Concerns Over Global Food Security Growing Following Breach of Dam in Ukraine

On June 13th, Martin Griffiths, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, warned about the extensive consequences for global food security that the breakage of the Soviet-era Dnipro River dam in Ukraine would have, while speaking on a BBC radio program.


Increased risk to world’s breadbasket

“This is a breadbasket—that whole area going down towards the Black Sea and Crimea is a breadbasket not only for Ukraine but also for the world,” said Griffiths to the BBC. “We’re in difficulties already on food security but food prices, I’m sure, are bound to increase.”

Satellite image of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam on the Dnipro River in Kherson (Image: Maxar Technologies/Reuters)
Satellite image of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam on the Dnipro River in Kherson (: Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

The worries arise during a period when the Nova Kakhovka dam serves as a crucial water supply for millions residing in Kherson, as well as the Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia regions. The dam plays a significant role in agricultural irrigation in southern Kherson and Crimea, which experienced a severe breach on 6/6/2023. The incident occurred in Kherson province, within the region under Russian control.

The Ukrainian Agrarian and Food Ministry announced that approximately 10,000 hectares of agricultural land on the western side of Ukraine, under Ukrainian control, are predicted to be submerged due to the dam breach. The most recent report indicates that the breach of the dam has resulted in 94% of the irrigation system in Kherson being deprived of water, along with 74% in Zaporizhzhia and 30% in the Dnipro region. Fields in southern Ukraine could “turn into deserts,” warned the Ministry.

The conflict between Russia and its neighboring country on 02/2022 had a notable influence on the global agricultural food industry, given that Ukraine ranks among the largest producers of wheat and sunflower oil worldwide.

Ukraine held a position among the top five global grain producers before the Russian military campaign in the country. Since Ukraine contributed approximately 15% of global corn exports and 12% of global wheat exports, any obstacles that impede access to Ukrainian grain exports could worsen worldwide food insecurity, as witnessed during the initial stages of Russia’s conflict in Ukraine.

Are food supplies being weaponized?

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam and hydropower plant, situated in a Russian-controlled area along the Dnieper River, sparked concerns about the potential disruption of Ukraine’s ability to supply affordable wheat, barley, corn, and sunflower oil to developing countries, where people are already dealing with livelihood challenges, hunger, and rising food costs.

The signing of the Black Sea Grain Initiative in 07/2022 between Russia and Ukraine established secure pathways for the transportation of food and fertilizer until 17/07/2023. This agreement has helped lower global food prices and enhance food security in impoverished nations across Africa and Asia. Despite the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict, over 30.3 million metric tons of grain have been successfully transported through the Black Sea corridor since 08/2022, with approximately 57% of these grain exports being sent to countries such as Yemen, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Afghanistan.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative is now in jeopardy as Russia considers withdrawing from the agreement, as Russian President Vladimir Putin stated during a press conference on June 13, 2023. Food exports have been significantly reduced as an outcome of this potential withdrawal. The impasse in renewing the agreement is primarily due to clauses pertaining to Russian interests, raising concerns that Moscow could potentially use the agreement to “blackmail” Western nations into removing sanctions.

Experts are also concerned that Russia could use the food transportation route as a weapon of war, increasing its control over the global supply chain. This situation is exacerbated due to numerous Ukrainian grain ships still stranded in the Black Sea.

“People are going to be watching to see what happens with the agreement,” said Glauber, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “This reminds everyone that it’s not just pro forma, that this could be a very serious development if indeed the agreement is broken.”