Kyiv has accused Russian forces of blowing up a large dam in southern Ukraine, while the Moscow-installed official in the city of Nova Kakhovka in the Russian-controlled portion of the Kherson region blamed the structure’s destruction on Ukrainian shelling.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused “Russian terrorists” of destroying the dam early on Tuesday and said the outrage “confirms for the whole world that they must be expelled from every corner of Ukrainian land”.
Why is the Nova Kakhovka dam significant?
The dam is 30 meters (98 ft.) in height and 3.2km (2 mi.) in width, containing a reservoir of around 18 cubic kilometers (4.3 cubic mi.) of water, about the same as the Great Salt Lake in Utah. As such, there are growing concerns that the sheer volume of water will severely damage nearby homes and low lying areas.
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant relies on water from the Dnieper River to cool its emergency diesel generators and reactors. Currently, the water reservoir is falling by two inches per hour, meaning that the supply of cooling water should last at least a few days. The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency wrote in a statement that “there is no immediate risk to the safety of the plant.”
The IAEA’s director Rafael Mariano Grossi also said that there were additional water sources that officials could turn to, including a large cooling pond near the nuclear site that is above the height of the reservoir. The agency is hopeful that this pond may be able to cool reactors and diesel generators for several months, but this has not yet been confirmed.
Ukraine’s nuclear operator Energoatom said via Telegram echoed the IAEA’s assessment, saying that the dam attack “could have negative consequences” for Zaporizhzhia but that the situation is “controllable.”
What the attack means for Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive
The destruction of the dam has negative consequences for both Russia and Ukraine, with both countries racing to conduct evacuations of nearby residents. Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelensky, has claimed that the destruction of the dam primarily benefits Russia, according to the Financial Times.
“The purpose is obvious: to create insurmountable obstacles in the way of the advancing Ukrainian armed forces,” said Podolyak.
David Helms, a retired American scientist who has been studying the dam since the war began, told the Associated Press that Russia has a history of attacking dams.
But the dam’s destruction also poses issues for Russia since the flooding will impact Russia’s defense forces in Kherson on the east of the Dnieper river.
Maxar said the images of more than 2,500 square km (965 square miles) between Nova Kakhovka and the Dniprovska Gulf southwest of Kherson city on the Black Sea, showed numerous towns and villages flooded.
“The Nova Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric plant has been largely destroyed and few structures remain,” Maxar said in a statement.
The images show houses and buildings submerged in water, with many having only their roofs showing, and water taking over parks, land and infrastructure.
Ukraine said Russia had committed a deliberate war crime in blowing up the Soviet-era dam, which powered a hydroelectric station.
The Kremlin blamed Ukraine, saying it was trying to distract from the launch of a major counteroffensive Moscow says is faltering.
Prokudin, who has been overseeing rescue efforts in towns and cities downstream from Nova Kakhovka, said the operation has become more difficult with time as flood waters continue to rise.
“If in the morning we could do it with cars, then with trucks, now we see that big cars can no longer pass,” he explained. “The water has risen so much that we are now using boats. About eight boats of various types are currently working to evacuate people from the area.”
witnessed the speed at which the waters kept rising, with the water penetrating one block into the city in less than an hour. The flow of water visibly increasing to the naked eye.
The reservoir it contains holds an estimated 18 cubic kilometres of water, about the same volume as the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Bursting the dam could send a wall of water flooding settlements below it, including Kherson, which Ukrainian forces recaptured in late 2022.
Soon after Ukraine accused Russia of blowing up the dam, the head of the Kherson region urged residents to evacuate the area warning that “water will reach a critical level in 5 hours”.
Water from the reservoir supplies the Crimean peninsula to the south, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, as well as the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, Europe’s largest, to the north.
Since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Nova Kakhovka dam has been earmarked as a potential target for both its strategic importance – as well as the damage that its destruction would unleash. It was captured by Russia at the start of Moscow’s February 2022 invasion, and has been held by it ever since.
In October, as Ukraine was in the midst of reclaiming large parts of occupied Kherson, Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged the west to warn Russia not to blow up the dam, warning that it would flood a large area of southern Ukraine. At the time, he claimed that Russian forces had planted explosives inside the dam.
Zelenskiy said “destroying the dam would mean a large-scale disaster” and compared such an act to the use of weapons of mass destruction.
At the same time, Russia accused Kyiv of rocketing the dam and planning to destroy it.
After Ukraine recaptured Kherson in November, images emerged of some significant damage to the dam. Russia had accused Ukraine of shelling the dam in its campaign to recapture Kherson.
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