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Ukraine war: The Kakhovka reservoir was once the second biggest in Europe – now it’s nearly empty and threatening the world’s food supply | World News

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For seven decades a vast reservoir has dominated the landscape here as Europe’s second biggest.

Not anymore.

It has been robbed of most of its water, drained away after the Nova Kakhovka dam was blown up, it’s believed by the Russians.

The sight is astonishing.

Where there had been just water, vast sandbanks stretch into the distance. It looks like a desert.

We crossed the barren landscape with Andriy Starko an engineer whose job is to pump the water out of the reservoir.

We stood next to a vast intake. It should be sucking water out of the reservoir at the rate of four million litres an hour. Instead, it’s a stagnant green pool. The odd fish flops languidly in the foul-smelling waters.

How did you feel when you heard they’d blown the dam I asked him.

“I didn’t believe that that something like that could happen. I can’t believe that a human brain can even consider that kind of barbaric act. I just can’t believe that,” he said.

Andriy knows thousands of hectares of farmland depend on the water he can no longer pump. He fears for his own future too.

And there is something else worrying him and everyone here.

Empty water pumping system on the edge of the reservoir

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‘It looks like a scene from Chernobyl’

The tall chimneys of the Zaporizhia nuclear power station shimmer in the distance across the sand.

Andriy voiced a concern you hear more and more here, and now the Ukrainian government has warned the Russians have mined part of the power plant and could blow it up next.

“You can expect anything from them. I don’t think they are a civilised people. They’re just unpredictable. I’m worried yes I’m really worried,” he added.

Inside the pumping station where Andriy works, or used to at least, it looks like a scene from Chernobyl before disaster struck. Big Soviet era machines sit idle. They should be throbbing with noise pumping water out of the reservoir and into canals, gallons of it every hour now that harvest is only a few months away.

Not now. The pressure dials on the machines stand at zero. There’s just bird noise.

The water should be going into a vast network of canals in the months before harvest. More than a million acres of farmland depends on canals on both sides of the reservoir for irrigation, land that produces two million tonnes of grain a year.

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Ukraine may be famous for its rich black soil, but it’s not much use without water.

In a field of young corn, Farmer Anton Hryn says his harvest could be cut by as much as two thirds.

“If we had water, if the irrigation would work, we can have 10, 12 or even more tons of corn a hectare but without it, it will be three or four maybe five it depends on the rain,” he said.

That is ominous not just for Ukraine. It is called the breadbasket of the world. Many poorer countries depend on its grain exports already cut by difficulties shipping it out.

 Villagers queue every day to collect water for their homes
Villagers queue every day to collect water for their homes

It’s not just farming the empty reservoir is impacting – it’s everyday life

The drought is affecting ordinary people too. Towns dotted along the shore of the reservoir are now without water in their taps.

In the town of Marhanets, the streets are full of people carrying containers to and from impromptu water stations. Life now revolves around the need to get water which is being trucked in instead.

Anastasya has a six-month-old baby at home.

“It’s very bad, very bad,” she told us. “I have a small child and every day I need to carry at least 12 of these bottles.”

And they’re also deeply alarmed by what Vladimir Putin plans to do now.

Valentyna worries that the Russians could cross the Dnipro river now it is empty in parts
Valentyna worries that the Russians could cross the Dnipro river now it is empty in parts

“Of course I’m worried, we are worried for the nuclear power station,” Valentyna said. “We are worried about everything. Where should we go if something happened in the nuclear power station?

“We thought they wouldn’t blow up the dam, that it’s protected, that everything would be okay and now what can we hope for.”

Liliya said: “There are a lot of rumours. The power station is mined. At any moment it could just blow and that’s it. You can see we already have no water in the Dnipro river they can just walk easily here.”

The reservoir is no natural defence now against the Russians, having evaporated down to mudflats.

Across them, the nuclear power station is a brooding presence menacing the people here.

Along with the question, if Russians were prepared to destroy a dam and drain their reservoir – what are they planning to do next?

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