When the waves dissipated after the explosion of the hydroelectric plant in Nova Kakhovka, a rare orchard was discovered. For almost 70 years, part of the village of Respublikanets, on the north bank of the river Dnipro, had been under water. Now the trees—leafless, rotten and covered with fossilized mollusks—stood out against the great plain of Velykyj luch again.
”It was absolutely incredible to see,” says Anna Kuzemko, a biologist and lead researcher at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. For the past four years, she has been researching the consequences of the war on the country's environment and nature. She recently returned from a second research trip to the area that used to be the Nova Kakhovka dam.
“Well, we couldn't visit the area that used to be the main reservoir,” she says. “It was too close to the temporarily occupied area and Russian troops were only kilometers away, ready to fire at us. So, we explored a side branch of the reservoir.”
However, that area cannot be considered particularly safe either. It is classified as a "red zone" by the Ukrainian military and very few people are able to travel there—researchers are an exception. When Kuzemko and her colleagues first visited the area in March 2023, they nearly stepped on a mine, a Russian drone flew overhead, and missiles were constantly exploding nearby.
“Although the mine was quite small, the drone was only one, and regarding the missiles, it was much calmer during my second trip compared to last spring,” notes Kuzemko.
When Dagens ETC asks what made the strongest impression on her during the trip, she says: “That I survived. But we also examined biodiversity and came to surprising conclusions.”
When the power plant in Nova Kakhovka was blown up and the Dnipro began to flow towards the Black Sea, the water levels in the area around Respublikanets dropped by about ten meters. The researchers worried, among other things, that the mud on the former dam bottom would dry up and that winds would spread dust and toxic chemicals, which the reservoir was full of, over large parts of Ukraine.
Instead, the bottom was found to be covered in a thick layer of dried mollusk shells, encasing the ground like a protective membrane. In other places the soil was instead very heavy, and covered with a layer of salt or soil algae.
“So our hypothesis turned out to be wrong, which is very positive,” says Kuzemko. “We also saw many shoots of poplar, willow and other plants typical of Ukraine. We expected that the changed environment could attract invasive species but now we believe that the vegetation typical of Velykyj luch may be possible to restore.”
Zelenskyy talks about ecocide
When seismic measurements on June 6 showed unusual activity and it became clear that the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric plant had been blown up, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy initially condemned the destruction as an act of Russian terrorism. Over time, however, he began to talk about "ecocide".
Today, four types of serious international crimes are recognized: genocide, crimes against humanity, aggression and war crimes. For years, island nations such as Vanuatu and Fiji have led the fight for ecocide, or murder of nature, to be added to the list and thus subject to the International Criminal Court. Now Kiev has joined the advocates, in what many hope will create momentum.
In an email to Dagens ETC, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Ministry of the Environment explains that the prevailing impunity surrounding large-scale environmental destruction in the world "encourages crime".
The spokesperson continues: "We believe that the International Criminal Court should be able to try and judge environmental crimes."
Yuliia Ovchynnykova has a doctorate in environmental protection and represents President Volodymyr Zelensky's People's Servant party in the Ukrainian National Assembly. She is also active in the Ecocide Alliance, a global network of elected officials who fight for ecocide to become an international crime.
When Dagens ETC asks what Ovchynnykova thinks will be most difficult in the fight to hold Russia responsible for its large-scale destruction of Ukrainian nature, she replies that a common and internationally recognized definition of the concept of ecocide is needed.
”We also need to improve the methods for registering environmental destruction and involve more international experts and laboratories in the process,” she continues.
Ukraine's work to hold Russia responsible takes place, among other things, within the framework of an international working group on the consequences of the war for the environment. The president's chief of staff Andriy Yermak and Sweden's former minister for the environment and foreign affairs, as well as a former EU commissioner for environmental affairs, Margot Wallström, share the chairmanship of the group.
Other members include Greta Thunberg, Ireland's former president and top diplomat Mary Robinson, and Laurence Tubiana, the French architect of the Paris Agreement on climate change. The group has three tasks: to map the environmental consequences of Russia's war of aggression; to identify how Russia can be held accountable for its environmental crimes; and to develop recommendations for Ukraine's green reconstruction.
Fifteen possible cases
In parallel, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine has listed 15 cases of possible ecocide to bring Russia to justice in Ukraine's own courts. Both countries have national legislation against ecocide, even if it is not considered to work very well.
In addition to the explosion of the Nova Kakhovka dam—which is also being investigated as a war crime—there is the alleged mass death of dolphins as a result of military activity in the Black Sea, and blown-up oil refineries in cities such as Zhytomyr and Lviv. Other cases investigated as possible criminal destruction of life include the disturbance of radioactive dust in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, attacks on a nuclear power plant in Kharkiv, and the mass slaughter and possible ecological disaster at a chicken factory in Kherson county.
While Ukraine is building international support for its strategy, one of the country's leading researchers is questioning it. Oleksej Vasiliuk is a biologist and chairman of the Ukraine Nature Conservation Group. He might also be a member of the international working group, but he doesn't know for sure. When Margot Wallström and Greta Thunberg met the Ukrainian government, neither he nor representatives of any of the other five Ukrainian environmental organizations were allowed to attend.
“Since then, we have been waiting for the government to inform us about what is expected of us and how we proceed,” he says. ”It is possible that the group is still being formed and that is why we have not heard anything. In any case, we would very much like to be involved, and we can certainly help.”
Doubts about dolphins
That Russia's war of aggression has led to enormous devastation is not disputed by anyone. But in the Ukrainian scientific community, many are surprised by information circulating about Russia's alleged crimes. This applies, for example, to Environment Minister Ruslan Strelet's claims about dead cetaceans such as dolphins.
The Minister of the Environment has speculated that up to 50,000 cetaceans of different kinds may have died in the first year of the war alone—figures that cannot be substantiated. It is simply not possible to conduct research in the Black Sea in view of the fighting. Dead dolphins that have washed ashore in neighboring countries have been examined, but there are no clear studies on what took their lives, whether it was linked to the war and how many cases there actually are.
An alternative hypothesis is that they were affected by a disease, already before the war. But pending definitive conclusions, massive dolphin deaths make for a good story, which has made headlines in both Dagens Nyheter and The New York Times.
Oleksij Vasiljuk is among the researchers who publicly criticize the dolphin argument, and he is also critical of other cases presented by the Attorney General. He does not believe, for example, that the exploded oil depots contained very much fuel, because they were extinguished quite quickly. He also thinks it is unclear how the Attorney General has chosen his cases. Overall, he would rather see Russia's war of aggression in its entirety regarded as ecocide.
“It is unnecessary to use the word about individual explosions or fires,” he says. “Russia is committing murder against nature by waging war in a way that damages the environment for a long time to come, and which affects all life without distinction, which is prohibited by the Geneva Convention. We don't need to chop it up into pieces.”
Chance to restore nature
Vasiljuk is also critical of the fact that the government has already committed to restore the dam in Nova Kakhovka. He would rather the area be allowed to be "re-wilded" in some way.
“The explosion was undeniably a terrorist act with many dead and with difficult to predict consequences for people and the environment,” he says. “But the power plant itself was a disaster for the area. Now there is a chance to restore the natural landscape that we lost 70 years ago, when the Soviet Union let it flood.”
“There are many countries that today decide to decommission various hydropower plants in order to benefit environmental protection, it is an international trend.
Biologist Anna Kuzemko does not believe that simply leaving the area to its fate is a solution.
“I don't think that nature can be completely rewilded without human help, and I think that it would create too many economic and social problems if we just let the area be,” she says. “The area's farmers and industry, for example, need some way to get water for their crops, which they previously got from the reservoir.”
But instead of a new hydroelectric plant, she would prefer a solar park in the area.
“In any case, it will take many years before it is possible to do something there,” she says. “First the war must end, and then the ground must be cleared of mines. We have a lot of time to plan the future.”
Shaping future action
Yuliia Ovchynnykova, the Ukrainian politician, tells Dagens ETC that the blowing up of the dam by the Russian forces constituted a monstrous disaster for Ukraine.
“Now we need to determine the future for the affected area. It should be based on the principles of sustainable development and the Green Deal and should consider social, environmental and economic components.”
Ovchynnykova says Ukraine should learn from the experiences of other countries. She refers to the EU's Biodiversity Strategy, under which EU Member States have committed to restoring the natural course of 25,000 kilometers of rivers by 2030.
“It is important that we thoroughly investigate the aftermath of the blast and explore possible next steps, while participating in meaningful discussions with all parties involved. It is important to develop proposals for different alternative courses of action that are feasible given the existing environmental and socio-economic circumstances.”
This story was produced with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published in Swedish by Dagens ETC on 3 September 2023. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.
Banner image: When Russia destroyed the dam at the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric plant, the reservoir behind it drained and flooded land downstream / Credit: Joakim Medin.