Ukraine war endangers freshwater resources

Ukraine war endangers freshwater resources

The damaged Irpin Dam and flooding north of Kiev, late February 2022. © Vincent Mundy

The ongoing war in Ukraine is also having a variety of effects on the country’s water sector, a recent study shows. Accordingly, the people in the country have less and less clean drinking water and water for agriculture. In addition, dam failures are flooding large areas, munitions dumped in lakes are contaminating freshwater resources, and mining and industrial effluents cannot be adequately disposed of.

Ukraine has a highly developed, extensive water sector. These include large reservoirs, hydroelectric power plants, cooling systems for nuclear power plants, water reservoirs for industry and mining, and an extensive supply network for agricultural irrigation and urban water supply. However, the war endangers this infrastructure and has already fatally damaged it in some places.

Floods and poisoned water

Researchers led by Oleksandra Shumilova from the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin have now analyzed the state of Ukraine’s water infrastructure. To do this, they collected information on how the first three months of the war affected the water supply and where exactly damage to the water sector occurred. In order to arrive at an assessment of the situation that is as neutral as possible, the researchers used data from government and media sources of Ukrainian, Russian and international origin.

Analysis of this information revealed a wide spectrum of damage, including flooding of large areas from dam failures and numerous contaminated freshwater sources. Last December alone, 16 million Ukrainians were without adequate clean drinking water. According to the researchers, all of this is not only a direct result of targeted attacks on water pipes, canals and pumping stations, but is also caused by problems with the power supply. Without them, the water systems cannot operate properly and the infrastructure collapses.

Heavy metals and radioactive substances endanger the water

However, dumped ammunition and war equipment are also responsible for the polluted freshwater resources. For example, the Kakhovka reservoir, which is actually used for agricultural irrigation, has now developed into a disposal site for military objects. The submerged objects release heavy metals and toxic explosives underwater and can contaminate the reservoir decades into the future. But that’s not all: Europe’s largest nuclear power plant is also located on the banks of the Kakhovka reservoir. If the dam of the lake breaks, the cooling of the power plant could fail with correspondingly serious consequences.

War damage to industrial plants also has devastating consequences for the water supply, as Shumilova and her colleagues report. By the beginning of June 2022 alone, 25 large Ukrainian industrial plants had been completely or partially destroyed. Especially in metal processing, mining and chemical production, this means that the mine water that they separate can no longer be pumped out sufficiently. Mine water is full of sulphates, chlorides and heavy metals. If its level rises, these toxins can also get into the ground and surface water.

“Our study shows just a few examples of damage and possible long-term and far-reaching consequences. The catchment areas of freshwater ecosystems are transboundary and the international community, including researchers, should now urgently take action to restore the water sector in Ukraine,” says Shumilova’s colleague Klement Tockner. The scientists assume that the pollutants that have already entered the water as a result of the war will continue to spread – right into the Black Sea, the Sea of ​​Azov and the Baltic Sea.

Source: Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB); Specialist article: Nature Sustainability, doi: 10.1038/s41893-023-01068-x

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