The Ukrainian government has accused Russia of blowing up the Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River, as it called for people living downstream to evacuate in the face of catastrophic flooding.
As aerial footage circulated on social media, showing most of the dam wall washed away and a massive surge of water heading downstream, the army’s Southern Operational Command put up a Facebook post accusing “Russian occupation troops” of blowing up the hydroelectric dam.
The governor of the Kherson region, Oleksandr Prokudin, said about 16,000 people were in the “critical zone” on the Ukrainian-controlled right bank of the river. He said people were being evacuated for districts upstream of Kherson city and would be taken by bus to the city and then by train to Mykolaiv and other Ukrainian cities, including Khmelnytskyi, Odesa, Kropyvnytskyi and Kyiv.
The disaster will have damaging effects that could last for generations, from the immediate potential for loss of life to the thousands of people forced to abandon their homes and farms. It is expected to have a catastrophic impact on the ecology of the region and will sweep mines from the banks of the Dnipro into villages and farmland downstream.
It also robs Ukraine of long -term capacity for generating hydroelectric power. The loss of the upstream reservoir threatens water supplies to Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions and Crimea, and has long-term implications for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant 120 miles (200km) upstream.
The dam collapse happened on the second day of Ukrainian offensive operations likely to mark the early stages of a mass counteroffensive. It could affect any Ukrainian plans for an amphibious assault across the river.
“The purpose is obvious: to create insurmountable obstacles on the way of the advancing [Ukrainian army] … to slow down the fair final of the war,” the Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. “On a vast territory, all life will be destroyed; many settlements will be ruined; colossal damage will be done to the environment.”https://interactive.guim.co.uk/uploader/embed/2023/06/ukraine-dam-locator/giv-13425OYwD0iyxnHT0/
Local Russian authorities in the city of Nova Kakhovka initially denied anything had happened to the dam, then blamed the collapse on Ukrainian shelling. The Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed official from the Kherson emergency services as saying the dam had collapsed from structural weakness under water pressure.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, called an emergency meeting of his national security council on Tuesday. “Russian terrorists,” Zelenskiy said on Twitter. “The destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant dam only confirms for the whole world that they must be expelled from every corner of Ukrainian land.
“Not a single metre should be left to them, because they use every metre for terror. It’s only Ukraine’s victory that will return security. And this victory will come. The terrorists will not be able to stop Ukraine with water, missiles or anything else.”
Prokudin posted a video to Telegram in which he said that as a result of the damage to the dam, “water will reach a critical level in five hours” and that evacuations had begun. Russia’s state-run news agency Tass cited emergency services saying 80 settlements could be affected.
A Russian military blogger, Rybar, said 11 out of 28 spans in the dam were destroyed after explosions at 2am, though this could not immediately be verified. Another blogger said there were no reported missile attacks on the dam prior to the breach, while videos circulated on Russian channels were said to be of civilians evacuating.
Vladimir Leontiev, the head of the Russian-occupied administration of Nova Kakhovka city, on the southern bank of the Dnipro, initially denied the dam had been blown up, according to the Ria Novosti news agency, but he was later reported to confirm there was “damage” and blame it on shelling.
Interfax quoted an unnamed representative from regional emergency services as saying the collapse was the result of a catastrophic structural failure. “The dam could not stand it: one support collapsed, and flooding began,” the representative said, adding that there were no attacks on the hydroelectric power station overnight.
Last month, it was reported that water levels in the reservoir had reached a 30-year high as the Russian occupiers had kept relatively few sluice gates open, according to experts.
David Helms, a former US air force and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist who has monitored the dam, said on Twitter: “The Russians allowed the reservoir to fill to record levels; if the dam failed ‘naturally’, it certainly failed due to 6 weeks of over-topping and stress on the structure.
The areas most under threat from flooding are the islands along the course of the Dnipro downstream of Nova Kakhovka and much of the Russian-held left bank in southern Kherson. Earlier modelling of such a disaster suggested Kherson city would not bear the brunt, but the harbour, the docklands and an island in the south of the city are likely to be inundated. It is unclear how many people could lose their homes.
There could be two further serious side-effects: the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant upstream could lose access to water for cooling as the reservoir drains away, and the water supply to Crimea could also be severely affected.
Four of the six reactors at the nuclear plant are completely shut down, and two are on “hot shutdown”, producing a small amount of energy for the plant itself and the neighbouring town. The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a tweet its experts at the plant were monitoring the situation. It said there was “no immediate nuclear safety risk at plant”.
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A Moscow-backed official in the Zaporizhzhia region was quoted by a Russian news agency as saying there was no “critical danger” to the plant yet.
The dam, a Soviet power project, was completed in 1956 and was 30 metres’ high, holding back a vast reservoir of 18m cubic metres of water. It sits about 20 miles (32km) upstream from Ukrainian-held Kherson.
Zelenskiy warned last November that Russia was plotting to blow up the two-mile structure and that doing so would cause “a large-scale disaster” affecting people living downstream.
Blowing up a dam can be considered a war crime, the Geneva conventions say, if it “may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population”.
Ukrainian military intelligence said late last year that Russia had conducted the main mining works as long ago as April 2022, but warned that the floodgates and supports of the dam were further primed in November as Ukraine’s forces closed in on Kherson. “Now everyone in the world must act powerfully and quickly to prevent a new Russian terrorist attack,” Zelenskiy said at the time.
The country’s military intelligence also said in November that “dozens of Ukrainian settlements, including Kherson” could be affected by a breach and that “the scale of the ecological disaster will go far beyond the borders of Ukraine and affect the entire Black Sea region”.
The bridge over the dam was one of only two crossing points over the Dnipro south of Zaporizhzhia city before the war. The other, the Antonovsky road bridge at Kherson, was destroyed in November by the retreating Russians, and Russian snipers target anybody lingering on the waterside near the remaining bridge span.