FEWS NET Scientists: Entire Ukraine Canal System Vital for Farm Irrigation ‘Dried Up’ After Dam Breach
When news of the Kakhovka dam breach in Ukraine spread in the early hours of June 6, many began to worry how the catastrophic event would impact food security in far corners of the globe given the region’s reputation as one of the world’s most significant breadbaskets.
Since the dam breach, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) — which benefits from invaluable scientific partnerships with USGS, NASA, NOAA and others — has assessed immediate impacts and worked to understand how the flow of the Dnipro River will change in the coming months.
“We can see that, within the first 24 hours after the dam breach, developed areas — like homes, shops and roads — took a much harder hit than agricultural areas surrounding the Dnipro River,” said Shahriar Pervez, a FEWS NET research scientist with the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science Center. “However, water from the dam breach continues to move downstream, and we can expect the event to impact the region’s ability to produce crops in the coming months.”
The Dnipro River is Ukraine’s longest waterway, flowing approximately 2,200 km until it drains into the Black Sea. Six major dams are situated along the course of the river, and behind each of them are storage reservoirs that provide water for hydropower generation and the irrigation of crops.
When the Kakhovka dam breach occurred on June 6, water from the adjacent reservoir began flooding downstream. By comparing surface water areas before and after the dam breach, Pervez found that approximately 51.5 km² of developed land surrounding the Dnipro River were newly underwater. Comparatively, he noted that only 14.82 km² of cropland had been overtaken by water as of June 7.
By June 12, Pervez said 64.71 km² of developed areas and 60.1 km² of cropland were recorded as underwater. Just four days after the dam breach, water levels in the Kakhovka reservoir dropped by over 5 m. As time passes, water levels in the Dnipro River will continue to fluctuate as flooding from the dam breach flows further downstream.
“Even in another week or two, we should be able to see noticeable shrinkage in surface water area in the Kakhovka reservoir,” Pervez said. “Since this reservoir was previously full of water, and farmers were using the reservoir's water to irrigate crops, then they are not going to have that same amount of water available to them for the next growing season.”
Taras Vysotsky, First Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine, told NASA Harvest that the Kakhovka reservoir was previously the “heart” of a massive irrigation channel that has been vital to agricultural production in the area.
Just days after publishing a blog on assessed impacts of the dam breach, scientists with NASA Harvest revealed that all four major canal inlets surrounding the Kakhovka reservoir had gone dry, disconnecting an entire canal system that is vital for farm irrigation, particularly in the summer months.
Ukraine is normally the world’s top producer of sunflower meal, oil and seed, and it is the world’s sixth-largest corn producer, accounting for 12 percent of global corn exports. Ukraine was also expected to become the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat before the Russian invasion in early 2022.
Global wheat and corn prices spiked in the hours following the dam breach, as market fears about Ukraine’s ability to fulfill its role as a major global food and agricultural commodity exporter were reignited amid the ongoing war with Russia.
FEWS NET will continue to monitor the area surrounding the Kakhovka dam breach and assess potential impacts on food security outcomes in the coming weeks and months.