Ukraine expects “catastrophic” environmental costs after dam blast

KIEV – A woman who defied checkpoints and dodged shelling to care for abandoned pets during Russia’s occupation of her hometown is now warning of the devastating effects of the recent floods on the region’s animals.

Iryna Tutyun told NBC News that coping with the number of animals in need was “difficult to manage” after large parts of the southern city of Kherson and its vicinity were flooded following the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam on Tuesday.

“I still have about 30 dogs and a dozen cats in my care. Every morning I go to them, feed them and see if they are okay,” said Tutyun, 43, adding that some of the animals were injured.

Irina Tutyun with a puppy in Kherson on Thursday.
Irina Tutyun with a puppy in Kherson on Thursday.Irina Alexandrovna / Facebook

More broadly, experts are also warning that the impact on the region’s wildlife could be “catastrophic” as millions of fish have already washed up dead and other animals and plants are likely to have been affected.

Tutyun said she also heard about goats, chickens and other animals being plucked from the water that flowed out of the reservoir behind the dam, which was 150 miles long and about 22 miles wide.

Both Ukraine and Russia have blamed themselves for the destruction of the giant dam in a Russian-controlled area on the front lines of the war. Tutyun said the massive oil spill was the worst thing that happened to Kherson, which was taken by Russia days after President Vladimir Putin’s invasion began in February 2022 and liberated by Ukrainian forces in November.

Tutyun said that after the invasion, she “passed through Russian checkpoints, sometimes under the watchful eye of machine guns” to feed the animals and that she has taken care of them ever since.

Elsewhere in Kherson, Kazkova Dibrova Zoo said in a Facebook post on Tuesday that among the 300 animals killed by the flooding were a pair of monkeys, Anfisa and Charlie, and a pony named Malish. A mule, a parrot, a crow, a marmot, guinea pigs and ferrets also perished, zoo officials said.

Additionally, Ukraine’s State Agency for Land Reclamation and Fisheries said in a Facebook post that it had observed “a significant number of dead fish,” with the silver crucian carp being particularly affected. Several social media users have also posted videos of dead fish washing up.

Destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine leads to a'plague' of dead fish upstream in Dnepropetrovsk
Dead fish in the Dnieper River on Wednesday, believed to have been caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam downstream in the Kherson region.Cover Photos / Zuma Press

The Nizhnyodniprovskyi National Nature Park called the aftermath “catastrophic” and also released a statement on Facebook saying that much of its 193,056-hectare area is under water.

Citing Alexey Chachibaya, the park’s director, the statement said the rise in water levels has led to “mass extinctions” of animals and plants.

Should the water rise, it could lead to “the destruction of buildings near the river and the destruction of flora and fauna in flood-affected settlements,” he said.

According to Doug Weir, research and policy director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory, a UK-based non-profit organization, there are a number of ecologically important areas along the Dnieper, including wetlands.

“Much of the lower Dnieper and its tributaries is part of the Emerald Network, of areas designated for their ecological importance, and includes nature reserves and other protected areas,” he said.

In the short term, Weir says, “We can expect significant physical changes to habitats from both erosion and sediment deposition; both can affect aquatic habitats. Flooding also mobilizes a range of industrial, agricultural, energy and residential pollutants that can affect species and habitats,” he noted.

Weir added that the floods would generate “significant amounts of solid waste that must be disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner.”

As nature recovers, he said, “post-disruption ecosystems and habitats will be different,” although they are “likely to be less diverse and therefore less resilient to environmental changes, such as climate change.”

Flooding in Kherson after the Nova Kakhovka dam explosion
Chickens rescued from the floods in Kherson sit in cages on Thursday.Seth Herald/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Thor Hanson, an independent conservation biologist who specializes in the environmental impact of war, agreed that aquatic habitats would be affected.

“Rising water in adjacent wetlands, particularly near the river’s mouth, threatens to flood countless active nests, burrows and breeding tanks, reducing or eliminating reproductive output for the year,” he said in an email Thursday.

He added that contamination from the dam itself “and from potential flooding of military and industrial sites downstream could have impacts on ecosystems and human health well into the post-war period.”

Meanwhile, Tutyun said she “couldn’t leave behind all the animals” she helped, as well as several elderly neighbors she also cares for.

She promised to stay in Kherson and said: “I hope this ends. I have hope that one day the water will dry up and the shelling will stop.”

Daryna Mayer reported from Kyiv. Yuliya Talmazan and Henry Austin reported from London.

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