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The largest dam in Ukraine collapsed, and it is likely the disaster was due to a deliberate attack. If it was deliberate, it would one of the most severe acts of environmental terrorism in history. Let’s discuss the collapse, talk about environmental terrorism, and discuss the risks and history of destroying the environment in war and conflicts!

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  • Dam (n) – a wall built across a river that stops the river’s flow and collects the water, especially to make a reservoir (= an artificial lake) that provides water for an area.
    • The Aswan High Dam is on the River Nile in Egypt.
  • Collapse (v) – to fall down suddenly because of pressure or having no strength or support.
    • Thousands of buildings collapsed in the earthquake.
  • Counter-offensive (n) – a set of attacks that defend against enemy attacks.
    • Ukraine is about to start its counteroffensive against Russia.
  • Blow (something) up (phrasal v) – to destroy something or kill someone with a bomb, or to be destroyed or killed by a bomb.
    • They threatened to blow up the plane if their demands were not met.
  • Contaminate (v) – to make something less pure or make it poisonous.
    • Much of the coast has been contaminated by nuclear waste.
  • Ecological (adj) – relating to ecology (= the relationship between living things and their environment) or the environment.
    • The oil spill was a major ecological disaster.
  • Destructive (adj) – causing great and irreparable damage.
    • People can’t comprehend the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
  • Flooding (n) – the condition of becoming filled or covered with a large amount of water.
    • Rain caused flooding that washed out bridges and covered roads.

The Collapse of the Ukrainian Dam

Last week, the Nova Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine collapsed. It will be the most destructive environmental disaster in Europe for decades. Entire towns and villages have been washed away, massive amounts of farmland ruined, millions of animals and plants wiped out.

We still don’t know exactly why the dam collapsed. It is under Russian control and Russia will not allow independent investigators to visit the site.

Most western countries and organisations, as well as Ukraine, have blamed Russia. They suggest Russia either deliberately blew up the dam or is responsible as it is an aggressive foreign power invading its neighbouring country.

Without inspecting the site, it is impossible to know what happened. Dams are not necessarily the easiest thing to destroy, and engineers examining satellite photos have suggested it looks like an explosion inside the dam is the most likely reason.


The dam collapse also benefits Russia more than it does Ukraine. Ukraine is currently preparing for a counter-offensive against Russian invaders, and the collapsed dam will certainly slow the Ukrainian army down in that region.

Russia has claimed it was caused by a Ukrainian missile attack, but they have not produced any evidence despite being in control of the dam. Russia says Ukraine destroyed the dam to stop water being supplied to the Crimea, the region of Ukraine illegally annexed by Russia almost 10 years ago.

Reports from Ukraine suggest a lot of Russian soldiers were unprepared for the flooding, with the Ukrainian army witnessing units of Russian troops and equipment being swept away.

However, it is unlikely that a Ukrainian missile would be able to destroy the dam. The famous dam busters” of the British Royal Airforce used unique methods to destroy German dams in World War 2 (including bouncing bombings across the water) as you need massive explosives and need to hit a very specific area to cause a complete collapse. It is not as simple as firing a missile.

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The Environmental Damage

The side responsible for the destruction or the motive behind it is not the focus of this episode. I don’t know who did it (although it seems more likely that Russia was responsible right now) and I know I have both listeners from Ukraine and Russia.

But whoever blew up the dam has committed one of the most damaging environmental events in European history – it is being described as an act of environmental terrorism, a war crime, and “ecocide”.

Homes have been destroyed. Farmland will now be unsuitable for agriculture for years, maybe decades. Water supply has been interrupted and may possibly be contaminated with chemicals and oil.

The massive reservoir behind the dam will be soon empty, meaning thousands of animals and fish living in it will be killed. Oil from the dam’s heavy machinery is likely leaking into the river and spreading across the region.


It is estimated as much as 150 tonnes of oil may be leaking into the river – 1 litre of oil can contaminate 1 million litres of water… meaning 150 billion litres of water are now at risk of contamination. Oil lays on the tops of water, starving the plants and animals in the water of oxygen and sunlight.

The dam is the critical water source for the entire region of south-eastern Ukraine – for drinking water and farming. Without water for their irrigation systems, many farms in the region will begin to dry out and turn into “deserts”.

It will be an environmental and ecological crisis.

If the collapse was the deliberate consequences of an attack, it would be possible to describe it as an act of environmental terrorism. Using the destruction of the environment to cause damage and panic.

Today I want to look at this concept of environmental terrorism in more detail.


Terrorism and Its Types

Terrorism is a term that dominates news headlines and always captures our attention. But what exactly is it? In most definitions, terrorism involves the use of violence or intimidation to achieve political, ideological, or religious goals. It is a strategy employed by individuals or groups to instil fear and panic within a society – in other words to produce terror.

Terrorist acts come in various forms and are driven by diverse motives. Perhaps the most well-known form over the past few decades has been religious terrorism.

Religious terrorism comes from extremist interpretations of religious doctrines. It involves acts of violence committed in the name of a particular religion or religious ideology. Examples of religious terrorism include the devastating 9/11 attacks orchestrated by al-Qaeda and the series of bombings carried out by groups such as ISIS.

But religious terrorism is not the only, or even most common, form of terrorism. Ideological terrorism, based on radical political ideologies or extreme beliefs, is a constant threat. These terrorists target governments, institutions, or specific groups they perceive as opposing their ideology. Examples include the Red Brigades in Italy and the Weather Underground in the United States.

Separatist terrorism is another form which comes from the aspirations of ethnic or regional groups for independence or self-determination. These terrorists strive to establish separate states or regions through violent means. The Basque separatist group ETA in Spain and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey serve as notable examples of separatist terrorism.

And there is also state-sponsored terrorism, which occurs when governments provide support, funding, or safe havens to terrorist groups. It is often employed as a tool of foreign policy to destabilize other nations or further political objectives. There have been allegations against the many governments regarding involvement in terrorist activities including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and even democracies like the UK (in Northern Ireland) and the US (in Cuba and other places).

Environmental Terrorism

Today, we’re going to look at a more specific of terrorism that poses a unique threat – environmental terrorism.

Environmental terrorism can be defined as the deliberate use of violence, threats, or sabotage to cause harm to the natural environment or exploit it for political or ideological gain. Unlike other types of terrorism, environmental terrorism targets ecosystems, natural resources, and infrastructure related to the environment.

What sets environmental terrorism apart from other forms of terrorism is its focus on ecological damage and the disruption of activities that harm the environment. This could include poisoning water sources, setting fire to forests, damaging critical infrastructure like pipelines or logging equipment, or releasing hazardous substances into the environment.

It is important to distinguish environmental terrorism from eco-terrorism, as these terms are often used interchangeably. While both involve actions related to the environment, there are notable differences between them. Eco-terrorism involves acts of terror in “defence” of the environment, while environmental terrorism involves acts of terrorism which destroy the environment. For example, an eco-terrorist may destroy roads and vehicles of companies destroying forests, while an environmental terrorist may burn down the entire forest to cause as much damage as possible.

Historically, there have been significant incidents of environmental terrorism that highlight its destructive consequences. The USA’s use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam war or the Iraq’s army setting fire to oil fields in Kuwait are famous examples.


Historic Examples of Environmental Terrorism

Let’s take a deeper look at some examples of environmental terrorism (or perhaps even environmental warfare).

One distressing example of environmental terrorism is the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange was a herbicide and defoliant sprayed by the US military to eliminate forests and crops used by their enemy. However, the chemicals used in Agent Orange caused extensive environmental damage and severe health effects on both humans and the ecosystem. The widespread contamination of soil, water sources, and vegetation resulted in the destruction of forests, loss of biodiversity, and long-term health problems for millions of innocent people.


During the Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi forces committed environmental terrorism by setting fire to hundreds of oil wells in Kuwait. The deliberate burning of oil fields created massive plumes of smoke, polluting the air and causing significant ecological damage. The fires released toxic chemicals and pollutants into the atmosphere, impacting human health, damaging ecosystems, and also contributing to climate change. The environmental and economic consequences of this act were devastating, requiring substantial efforts for extinguishing the fires and restoring the affected areas.

In 2018, groups in the Gaza strip used balloons to set fire to woodland in Israel. Forests near the border areas have been deliberately set ablaze, causing widespread damage to natural habitats, wildlife, and agricultural lands. These acts of arson are often carried out as a means of protest or retaliation, but their ecological impact extends far beyond the intended targets. The destruction of forests and the release of pollutants during the fires contribute to soil erosion and loss of biodiversity.

Similarly, a group known as Children of Fire has been involved in the use of forest fires as a tactic in their conflict with the Turkish government. The group has intentionally ignited forest fires as a means of disrupting infrastructure, damaging the economy, and undermining Turkish authorities. However, these fires have resulted in extensive ecological damage, destroying vast forested areas, displacing wildlife, and exacerbating the already fragile environmental conditions in the affected regions.

The Damage and Dangers of Environmental Terrorism

One of the most significant consequences of environmental terrorism is the severe damage inflicted upon ecosystems. When acts of environmental terrorism disrupt or destroy these ecosystems, it can have far-reaching and long-lasting effects.

For instance, arson attacks on forests or deliberate contamination of water sources can lead to habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity. Forests are home to countless plant and animal species, as well as absorbing carbon dioxide and regulating water.

The disruption caused by environmental terrorism can lead to effects throughout the food chain. When key species are eliminated or their habitats destroyed, it can result in imbalances, such as rises in the number of certain species or the decline of others.

Furthermore, the dangers of environmental terrorism extend beyond ecological damage. There are risks to public safety as such events can lead to environmental disasters and exacerbate pollution levels.

Destruction of natural resources can negatively impact the livelihoods of local communities that depend on them. For example, poisoning water sources can lead to water scarcity, crop failures, and the loss of traditional fishing grounds, depriving communities of their basic needs and economic stability.


This episode started by discussing the consequences of the collapse of Ukraine’s largest dam. Environmentally, ecologically, and economically, the damage will be catastrophic.

Ukrainian President Zelenskiy described it as ”an environmental bomb of mass destruction.” It will take years, decades, for the region to recover from the flooding.

If it was a deliberate act, I think it certainly fits the description of environmental terrorism. Its intention would have been to cause as much damage to infrastructure and the region as possible, discouraging Ukrainian action or counter-offensives.

Moreover, if Russia was responsible, it would also be a clear war crime.

Will the destruction of the dam prevent a Ukrainian counter offensive against Russia? No. Ukraine is about to begin, or perhaps already begun, an attempt to force Russia out of its territory.

Will Ukraine succeed? Let’s wait and see!

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Final Thought

The collapse of the Nova Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine has resulted in a devastating environmental disaster, with catastrophic consequences for the region. Whether it was an intentional act or not, the damage caused is immense and will have long-lasting effects. The incident raises the concept of environmental terrorism, which involves the deliberate use of violence or sabotage to harm the natural environment for political or ideological gain.

Environmental terrorism poses a unique threat as it targets ecosystems and critical environmental infrastructure. The collapse of the dam in Ukraine, if proven to be deliberate, would not only qualify as an act of environmental terrorism but also a war crime, with severe implications for the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

What do you think?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

One thought on “241. What is Environmental Terrorism?: The Collapse of Ukraine’s Largest Dam! (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Hi Tom, As you are living in Japan, you must know Fukushima Nuclear Power Station is on the verge of releasing nuclear wastewater into our Pacific Ocean. No matter how they hype the safety of the impact caused by this act, I consider that could be portrayed very properly as government initialized environment terrorism…Unsurprisingly, it is about to inevitably inflict nuclear contamination in the whole Pacific area and even the globe in the long term…That’s an anti-world mindset and extremely unacceptable for all creatures on the planet. What I am confusing is Why they have to do this to the environment, Why international organizations can not demolish this insane decision, How we could help Japan to address this conundrum together…and more…Hopefully, one of your new episodes will share with us some critical thinking about this huge problem.

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