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Saturday, July 6, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

War with water: Ukraine wants justice after Kakhovka Dam destruction 

Last year, a series of explosions destroyed the two-mile-wide Kakhovka Dam, flooding more than 40 villages and killing at least 50 people. 

KYIV, Ukraine (CN) — One year after a series of explosions destroyed the Kakhovka Dam, sending water from one of Europe’s largest reservoirs flooding into nearby towns, Ukraine has identified a suspect in what may become the first environmental war crime to be prosecuted.

“This is only the beginning,” Andriy Kostin, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, told Courthouse News on the day of the anniversary. 

Just hours after the early morning catastrophe in June 2023, Kostin’s office had sent documentation about the extent of the damage — dozens of towns destroyed and some 50 people were killed — to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. 

Built in 1956, the two-mile-wide dam on the Dnieper River primarily created hydroelectric power. The water in the reservoir was used for cooling at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest nuclear reactor in Europe, which has been under Russian occupation since March 2022. 

When the structure was destroyed, it dumped the volume of the Great Salt Lake onto a surrounding 200 square miles. 

Ukraine has been at the forefront of pursuing justice for environmental crimes. In February, Kostin advanced the world’s first ecocide case, formally informing a Russian general he was under investigation for a series of attacks on a nuclear plant. 

The country is one of only ten in the world that criminalizes ecocide, or the committing of intentional acts to destroy the environment. 

“Crimes against the environment were not investigated in previous conflicts,” Kostin said. Climate change has advanced the movement to criminalize the destruction of nature. 

While the Ukrainian notice does not identify the suspect, the officer in command of the Russian army’s Dnepr group when the dam was blown is understood to have been Colonel General Oleg Makarevich, who is now 61 years old.

Three days after the dam was destroyed, Kostin’s office assisted ICC investigators in evaluating the destruction. Other groups like Truth Hounds, which documents human rights abuses in Ukraine, have conducted their own research. 

The non-governmental organization released a report, also on the anniversary, concluding the dam disaster amounted to a war crime. “We spent a year connecting the dots,” Dmytro Koval, legal director of Truth Hounds, told Courthouse News in an interview. 

Beyond proving who is responsible — Russia claims Ukraine planted the explosives — prosecutors will also need to demonstrate the extent of the damage. Flood waters may recede but Kakhovka poses a particular threat to the environment. 

The dam was located in the industrial heart of Ukraine. Decades of pollution from steel and chemical plants had settled in the bed of the reservoir. When the dam was destroyed, poisonous heavy metals escaped along with the water, contaminating wells and agricultural land. 

“Heavy metals are one of the worst pollutants because they kill you slowly,” Flaviano Bianchini, an environmental scientist who has investigated the dam disaster, told Courthouse News. 

Bianchini has visited the area to take soil and groundwater samples, as well as hair samples from local children. Kids are especially susceptible to heavy metal poison. “They put everything in their mouths,” Bianchini said. 

Together with other researchers, he visited nearby elementary schools to take 15-centimeter (six-inch) samples of hair from children. These will allow laboratories to test what levels were before and after the flooding occurred. 

Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General has interviewed some 8,000 victims and has conducted some 40 forensic investigations at the site to date. 

The research is made even more complicated as the dam is located on the current front line of fighting and much of the area remains under Russian control. 

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