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The shallows One year after the Kakhovka dam disaster, a Ukrainian photographer captures the exposed riverbed and ruined villages left behind

Source: Meduza

The destruction of the dam at Ukraine’s Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant on the morning of June 6, 2023, caused the flooding of about 80 towns and villages in the country’s Kherson and Mykolaiv regions. Kyiv and Moscow blamed each other for the collapse and the resulting humanitarian and environmental disaster (though the dam has been controlled by Russian forces since the start of the full-scale invasion). In addition to inundating communities downstream from the facility, the dam’s breach caused catastrophic shallowing further upstream, devastating communities in the Zaporizhzhia region that used to rely on fishing and river transport for their livelihoods. For Meduza, Ukrainian photographer Pavel Korchagin traveled to the region to capture the way its landscape has changed in the year since the dam burst.

The Russian army’s strikes against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure wreaked havoc not just on the country’s energy sector, but also on its environment and natural resources.

I’ve seen time and time again that nature always has its way in the end — and while it might take a long time, it eventually restores the balance. People, too, adapt to the new reality fairly quickly. At the same time, one can see that life here has been broken. Not only by the Kakhovka dam’s explosion but by the war in general. There’s no more ship traffic. The river is dead. It’s now impossible to make full use of it.

Zaporizhzhia’s Dnipro Hydroelectric Station as seen from the island of Khortytsia. After the explosion at the Kakhovka dam, the water here receded to expose the rocky outcrops on the riverbed. The Dnipro Hydroelectric Station, which is part of the same cascade of hydroelectric plants as the destroyed Kakhovka station, has repeatedly been hit by Russian forces, including several times in 2024.
Shallow and exposed areas where the water has receded in the city of Zaporizhzhia
A man stands on one of the newly exposed sandbars in Zaporizhzhia

When I saw this man, it felt as if nobody else was left — as if he were the last person on earth.

A vacant lot in Zaporizhzhia that used to be the site of a yacht club.

The areas exposed by the receding water reminded me of the area where they filmed the [1979 Soviet science fiction movie] Stalker. It constantly had the feeling that I was in some kind of post-disaster area. And basically, I was.

Tour boats stranded in the shallows in Zaporizhzhia

At the Zaporizhzhia River Port, there are still posters advertising tour boat excursions.

The grooves left by the receding water reminded me of tiny dried-up riverbeds.

A Zaporizhzhia resident continues fishing in Kryva Bay as an air raid siren sounds.

I was struck by the barges and cranes still sitting in the shallows. They seem like beached whales that have been left to die.

A scale on the side of a ship left at the Zaporizhzhia River Port show’s the vessel’s draught
Zaporizhzhia’s homemade boat docks are unnecessary now that the water has receded.
A dead fish on a sandbar
A Zaporizhzhia resident sunbathes on an exposed shoal
What used to be a full-flowing river is now full of sandbars. Locals now come here to sunbathe.
The shallowed bed of the Mokra Moskovka River, a Dnipro tributary
The pattern left by the receded water on a pier at the Zaporizhzhia River Port
The former water level can be seen on the side of the boat garage at the Zaporizhzhia River Port
The newly exposed riverbed of the Dnipro in the village of Rozumivka in the Zaporizhzhia region

In the village of Rozumivka, what used to be a dock on the Dnipro River is now a dock in the middle of a field. I couldn’t figure out why there was a chair sitting at the end of it. I imagined it was a catapult meant to launch you away from this place.

The shore and the riverbed of the Kakhovka Reservoir near the village of Malokaterynivka have turned into a field.

This was the place that left the strongest impression on me. Initially, I found myself not wanting to believe that this sea of green was where the water used to be. Willows have started growing there; they’re already nearly two meters high. There used to be a large fishery in Malokaterynivka; the whole village lived off of the river and the fish. The residents joke that soon there will be boars running around in the areas where fish used to swim.

Malokaterynivka

The idyllic landscape here is deceptive. This place is dangerous, and living here is scary. Locals say that missiles, planes, and drones fly over them constantly. It used to be a lively place: trains passed through the village, it was easy to get to Zaporizhzhia, and there was a road to Crimea. But now no transport comes here, and it’s very difficult to get anywhere.

There used to be another large fishery in the village of Kushuhum on the banks of the Kakhovka Reservoir. It, too, is now a field.
Fishermen on the shore of the Dnipro in the village of Kanivske in the Zaporihzhia region

You can see from the patterns on the shore how much the water level has dropped. Fishermen say there are a lot fewer fish in the Dnipro now; they disappeared along with the water.

This grain elevator loading terminal in the village of Bilenke was built to transport grain by river. When the water level dropped, river transport became impossible, and the terminal became useless.
Fishermen in the village of Lysohirka on the Dnipro River’s western bank
The exposed riverbank in Lysohirka
Tree roots on the bottom of the Kakhovka Reservoir in the village of Kanivske

When the water receded, it revealed another world: an underground world of algae, roots growing at the bottom of the Kakhovka Reservoir, tree stumps. Not for the first time, I felt regret that I hadn’t had the chance to visit these places before the disaster. I felt the urge to take a boat tour on the Dnipro. Or go sailing. Instead, I have to try to imagine how it used to be.

Pavel Korchagin, Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine

Translation by Sam Breazeale