After Kakhovka Dam Attack, Searching For Signs Of New Life — And Water
In the Kakhovka Reservoir region, life used to revolve around the community's direct access to water – until the dam was attacked two months ago. Locals are now trying to build a new life, carrying with them hope for the end of the war and the return of their precious reserves.
NIKOPOL — Before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, more than 280,000 people lived in the Kakhovka Reservoir area. Today, following the blowing up of the Kakhovka Dam two months ago, only 50,000 remain. The explosion turned the region into a war zone, with the right bank controlled by Ukraine and the left bank occupied by the Russian army – and growing fears that the Russians might target the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant.
The reservoir, once the largest on the Dnipro River, is now a desolate wasteland, the landscape surreal with dry sand dunes and black strips of silt in the lowlands. The river is gradually reclaiming its former channel, displaying nature's memory of its past course.
A recent visit felt like witnessing the slow beginning of the region's rebirth. The left bank of today's Dnipro is a new bank "made" from the bottom of the reservoir. The shore is completely sandy and devoid of all vegetation.
Can it be reborn?
Historically, the floodplains near Nikopol were known as the "Great Meadow" — lowlands with many lakes and ponds, small rivers, branches of the Dnipro and various islands. All this can be reborn... but only with time and reestablishing security.
The loss of the reservoir has had severe consequences for the region, affecting agriculture, water supply, and daily life. Residents are facing water scarcity, relying on imported goods and local wells. Water conservation measures, including reusing water for various purposes, have become common.
Residents are divided on the future of the Kakhovka Reservoir.
In Nikopol, once a seaside resort town, drilling wells is an expensive and risky solution due to the presence of manganese deposits, which can contaminate aquifers. The loss of the reservoir has also affected the region's agricultural output, with farmers facing challenges in irrigating their lands.
Residents are divided on the future of the Kakhovka Reservoir. Some oppose its reconstruction, considering the original dam a misguided Soviet project. Others, particularly in Nikopol, see the reservoir as essential for the region's development and prosperity.
A view of the Kakhovka Reservoir near the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, which was destroyed when the dam collapsed. Jul 13, 2023.
Between misery and laughter
"Those who want the return of the dam should remember that in those days people rode horses and washed in the river, not in showers," says Yevhen Yevtushenko, head of the Nikopol military administration. "But do we want to return to the Middle Ages? We need electricity, efficient irrigated agriculture, and in general we seek civilizational development. And development in our region has always been associated with the abundance of water."
Water pipes in Nikopol region have dried up. Ukraine's government authorities allocated one and a half billion hryvnias ($40.6 million) for a new water pipeline, which will resupply the dehydrated regions of Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson and Mykolaiv regions.
Meanwhile, in the towns and villages of the region, only imported water and water from local wells are available.
One man offered his story, with a grin of irony: "Today I stole water from my wife while she was sleeping and watered her flowers. She loves flowers very much, but now, I pray, we will find some water for the tomatoes. A person can cry for the flowers, apologize to them as if to living humans. They need to be watered. So, I stood up for the flowers, I water them a little when my wife is not looking. And she doesn't know and is happy: look, she says, how resilient they are here - they grow back by themselves!"
Saying goodbye to the sea
On the embankment in Nikopol, there are cafés destroyed by shelling, weeds, and rusty slips of the shuttle station.
"First, the vegetables are washed, then the floor or dishes are washed with this water, the flowers are watered, and what is left is collected in a separate bucket in the toilet to be flushed," says Olena Shishkina, who was in a queue waiting for water. "It's much harder for our neighbors, They have small children, and therefore need more water. And they have to wash almost every day. And washing is now a whole ordeal."
Shishkina recalls that when the hydroelectric power plant was blown up, locals went to the shore every day and bid farewell to the sea. "Without the sea, life immediately became somehow not ours, not real. And water in the tap? We didn't think about it before: it's always there... Now we're always thinking about where we're going to get the next batch of water. We seek out water as if it's working. When was the last time I took a shower? It feels like it was in a past life. Washing now means using a bucket and a coffee mug."
Nikopol district was one of the largest producers of vegetables and garden crops on irrigated lands in Ukraine's Dnipropetrovsk region. Today, it's just a question of locals figuring out the minimum of how to survive.
Volodymyr Kolodiy owns two hectares of farmland. He used to plant up to 100,000 bushes of Beijing cabbage every year.
"Cabbage first grows in a greenhouse, in August we plant it in the open ground, and start intensive watering," Kolodiy explained. "I have a large pipe, with a powerful pump, I turned it on at five in the morning and turned it off at ten in the evening. This year, I decided to halve the planting, but I still have to get water from my hose until August."
Vehicles and buildings were damaged around the reservoir. Jul 13, 2023.
Coping and rebuilding
Residents are finding ways to cope with water scarcity and are determined to rebuild their lives once the conflict subsides.
It's a first sign of renewal
Near Pokrovsky you'll find the villages of Kapulivka and Oleksivka. They were separated by a long and narrow bay, like a river. After the detonation of the hydroelectric power plant, the residents of both villages quickly realized that the bay would be emptied out along with the entire reservoir.
Now these two villages have a newly formed pond, which is filling up, rather slowly - the level has risen by 40 centimeters in a month, despite the fact that the water is constantly drawn for irrigation.
Despite the challenges, there is hope for the region's future. Fresh vegetation is starting to grow on the dry river bottom, a first sign of the potential for renewal, and hope for Ukraine once the war is over. No matter how far away that can seem today.
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