Earlier this week a breach in the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant unleashed the Dnipro River, flooding a vast expanse of the Ukrainian countryside. Russia and Ukraine have blamed one another for the breach. Conclusive evidence has yet to identify a clear perpetrator, although it’s important to acknowledge that the dam would not have been damaged if Russia had not invaded Ukraine. But the breach of the Kakhovka dam is hardly the first time that water has been used as a weapon of war.
Dikes and dams are some of the oldest pieces of infrastructure known to human civilization, and war is perhaps humankind’s oldest communal activity. We have many examples of states destroying the infrastructure that holds or channels water in order to win military victories. Indeed, in some cases the militarization of water infrastructure has been critical to strategies of national survival. Here are some of the more recent examples of the mobilization (and destruction) of water infrastructure for the purposes of war.
Breaching the Yellow River Dikes
Probably the most significant use of water as a weapon in the history of modern warfare came in June 1938, when China’s Nationalist government breached the Yellow River dikes in an effort to slow the advance of the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The dikes were the heart of a system of water management that sat at the absolute core of 2,500 years of Chinese civilization.
The ensuing floods killed more than half a million people, and millions more were displaced or eventually starved by the destruction of farmland. The landscape was transformed, and Chinese agriculture was set back for a generation. The overall strategic impact of the breach was ambiguous. The floods slowed the advance of Japanese forces and left it disorganized, opening opportunities for isolated Chinese counteroffensives and for a general retrenchment effort. The reorganized Japanese forces nevertheless managed to defeat the Chinese Nationalist army at the Battle of Wuhan, although they failed to concentrate and destroy Chinese forces or to break Chinese resistance. The dikes were not repaired until 1947.
The Dambusters Raid
In late 1942, the Royal Air Force began to develop the technology and tactics to attack one of the more vulnerable elements of Nazi Germany’s hydroelectricity system, a series of dams in the Ruhr Valley. Targeting was simplified by the construction of special bombs that could skip across the river waters and strike the dams at an oblique angle. The men of 617 Squadron were tasked with developing the flying techniques necessary to deliver the bombs at an acceptable level of risk. On the night of May 16, 1943, nineteen RAF Lancasters undertook a raid against the dams, damaging two of the structures while losing eight aircraft in the process. The 1,600 non-combatants killed by flooding included roughly 1,000 Soviet prisoners of war. While the attacks had some tactical effect, they didn’t live up to the hopes of British planners, and they did not have a major impact on Germany’s industrial war effort.
North Vietnam’s Dike System
North Vietnam was not an industrial power; it relied on China and the Soviet Union for technology and war material. However, its agricultural sector was productive and critical to maintaining the war effort. The proposal to bomb dikes across North Vietnam was one of the most controversial aspects of a deeply controversial war. Not only did North Vietnamese agriculture depend on the dikes, the destruction of the sophisticated water management system could have caused widespread flooding, with immense civilian death and misery as a result.
U.S. planners were acutely aware of the importance of the dikes. Despite isolated attacks, the U.S. did not engage in a systematic effort to breach the dikes through airstrikes. North Vietnamese air defense forces would sometimes build anti-aircraft systems and other military infrastructure near or on top of dike systems, either for convenience or to deter American “wild weasel” attacks. President Nixon openly contemplated bombing the dikes in 1972’s Operation Linebacker II, but was dissuaded after Henry Kissinger warned of up to 200,000 civilian casualties.
The failure to destroy North Vietnam’s system of irrigation is sometimes cited by critics of American restraint as evidence that the U.S. “fought the war with one hand tied behind its back.” However, it is not obvious that U.S. airpower could have destroyed the dikes even if it had sought to do so. In any case, international reaction would have vastly outweighed any military benefit.
The Battle of Mosul Dam
In 2014, the Islamic State swept across Syria and Iraq, capturing Mosul without much of a fight. The destruction of the Mosul dam would have had a devastating effect across Iraq, and because of the details of its construction, the dam required intensive maintenance. ISIS did not commit to destroying the dam or make any serious attempt to do so, but given the iconoclastic nature of the movement, it hardly seemed impossible that the up-jumped terrorist group would take advantage of the opportunity to wreak Biblical levels of havoc. Over the next several weeks, U.S., Iraqi, and Kurdish-Iraqi forces retook the dam in a series of battles that pushed ISIS back. The Mosul dam was not destroyed, but concern over its fate shaped the campaign that the United States and the Iraqi armed forces waged against ISIS.
We don’t know yet who breached the Kakhovka dam, and we don’t know how the breaching of the dam will affect the course of Ukraine’s counteroffensive. More evidence may emerge over the next few weeks that identifies a clear set of perpetrators and a clear sense of the decision-making behind the breach. But it should not be surprising that water infrastructure, which stands at the very center of human civilization, has become part of this war. The damage to this dam is just the latest indication that Russia and Ukraine are waging very nearly total war for the future of the region.
A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.