Velykyi Luh (means Great Meadow) is one of the most important natural and historical landscapes of Ukraine. This area was flooded in 1955-1958 with construction of Kakhovske Reservoir, despite the fact that many monuments of Zaporizhzhian Sich were preserved here and a large number of rare animal and plant species were found here. For 70 years, Velykyi Luh was lost to nature, science and Ukrainian identity. But on June 6, 2023, as a result of Russian military detonation of the Kakhovska hydroelectric power plant (HPP) dam, the reservoir ceased to exist within a few weeks, which put Ukraine at a crossroads. Now it is necessary to make a historic decision: to restore the natural ecosystems destroyed in the past on the site of the former reservoir, or to rebuild a new HPP and fill the reservoir again? In our opinion, the very idea of Velykyi Luh reviving as a natural area is not only timely and ecologically justified, but also such a decision can become a worthy compensation for the wildlife losses caused by war.
- Restoring natural ecosystems where they no longer existed (and not just saving the last that left) is the modern basis of sustainable development in Europe. In recent years, European states have increasingly taken bold and visionary decisions aimed at stopping global climate change and guaranteeing a reliable future for the entire continent. So, back in May 2020 when European Commission presented perhaps the most ambitious environmental protection document in the history of Europe — “EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030: Bringing nature back into our lives”. The strategy contains specific obligations and actions to be implemented in the EU by 2030. Among the most ambitious goals of the document: at least 30% of land and 30% of marine water areas should become protected areas; at least 10% of agricultural land should be removed from cultivation and restored to natural ecosystems, the use of pesticides should be reduced by 50%; at least 25,000 km of rivers are planned to restore to be free-flowing.
In July 2023, the European Parliament adopted the Nature Restoration Law, which provides “to put restoration measures in place by 2030 covering at least 20% of all land and sea areas in the EU”.
Thus, in seven years, half of the territories of European countries should become protected (30%) and brought back to a natural state (20%). Mankind has never set more ambitious nature protection goals. However, the calculations of scientists predicting catastrophic scenarios for humanity already in the coming decades are more than convincing. Therefore, ecosystem restoration now is a new era in the relationship between people and nature. Undoubtedly, the accession of Ukraine to the EU will require the fulfillment of these goals as well. And, looking ahead, it can be affirmed that the restoration of Velykyi Luh can be a truly unprecedented model project in this regard, larger than any Western European local initiative.
2. Dnipro River is one of the most important waterways in Europe for both people and biodiversity. Peoples migrated along it, states were formed – including the former Kiyvan Rus, the Ukrainian Cossack State, and modern Ukraine were formed around the Dnipro River valley. Convenient water artery, powerful intrazonal corridor with a mild climate, protected by forests and terrain from the harsh steppe climate, incredibly rich in fish and fowl – all this was in the past an exceptionally convenient training ground for state building. However, in the 20th century, a number of reservoirs were created here, which significantly changed and negatively affected the hydrological regime of this river. Instead, the process of restoring the naturalness of the Dnipro floodplain has begun, and here again it is worth recalling the world experience – when hydroelectric power plants and dams are eliminated in order to restore the natural regime of rivers.
3. Velykyi Luh is an important natural-historical landscape, which has an extremely important cultural value for Ukrainians. The very fact of placing Zaporizhzhian Sich (Ukrainian Cossack State) on this territory makes it one of the most important natural and historical objects for Ukraine. And although this part of the Dnipro valley is the cradle of Ukrainian statehood and a place of concentration of colossal historical and archaeological heritage, this particular object is practically unstudied by historians and archaeologists.
- Creation of a hydroelectric cascade on the Dnipro is a blow to Ukraine’s natural and historical heritage and biodiversity.
It is worth mentioning that the population of this territory in the 1950s, was forcibly resettled. Creation of the Dnipro cascade reservoirs was the greatest blow of the USSR to the natural, historical and cultural heritage of Ukraine. According to one of the hypotheses of historians, when making the decision to flood Veliky Luh at the end of the 1940s, Stalin also pursued the goal of destroying the cradle of Ukrainian statehood and villages of the Zaporozhian Cossacks descendants (90 villages and farms, 37.000 native inhabitants), who were the bearers of the memory of Ukrainian identity formation in the past. However, before the reservoir filling, this territory mainly consisted of the Dnipro River natural floodplain and was extremely important for biodiversity. Looking at the relief of this territory, which we can observe now that the reservoir has disappeared, it can be argued that this territory was occupied by the most diverse and dynamic landscape in Ukraine. Such an area really played a significant role for local biodiversity and even more so for global seasonal bird migrations. Since the 1920s, scientific and state institutions have sought to create a reserve here .
5. The creation of the reservoir in the past caused the appearance of previously unknown environmental and social problems. When developing the project of Ukrainian hydroelectric power plants and reservoirs, the value of land was not taken into account, the sums from their loss were not included in the estimated cost of construction. Kakhovske reservoir covered chernozems (fertile black soil), destroying both agricultural land and forests, meadows, marshes, and old forests, where many rare plant and animal species were found. In particular, more than 500.000 hectares of fertile lands were flooded and taken out of agricultural use and another 100.000 were inundated. Restoration of these better-moistened lands will be a worthy compensation for the loss of irrigation about 400.000 hectares of land.
More than 15.000 collective farmers, workers and employees were subject to forced eviction from the reservoir filling area, and more than 3.000 buildings that were on the state balance sheet were to be relocated. Thus, in the densely populated region, economic and ties of the territories created during historical epochs were subject to destruction. Resettlement conditions were discriminatory, economically disadvantageous for the population. People had to transport their own houses and auxiliary buildings and build new ones from the ruins. At the same time, collective farm buildings had to be transported and rebuilt. Extraordinary measures were taken against those who did not manage to resettle in time, up to forced resettlement and homes destruction.
In the first years after the reservoir was filled houses in coastal settlements began to collapse and hundreds of shore hectares “crawled” into the water. In a number of villages located 300-500 m from the shore, cracks 1.5-2.5 km long were formed. In such a situation in 1958 the Council of Ministers of the Ukrainian SSR declared a 100 m wide steep shore as dangerous and prohibited the presence of people here. Since that time the total loss of land in the area of so-called “Kakhovske sea” amounted to about 10.000 hectares. The destruction of the banks quickly silted up the coastal zone for 200-500 m and made it impossible to take water near the shore itself. And finally cemeteries and cattle burial grounds were flooded. Relocation to higher places, often without water, incredibly slow construction of water pipes led to the fact that most of the new villages were transferred to imported water. Thus, resettlement of people led to a significant drop in their quality of life and wealth. This, in turn, led to accelerated migration of the region’s population, primarily young people, to cities.
Due to mistakes and miscalculations by the reservoir designers in the Kamian-Dnipro district of Zaporizhzhia region, the water level rose by 2-3 m in some places. This led to the fact that wells were destroyed, cellars were flooded, the land became waterlogged, houses were sagging. At a distance of 20 km from the coast, groundwater rose to a level of 60-80 cm, which caused destruction of gardens and vineyards, and waterlogging of meadows. As a result, in 1957 6.730 hectares of gardens, 6.700 yards with a population of 20.600 people were flooded. Flooding of the region continued until 2023. Lands here became salinized, several large garden areas died, among them a magnificent 660-hectare garden in the Vodiane village.
The promises of the ideologues of the reservoir were reduced to an obvious rise in all sectors of the economy indicators. But all these promises to improve life did not come true. Plans to increase the yields of winter crops, cotton, etc., as well as developed projects for growing agricultural crops (rice, vegetables, etc.) in shallow water have failed. The same applies to plans for breeding unprecedentedly large volumes of sturgeon and predatory fish, which disappeared from the reservoir altogether and were quickly replaced by low-value adventive fish species… For example in 1966 the annual fish catch in the Kherson region amounted to 1300 tons, although before the reservoir was filled this indicator was 9000 tons in 1956. The number of native fish species decreased due to pollution, siltation, loss of rheophilic conditions, spawning grounds, and also the inability to go upstream. In addition, the “blooming” of the water, the deterioration of the oxygen regime led to the disappearance or reduction of fish sensitive to the oxygen content in the water, and the presence of low-value species that can tolerate brackish water and withstand high turbidity of the water increased.
It is necessary to mention the pollution of water and bottom sediments. The chemical composition of the water of the Kakhovske reservoir, as well as the entire cascade of reservoirs, is formed by accumulated river water. Existing treatment facilities in the Dnipro basin are not capable of cleaning wastewater to the safety level. The main sources of surface water pollution are overloaded sewage treatment facilities and networks that are in unsatisfactory technical condition. More than 90% of the polluted wastewater in the Dnipro river basin is provided by the water canals of the cities of the Dnipropetrovsk region and industrial enterprises of the mining and metallurgical complex of Dnipro, Kamiansk, Kryvyi Rih, Nikopol, and Western Donbass. The average annual content of harmful substances in the Kakhovske reservoir reaches dangerous levels of phenols – 1-2 maximum permissible concentrations (MPC), copper compounds – 6-11 MPC, zinc – 7-12 MPC, manganese – 3-10 MPC.
Water discharges from the reservoir have been constantly decreasing: in almost 50 years they have halved (from 80 km3 in 1971 to 39.4 km3 in 2018), so the water in Dnipro is already decreasing catastrophically. Allowing even more water to evaporate under such conditions would be extremely wasteful. Annually reservoir eroded from 1 to 7.5 meters coastline, increasing its area and decreasing its depth.
Despite all the attempts of the totalitarian communist government to lobby for the project of creating the Kakhovske reservoir, Ukrainians tried to resist. In particular, from the very beginning, when in 1954 Ukrainians were forcibly resettled people had a negative attitude towards it. But the construction took place anyway and already in the 1950s, censors strictly forbade mentioning the problems of reservoirs in newspapers, and many editors and journalists ended up in Soviet camps for covering the negative consequences of the hydroelectric power stations construction. Until recently, efforts were made to lower the reservoirs by modern environmental scientists from the cities of Nikopol, Zaporizhzhia, specialists of the Dnipro National University, etc.
The resistance would have been much greater, but after the repressions of the 1930s, activists of the national liberation movements, professional historians, biologists, and local historians who could organize the fight against the construction of the hydroelectric cascade were either shot, or evicted, or found themselves in extremely difficult conditions and under constant checks, when one wrong step was immediately punished.
On the other hand, the construction of the Dnipro reservoirs, and in particular Kakhovske – the second largest in terms of area and the largest in terms of volume, and rather shallow – created a significant number of environmental problems, both for people and nature.
Construction and filling of the reservoir made it almost impossible for the left and right banks inhabitants to communicate. The villages that were previously separated by a floodplain and a relatively narrow river turned out to be cut off from each other by a much wider and deeper water barrier. Residents of neighboring villages, who actively communicated, created families, ran a joint economy, etc., now had to cover hundreds of kilometers in a detour overland through Kakhovka or Zaporizhzhia. It is clear that these contacts were completely lost, and families were broken.
The creation of a reservoir in the past caused severe damage to river transport. Ships were forced to wait for days, or even weeks, for the passage of vessels through the locks of the HPP. And also a huge freshwater reservoir is extremely dangerous for all types of watercraft in times of storms. It is clear that in such conditions river transport has declined.
According to published data, after the construction of a six reservoirs cascade on the Dnipro the transportation of goods by water transport decreased from 30.8 thousand tons in 1980 to 3 thousand tons in 2009 – almost tenfold. Transportation of passengers decreased during the same period from 25 to 1.5 thousand. The reasons for this rapid reduction may be different, but the fact itself refutes the arguments about the determining role of the dam and reservoir in navigation on the Dnipro river.
6. Would the project of Kakhovske scale reservoir seem justified in 2023? Despite the significant resonance in society caused by the destruction of HPP, it should be recognized that the economic value of the Kakhovske reservoir in 2023 was insignificant for the state: with catching of artificially populated fish species and production of a small amount of electricity. Other arguments that are heard in statements of reservoir restoration supporters can actually be compensated by the normal course of Dnipro. Thus, water pumping for drinking water supply and irrigation was still carried out with the help of pumps; it is more convenient for water transport without locks and high waves… As for the climatic effect, theses about this are generally very dubious: although the inhabitants of the reservoir banks really felt a microclimate improvement due to the additional air moisture, but the state lost every year 1.3 km3 of water as a whole due to evaporation. In general, the impact of the Kakhovske reservoir construction on the climate change and other natural characteristics of this region is not studied well and there is a lack of data. And only now is there an opportunity to organize such comprehensive monitoring and multifaceted assessments. It is clear that water (as a limiting ecological factor in the steppe zone) has a determining effect, but it is similarly provided by irrigated agricultural lands. At the same time, the latter occupy much larger areas and are directly dependent on the supply of water from the Dnipro River, not reservoirs, so in this sense it can be considered an optional intermediate link. Publicized arguments (including from the academic environment) in favor of the colossal ecosystem services of the reservoir are unconvincing. It is difficult to deny the fact of carbon sequestration in the shells of numerous Dreissena molluscs, followed by its burial in bottom sediments. This is really the most efficient way of depositing carbon among those that exist in nature. But according to this (pursuing exclusively the goal of maximum carbon deposition) it is possible not to limit oneself flooding the Kahovske reservoir, but to flood other areas as well. And the formation of mass accumulations of Dreissena molluscs in artificial reservoirs can hardly be called an ecological achievement. Indeed, these species rapidly invade new environments (for example, they are one of the most dangerous invasive species in North America), including artificial reservoirs. Their large settlements can significantly impoverish plankton communities and clean water bodies, but this can also be one of the reasons for the decline in the number of other freshwater bivalves. In addition, feces released by molluscs contain a significant amount of biogenic elements (nitrogen and phosphorus) which in turn leads to outbreaks of benthic algae growth. Also the excessive number of Dreissena molluscs affects the fish grouping.
On the other hand, long-term trends of water quality deterioration and stagnant processes in the reservoir are at least dissonant with ecosystem services and cannot be ignored. As a result of the death and decomposition of blue-green algae, a significant amount of poisonous chemical compounds is formed. Butyric acid, acetone, ethyl and butyl alcohol, ammonia, organic nitrogen, phosphorus compounds, etc. appear in such waters. All this not only smells bad but also causes suffocation and death of a huge number of fish, diseases of domestic animals that drink this water, complicates the operation of water channels (when filters get clogged) etc. And the release of toxins (hepatotoxins, neurotoxins and dermatotoxins) by cyanobacteria can be dangerous for humans as well. Their active reproduction in reservoirs is often associated with the development of intestinal diseases, allergic dermatitis, liver disease, and even an increased risk of cancer. The problem is aggravated due to the fact that cyanotoxins enter the drinking water supply pipes, because in Ukraine there are no standardized methods of their detection and therefore – verification and neutralization at the stage of water preparation.
It is good that phytoplankton produces oxygen when the water blooms, but a similar function is performed by quarantine or invasive plant species… The problem is that we are not talking about natural areas with native biota and well-developed self-regulation mechanisms, but about unstable anthropogenically transformed ecosystems.
In no EU country, no one would finance and implement such a project as the construction of a new HPP and the filling of a reservoir of Kahovske scale. The volume of necessary costs required for such a project looks absolutely irrational, compared to those needs that can be met exclusively at the expense of the reservoir. Most of the EU countries are engaged in lowering much smaller reservoirs due to their ecological impracticability and do not build new ones. In the end, time plays against the reservoir restoration and entire hydraulic system. Currently there are no certain projects and calculations, funds for their implementation, and the very possibility of carrying out such work. On the other hand, the economic infrastructure which is critically dependent on the functioning of the water reservoir does not have appropriate margin of strength to simply wait for restoration in an idle state. The issue of water supply for settlements and parts of irrigated agricultural land is already actively being solved through alternative methods of water supply. Agricultural producers are forced to resort to the replacement of certain crops with drought-resistant ones, therefore, adaptation to new realities occurs independently and contrary to the far from ambiguous prospects of HPP restoration.
Most of the land affected by the reservoir’s descent is currently unsuitable for agricultural use due to pollution, laying of mines and temporary occupation. Thus, conservation and restoration of natural vegetation in these areas can be considered as a premature phytoremediation measure. According to Art. 172 of the Land Code of Ukraine and Art. 51 of the Law of Ukraine “On Land Protection”, conservation is subject to “degraded lands, unproductive lands that do not have steppe, meadow, forest vegetation cover, the economic use of which is ecologically dangerous and economically ineffective, as well as technogenically polluted land plots on which it is impossible to obtain ecologically clean products, and the presence of people on these land plots is dangerous for their health; land plots contaminated with chemical substances as a result of emergency situations and/or armed aggression and hostilities during martial law”.
- The russian terrorist attack on the Kakhovska HPP caused unprecedented losses in the environment and created new ecological problems. Problems caused by reservoir creation in the past and continued with its existence disappeared with reservoir disappearance. However, the terrorist attack on the Kakhovska HPP caused devastating short-term consequences and created many new problems that did not exist before. On the territory of the former reservoir most of the fish population and all organisms living there were destroyed (most of them were thrown into the sea and died); benthic fauna and aquatic vegetation dried up and also died creating sanitary risks; whole colonies of birds died and whole coastal aquatic vegetation ecosystems have disappeared. Among the drained territories there are also protected areas: “Velykyi Luh” and “Kamianska Sich” national nature parks.
In the flooded territory under the action of the rapid water flow from the destroyed reservoir all fauna died on large areas – from large mammals to small insects and even fish, which were carried by the flow into the sea. In fact, the largest national nature park “Nyzhniodniprovskyi” and several nature reserves have lost all their natural value. Even more protected areas were flooded, and several endemic species of plants and animals were threatened with extinction due to the rise in groundwater levels. Also, at least two species of insects and one species of fish died out as a result of flooding.
Almost all flooded territories below the dam and those that were dried above it are classified as nature conservation territories of international importance.
The water level rose tens of kilometers upstream along the rivers flowing into Dipro below the reservoir.
Freshwater contaminated with silt from the bottom of the reservoir, remains of different buildings, infrastructure, vegetation and animal corpses were carried far into the Black Sea and within a few days reached the shores of Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. Such transfer led to colossal desalination of the most biologically diverse coastal strip of the sea and its pollution. And this in turn led to the extinction of the aquatic population there.
Destruction of the dam created a complex of new problems for people and consequences that had never happened before. Thus, water supply to cities and irrigation provided by water intakes that pumped water from the reservoir temporarily stopped. Kakhovska HPP and the bridge over it have ceased to exist and operate. Temporarily (until the final dismantling of the dam) river navigation became impossible. In addition, guarantees of Zaporizhzhian HPP stable operation decreased.
8. Velykyi Luh as a natural area can be revived. At first glance the catastrophic situation which not only the mass media but also the top figures of the ecological sphere in Ukraine hastened to call “desertification” meaning the exposure of the reservoir’s bottom actually has an obvious negative effect for nature only in the short term (this area really looked like desert for some time). Firstly, the reservoir was a source of evaporation and therefore water loss in the region. And secondly, the endless shallow water almost devoid of life is not a natural ecosystem and for 70 years it remained an artificial technological structure. Undoubtedly, in the near future the “desert” landscape here will be overgrown with natural vegetation and will turn into the largest area of wild nature in the steppe zone of Ukraine.
Our expedition to the Oskil reservoir in Kharkiv Oblast, which was also drained as a result of a russian terrorist attack in early 2022 showed that natural ecosystems incredibly attractive for birds were restored in the first year. And the studies conducted on separate areas of the former Kakhovske reservoir showed that already a month after the terrorist attack vegetation had already begun to recover in some areas. Moreover, as shown by the studies carried out in the area of the national nature park “Kamianska Sich” the seedlings of native species, among which the White Willow (Salix alba) is the undisputed leader, significantly outnumber alien plant species in terms of the occurrence on dry bottom (although, for the sake of fairness, it should be noted that they also occur and will continue to spread in the process of successive changes).
Forecasts regarding dust storms also did not come true – the hottest part of the summer has already passed, but no dust storm caused by the blowing of silt from the reservoir bottom has happened. As the amount of precipitation increases in autumn and the bottom becomes overgrown the probability of dust storms decreases significantly.
In this context, the intensity of spontaneous recovery succession and the ability of phytosystems to self-renew cannot be underestimated. Therefore, absolutely hasty and so far theoretical urgent steps and ideas regarding the sowing of wild grass seeds are unfounded and unrealistic. The problem of wind erosion is successfully solved by nature itself, bare areas of the soil are actively overgrown and fixed by vegetation, so the costs of “seeding” in themselves have no logical explanation. The question is what to sow and where to collect the necessary amount of seed material of suitable wild plants? It is not available in the required amount, and in practice we have to use hay with the seed fraction, since it is very difficult to separate. Finally, all classic agro-steppe methods involve pre-sowing soil preparation, the use of special agricultural machinery, and step-by-step seed care, which is impossible due to hostilities in the region. Thus, the foreseen and absolutely justified measures to combat wind erosion will lose their relevance until the potential time of their implementation – at the time when carrying out renaturalization works in this zone will be possible, the territory will be changed.
It is very difficult to simulate the restoration of vegetation cover at once. By analogy, we can say that a complex of aquatic and coastal, swamp, meadow and forest vegetation will form at the bottom of the reservoir. The key problem of vegetation cover restoration will be seed shortage. It will least affect aquatic and swamp vegetation, because the seeds of water plants are able to float and the riverbed and large lakes will be a corridor for their spreading. Situation with seeds of plants that form the basis of meadow and forest communities will be critical. Usually they transfer not only with the wind, but more often by animals. This works when ecosystems are not disturbed or isolated. Plants that spread their seeds with the wind will have the greatest activity in colonizing the bottom of the Kakhovske reservoir. The mentioned white willow is exactly that. In the example with willow, the moment of seasonality is also important. Literally shortly before the dam was blown up, the fruits of the willows ripened and seeds scattered with fluff, floated on the water surface, and therefore we see numerous steps. The elm also behaves in a similar way. In many other plants seeds ripen later and will fall on the newly formed land during the season. Vegetation cover of meadows and forests here will be restored from the periphery to the center.
Synanthropic species will play a key role in the first stages of vegetation cover restoration in dry areas, among which adventive species will make up a significant share. They have a wide arsenal of seed dispersal methods and can produce a huge amount of it. Therefore, for some time the bottom of the Kakhovske reservoir will somewhat resemble the abundant vegetation of dumps.
Another factor that does not lend itself to the method of analogies is the state of the substrate. Over many years, more or less thick bottom sediments were formed which to a large extent leveled the soil fertility because in natural floodplains it is quite different in higher and lower areas. And this will also contribute to the intensive development of plants inherent in rich substrates. This is a great help for wintering birds.
In the first years, an important influencing factor will be the nature of the flood: how high the spring waters will rise, how long they will stagnate in the lowlands, etc. During the flood period formation of the Dnipro riverbed will also take place intensively, lakes and other depressions will be flooded. In a few years the soil salinity will become an important factor, the role of which will grow.
Thus we look at the restoration of natural vegetation with optimism, we predict a relatively quick restoration of aquatic, coastal and swamp vegetation. For some time, the dry land areas will be dominated by plants characteristic of anthropogenically littered areas, but in 5-10 years, areas with a predominance of trees will be visible and the first forests of willow, alder, elm, ash maple will be formed. Considerable areas will be occupied by thickets of shrubs – willows and amorphous shrubs. Formation of more or less natural and sustainable forest ecosystems should be expected for 2-3 generations of pioneer trees. The restoration of meadow vegetation is difficult to predict, because it will depend on the land management. In conditions of non-interference by man, these will be insignificant areas surrounded by thickets of reeds, forests and shrubs – meadows and forest edges.
July 2023, restoration of vegetation a year after the descent of the Oskil reservoir (Kharkiv region). Photo by S. Viter.
July 2023, restoration of vegetation a month after the descent of the Kakhovske reservoir on the territory of the Kamianska Sich NNP (Kherson region). Photo by S. Skoryk
- Restoring the Velykyi Luh is in the interests of the environment. It should be recalled that in the distant past there was the largest natural forest in the steppe zone of Ukraine at the site of the Kakhovske Reservoir (it was called “Velykyi Luh” because in Ukrainian unlike the word “luky” – meadows which means grass ecosystems in river valleys, the word “luh” literally meant floodplain forest). This could be incredibly convenient for the implementation of state plans in Ukraine to increase forest cover and the ability to carry out these tasks in a natural way, without harming other ecosystems. Part of the plots will be naturally overgrown with meadows. Although it is necessary to admit that it is about ecosystem restoration similar and even close to the lost natural ones. These native ecosystems were finely tuned and were formed as a result of centuries-old interaction and interference of a number of natural and anthropogenic factors that were in a unique balance.
Restoration of semi-natural ecosystems on such a huge area has many positive consequences:
- diversity of natural ecosystems will increase significantly: instead of the almost identical biotope of artificial water bodies, which occupied more than 90% of this area, dozens of other biotopes will appear, in particular, swamp, meadow, steppe, shrub, forest, halophyte;
- absorption of the main greenhouse gas will increase significantly – we remind that Ukraine has taken on obligations regarding decarbonization;
- populations of many rare species included in red lists due to the threat of extinction will increase, accordingly, this threat will significantly decrease. In particular, it will be possible to prevent the almost inevitable disappearance of some local endemics, such as cornflowers Centaurea appendicata and Centaurea konkae;
- area of pastures and hayfields will increase;
- available stocks of valuable wild plants and animals – medicinal, technical, hunting, etc. will increase.
- spawning will resume, which will significantly enrich the fish population of the Lower Dnipro and make unnecessary the costs of maintaining several fish farms, which ensured the artificial renewal of fish resources;
- loss of fresh water will decrease due to the reduction of the open water table;
- water quality will improve and water ecosystems condition too; diversity of water bodies will increase significantly.;
- functionality of the Pan-European Dnipro meridional ecological corridor will improve.
- Advantages for the population from the Kakhovske reservoir descent. If we analyze the situation already in its current state, we can state that the lowering of the reservoir can have real advantages for the population. For example, now water transport will be able to move at all times of the year, will not wait in queues in front of the locks; bridges and ferries will be built and the duration of moving to the other shore will be reduced tenfold; the possibilities of solar energy development in the territory freed from the artificial reservoir will make it possible to turn recently depressed region into a logistics center which will no longer be bypassed by central highways and which will be the most convenient in the region for transport logistics. Assessing the problem exclusively in the economic context, it is necessary to understand the significant potential of the freed 200.000 hectares of land for obtaining agricultural products (at least parts of these lands). Of course, an unprecedentedly wide horizon opens up after the end of the war for recreation and tourism development.
11. Benefits from the reservoir lowering for Ukraine as a state and for a whole Europe. It will become a platform for research on the restoration of natural ecosystems as well as the reintroduction of rare animals and plants. It will be valuable to create a protected area here to solve the problem of plowing and reclamation of the reservoir, which have already destroyed many unique ecosystems.
- What will be the future of the Velykyi Luh? There are a lot of different options for the future, minimum are: do not restore the reservoir, to restore it, or to build something completely different. It is obvious that from an economic point of view, the priority of these options will be placed in this order, and despite the dissatisfaction of separate individuals, the cheapest option will be the refusal of restoration. Even the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) has already announced that only in 2023 consequences of undermining the HPP will add 0.2 percentage points of negative contribution to real GDP growth and 0.3 percentage points in consumer inflation. In addition, they will increase the deficit in trade in goods by $0.4 billion. At the same time, according to the NBU’s calculations the cost of restoring a complex of hydraulic structures and reclamation systems is about $1.5 billion in each direction. Roughly speaking, the losses to the economy from the HPP destruction are much smaller than the funds needed to restore the former outdated complex.
It is not surprising that the management of Ukrhydroenergo insists that the only option for the future development of events is the construction of a new dam and refilling of the reservoir again. Although in the statements of the energy industry officials there are frequent doubts that someone will be involved in the restoration of the dam, nevertheless, this option is most often heard among all possible scenarios.
13. Restoring the reservoir will bring back old problems and create new ones. Ukrhydroenergo’s scenario does not take into account environmental consequences. The construction of a new HPP will entail the negative environmental consequences that the creation of the reservoir brought in the 1950s and will bring back all the chronic problems that were caused by the existence of the reservoir. Violation of bottom sediments will no longer allow it to use it for fish breeding. And the main thing is that nature will not wait for government decisions and is already actively restoring ecosystems on the territory freed from water. Until the possible construction of a new dam, the entire territory of the former Velykyi Luh will be green again and millions of living organisms will exist there. Therefore, any new filling of the reservoir will be the same ecocide that we now rightly accuse russia of. To just allow ourselves to frivolously destroy ecosystems at a time when this is one of the proofs of russia’s war crimes is at least inconsistent.
In addition, the reservoir restoration will be significantly more expensive than its original construction in the 50s of the last century, because we cannot now implement the project of the 1950s. The new reservoir in the case of its restoration (we hope that this will not happen), should have a fish channel (which would function when the height difference between Dnipro and the reservoir surface is more than 16 m), logistical solutions for communication between the banks (ferry? aviation?), modern coastal fortifications, solving issues of public safety in the zone of potential flooding due to the extensive system of cut-off dams, ensuring large-scale reconstruction of the worn-out distribution network of irrigation channels, etc. That is, to build a modern equivalent of the former outdated complex of HPP, irrigation systems and a safe reservoir is much more difficult and expensive than what was done 70 years ago.
However, it makes sense to doubt the expediency of this option even at the stage of assessing its energy needs. According to the published data of the Institute of Nature Management and Ecology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, the entire huge cascade of hydroelectric power plants produces 9 billion kW, which is only 5–7% of the electricity produced in Ukraine. At the same time, maintenance of the HPP cascade costs much more than the electricity it produces. Therefore, the state must invest in the maintenance of dams an amount that is 17 times higher than their book value.
- Is it possible to meet the needs of Ukraine without restoring the Kakhovska HPP? Analyzing whether it is possible to meet the needs of Ukraine without restoring the reservoir, it should be understood that most of these needs will need to be realized only after the de-occupation of Ukrainian territories and demining, and the latter may stretch over several decades.
It is easiest to assess the situation with water transport and logistics. Periodic dredging of the channel along the fairway will be sufficient for river transport, and in general the situation may be even better than during the reservoir’s existence. The reasons for this are complicated navigation through the reservoir, long queues at the locks and complete blocking of movement through them in winter. In addition, large waves that arise on the wide expanse of the reservoir during storms significantly complicate the movement of water transport, compared to the river bed.
Instead of the former ferry, the alternative of which was a detour around the entire reservoir (more than 200 km one way), it will now be possible to build several modern, convenient bridges, the logistical attractiveness of which will also contribute to the reconstruction of roads in the whole region.
Drinking water supply and irrigation caused the most questions in the first months. The restoration of drinking water supply to the cities of Kryvyi Rih, Nikopol, etc., became an urgent issue in the first days after the terrorist attack, and the reconstruction of pumping stations will be completed in the near future. This means that there will be absolutely no need to wait for the HPP reconstruction if the water supply will be restored in the coming months. The situation is similar with irrigation, for which water was also pumped into the canals from the reservoir. After the deoccupation, it will also be possible to rebuild the pumping stations on the Left Bank of the former reservoir to restore the water supply to the canals, if it is needed at all in the coming decades. Traditional resource-consuming methods of irrigation with the help of sprinklers can be replaced by modern economical drip irrigation technologies, and in general, the system of irrigated agriculture in the region needs technological modernization.
The irrigation issue is the most difficult in our opinion. Existing canals and irrigation systems require large volumes of water. Amount of water for irrigation should be calculated taking into account the most economic options for irrigation agriculture. However, we must consider all alternative options for dealing with this issue. Alternative options for splicing without rebuilding the reservoir should be developed.
In the case of modernization of irrigation, significantly less water will be needed for the same areas, so the Dnipro itself will be sufficient to fill the water supply networks.
As for concerns about the operation of the Zaporizhzhya HPP, its sustainable functioning does not depend on the presence of a reservoir, but on the cooling pond, which remains intact for the time being. It is also possible to pump water into it from the Dnipro branch, which at this time fits directly under the cooling pond.
The only thing that will not be able to compensate directly is the electricity generated at HPP. In general, it should be mentioned that the entire cascade of 6 HPPs on the Dnipro provides Ukraine according to various estimates from 4 to 5 percent of the electricity generated in our country. It can be understood from this that the role of the Kakhovska HPP as an energy-generating unit for the state is at least not decisive.
Another function that Ukrhydroenergo officials call important is balancing the energy system during peak loads. Indeed, this is a known feature for cascaded reservoirs. But not in the case of Kakhovske reservoir, because it should not have been actively used for peak regulation as there is no next reservoir below it and accordingly, sharp drops in the discharge from the station would have major detrimental consequences for the ecosystem and the population, in particular, provoking a strong erosion And in general, in the modern world, the alternatives within the energy system are a) “smart networks” redirecting the energy of the system to the peak, b) batteries, c) power that is quickly turned on, for example gas (and in the future even solar), d) consumption regulation so that the “peak” is smoothed out (for example, by differentiating the price of electricity at different hours of the day).
Therefore, the relevant question about the peaks is not about the Kakhovska HPP, but about the loss of maneuverability of the Dnipro HPP located upstream. There are three solutions here: a) find a safe place for the counter-regulator basin; b) transfer this function to other sections of the remaining HPP cascade; c) combine options a and b.
15. Today we have to prevent hasty decisions. Now you should not blindly ask the question “how to restore the reservoir”, instead, you should look for a solution how to quickly and rationally meet the existing needs of our state and population, using modern technologies and solutions. What are the benefits of alternative scenarios?
Making hasty decisions that are not based on the study of international experience, the impartial development of various scenarios, or a strategic environmental assessment can only bring harm, new damages and losses. Decisions of this level will entail such important consequences that accepting them under the pressure of lobbyists without a long study of issue and involvement of all interested parties will be an unacceptable mistake.
However, our state has already made the first hasty decision. Thus, on July 18, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine approved the resolution “On the implementation of the experimental project “Construction of the Kakhovska hydroelectric station on the Dnipro River. Reconstruction after the destruction of the Kakhovska HPP and ensuring the stable operation of the Dnipro HPP during the reconstruction period.” Decision adopted without proper environmental assessments and evaluations and the necessary detailed economic calculations, has already caused the indignation of experts and public organizations. At the same time, the lobbyists for the restoration of the Kakhovske reservoir position it as an alternative and the only possible solution to a number of problems: irrigation, logistics, energy, etc. – which is completely untrue, and certain arguments openly manipulate public opinion. We would like to believe that the unexpected recovery of Veliky Luh, the memory of whose existence Soviet ideologues sought to erase for so long, will be able to become a symbol of Ukrainian recovery after the war. Unique experience of the Kakhovska terrorist attack will be able to engrave in the history of the russian-Ukrainian war, as such, after which Ukraine was able to recover better than it was before.
Restoration of Velykyi Luh will be the largest environmental project ever implemented in Europe. Considering the scale of this environmental protection project, it is quite realistic to turn it into a pan-European one. Ecologists, scientists, governments of European countries will be interested in joining the largest natural ecosystems restoration in Europe. Wide international cooperation will determine the success of this project, because European Union countries have a lot of experience in carrying out similar works (recall that EU has committed to restoring the naturalness of 25.000 km of rivers by 2030).
The text was worked on by: Oleksiy Vasyliuk, Viktor Parkhomenko, Ivan Moisiienko, Viktor Shapoval, Serhiy Panchenko and Oleksandr Spriahailo. We would like to thank Yevhen Simonov for his important advice.
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