program in Kazakhstan.
KEYWORDS flooding, hydropower, Kakhovka, Ukraine, war