Ukraine dam breached, unleashing floods as residents ordered to evacuate
Kyiv, Moscow accuse each other of striking dam in Russia-controlled region in southeastern Ukraine
The wall of a major dam in a part of southern Ukraine that Moscow controls collapsed Tuesday after a reported explosion, sending water gushing downriver and prompting dire warnings of ecological damage as officials from both sides in the war ordered residents to evacuate.
The fallout could have broad consequences: Flooding homes, streets and businesses downstream; depleting water levels upstream that help cool Europe's largest nuclear power plant; and draining supplies of drinking water to the south in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed.
The Kakhovka dam break added a complex new element to Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine, now in its 16th month. Ukrainian forces were widely seen to be moving forward with a long-anticipated counteroffensive in patches along more than 1,000 kilometres of front line in the east and south of Ukraine.
The damage could potentially hinder Ukraine's counteroffensive in the south, while at the same time Russia depends on the dam to supply water to the Crimea region it annexed illegally in 2014.
Ukraine accused Russian forces of blowing up the Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power station, while Russian officials on the ground blamed Ukrainian military strikes in the contested area. It was not possible to verify the claims.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov each accused Ukraine of sabotage connected to their counteroffensive.
Amid official outrage, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he convened an urgent meeting of the National Security Council. He alleged that Russian forces set off a blast inside the dam structure at 2.50 a.m. local time and said some 80 settlements were in danger.
Ukraine's nuclear operator Energoatom said in a Telegram statement that the blowing up of the dam "could have negative consequences" for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is Europe's biggest, but wrote that for now the situation is "controllable."
My statement today to the <a href="https://twitter.com/iaeaorg?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@IAEAorg</a> Board of Governors following damage to <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Ukraine?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Ukraine</a>’s Kakhovka dam. (part 1/2)<br><br>Full statement: <a href="https://t.co/hoAwn5kAZk">https://t.co/hoAwn5kAZk</a> <a href="https://t.co/H5DGEyLX3e">pic.twitter.com/H5DGEyLX3e</a>—@rafaelmgrossi
The power plant should have enough water to cool its reactors for "some months" from a pond located above the reservoir of a nearby dam that has broken, the United Nations atomic watchdog said on Tuesday, calling for the pond to be spared.
"There are a number of alternative sources of water. A main one is the large cooling pond next to the site that by design is kept above the height of the reservoir," International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi said in a statement.
Leaders of the European Union, NATO and several Ukraine allies condemned the dam's destruction.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau characterized the development as "absolutely devastating for lives and livelihoods."
"This is another example of the horrific consequences of Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine," he said while speaking to reporters in Ottawa.
Dozens of towns at risk
Ukrainian authorities have previously warned that the dam's failure could unleash 18 million cubic metres of water and flood Kherson and dozens of other areas where hundreds of thousands of people live.
The World Data Center for Geoinformatics and Sustainable Development, a Ukrainian nongovernmental organization, estimated that nearly 100 villages and towns would be flooded. It also reckoned that the water level would start dropping only after five to seven days.
A total collapse in the dam would wash away much of the left bank and a severe drop in the reservoir has the potential to deprive the nuclear plant of crucial cooling, as well as dry up the water supply in northern Crimea, according to the Ukraine War Environmental Consequences Working Group, an organization of environmental activists and experts documenting the war's environmental effects.
Videos posted online began testifying to the spillover. One showed floodwaters inundating a long roadway; another showed a beaver scurrying for high ground from rising waters.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry called for residents of 10 villages on the Dnipro's right bank and parts of the city of Kherson downriver to gather essential documents and pets, turn off appliances and leave, while cautioning against possible disinformation.
The Russian-installed mayor of occupied Nova Kakhovka, Vladimir Leontyev, said it was being evacuated as water poured into the city.
Ukraine controls five of the six dams along the Dnipro, which runs from its northern border with Belarus down to the Black Sea and is crucial for the entire country's drinking water and power supply.
Footage from what appeared to be a monitoring camera overlooking the dam that was circulating on social media purported to show a flash, explosion and breakage of the dam.
Oleksandr Prokudin, the head of the Kherson Regional Military Administration, said in a video posted to Telegram shortly before 7 a.m. that "the Russian army has committed yet another act of terror," and warned that water will reach "critical levels" within five hours.
The Kakhovska dam was completely destroyed, Ukraine's state hydro power generating company wrote in a statement: "The station cannot be restored."
Leontyev, the Russian-appointed mayor, said Tuesday that numerous strikes on the Kakhovka hydroelectric plant destroyed its valves, and "water from the Kakhovka reservoir began to uncontrollably flow downstream," appearing to contradict Peskov's accusation. Leontyev said that damage to the station was beyond repair, and it would have to be rebuilt.
Ukraine and Russia have previously accused each other of targeting the dam with attacks, and last October Zelenskyy predicted that Russia would destroy the dam in order to cause a flood.
In February, water levels were so low that many feared a meltdown at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, whose cooling systems are supplied with water from the Kakhovka reservoir held up by the dam.
By mid-May, after heavy rains and snow melt, water levels rose beyond normal levels, flooding nearby villages. Satellite images showed water washing over damaged sluice gates.