Kakhovka dam breach is devastating agriculture

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam and reservoir in southern Ukraine could lead to the desertification of thousands of hectares of fertile land

Representative image (Photo: DW)
Representative image (Photo: DW)


According to Ukraine's Agriculture Ministry, 600,000 hectares (1.44 million acres) of farmland no longer have access to irrigation water following the destruction of the Kakhovka dam on June 6. Before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, about 4 million tons of grain and oilseeds worth $1.5 billion (€1.4 billion) were being harvested there annually.

"I have already not been able to farm my land since the occupiers have confiscated it, but now there won't be any water either," said Vasyl, a farmer from the region of Kherson, in southern Ukraine. "In February of this year, the Russians announced they were 'nationalizing' my fields and all of my farm."

Vasyl was forced to leave his home for western Ukraine for security reasons in 2022, but his parents still live in the territory, which is occupied by Russia, so he preferred not to give his full name to DW.

Like the neighboring region of Zaporizhzhia, much of Kherson has been occupied by Russia since spring 2022. Many inhabitants have fled to other regions of Ukraine and abroad.

Agricultural heartland devastated

Months after Vasyl found out that his farm had been taken came the destruction of the Kakhovka dam on the River Dnieper, and the draining of a huge reservoir in the area that has damaged irrigation systems in the region. He fears that the 3,000 hectares of land he used to till could become a barren desert. These fears are shared by many farmers in southern Ukraine.

It is not only agriculture in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia that is affected but also on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. Experts say that there is no longer enough water in the huge Kakhovka reservoir to supply the peninsula via the North Crimean Canal, which could soon run dry.

For the time being, the possible desertification will probably only have a limited impact on Ukraine's economy because the affected regions are currently occupied by Russia and the national market has not benefited from them since 2022.

Before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Kherson produced 12% of the country's total vegetables, even though its territory only makes up 2% of the nation's agricultural land. Ukraine has now lost 36% of its total tomato crop.

"Tomatoes from southern Ukraine are the best, especially sweet in taste. With sufficient irrigation, they ripen particularly well under the southern sun," said Yuri Lupenko, of the Institute of Agrarian Economics in Kyiv. Lupenko warned that farmers in southern Ukraine could lose their livelihood without the water from the Kakhovka reservoir and vegetables could become a scarce commodity.

'We will return'

The destruction of the dam will also not have any immediate effect on Ukraine's grain exports, as the areas affected have also been cut off from the international market since 2022, but Stephan von Cramon-Taubadel, an agricultural economist at the University of Göttingen, said any bad news from Ukraine had an impact. "Tension results from the sum of many uncertainties," von Cramon-Taubadel said. "Prices can fluctuate very quickly as more information comes in."

Von Cramon-Taubadel said grain prices on the international market had risen by an average of 3% immediately after the destruction of the dam and predicted that there would be nervousness for as long as Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine continued.

For the moment, von Cramon-Taubadel said, good harvests in major agricultural countries, including Russia, and positive forecasts for the 2023 harvest mean relatively low prices for imports, particularly to the Global South. However, in the future, Ukraine's agricultural production would once again be needed, particularly to fight global hunger.

"If in the medium term, the region suffers more and more because of the war and destruction such as this dam breach, it will be like going to war against famine with one arm tied behind our backs," von Cramon-Taubadel said. He added that a source of confusion was Russia's repeated casting doubt on an extension of the Black Sea grain deal, which allows Ukraine to export through a safe corridor.

Vasyl hopes that Ukraine's army will be able to drive out Russia in its counteroffensive and he will be able to go home. "We will return and rebuild our farm," he insists. "But it will be difficult because we will have to drill deep into the ground to find water. That will take at least three to five years."

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