A major dam in southern Ukraine collapsed on Tuesday, inundating villages, endangering crops in the country’s granary and threatening supplies of drinking water as both warring sides scrambled to evacuate residents and blamed each other for the destruction.
Ukraine has accused Russian forces of blowing up the Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric plant, built in the 1950s on the Dnipro River in an area Moscow has controlled for more than a year. Russian officials, meanwhile, blamed Ukrainian military attacks on the disputed area. The claims could not be verified.
Russian and Ukrainian officials have used terms such as ecological disaster and terrorist act to refer to the torrent of water gushing through the broken dam, the reservoir of which is one of the largest in the world. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called it the biggest man-made environmental disaster in Europe in decades. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called it a monumental humanitarian, economic and ecological catastrophe and another devastating consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The environmental and social consequences of the disaster soon became clear as homes, roads and businesses flooded downstream and emergency crews began evacuations; officials rushed to check the cooling systems of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant; and authorities have expressed concern about the supply of drinking water in areas controlled by both Ukraine and Russia.
In the downstream city of Kherson, a woman who only gave her name as Tetyana waded through thigh-deep water to reach her flooded home and rescue her dogs. They were standing on any dry surface they could find, but a pregnant dog was missing. She’s a nightmare, she kept repeating Tetyana, refusing to give her full name.
Both Russian and Ukrainian authorities have introduced trains and buses for residents. About 22,000 people live in flood-prone areas in Russian-controlled areas, while 16,000 live in the most critical area in Ukrainian-controlled territory, according to official counts. Neither side reported any deaths or injuries.
A satellite photo Tuesday morning by Planet Labs analyzed by the Associated Press showed a large portion of the dam wall missing by more than 1,900 feet.
The dam breach, long feared by both sides, has added a dangerous new dimension to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, now in its 16th month, as Ukrainian forces were widely seen moving forward with a long-running counteroffensive. waiting in pieces along more than 600 miles of front lines in eastern and southern Ukraine.
It was not immediately clear whether either side could benefit from the damage to the dam, and its collapse may have been the result of gradual degradation. Both Russian-controlled and Ukrainian-held lands are at risk of flooding.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu accused Ukraine of destroying the dam to prevent potential Russian attacks in the Kherson region after what he called a failed Ukrainian counteroffensive in recent days. He said Ukraine had lost 3,715 soldiers and 52 tanks since Sunday and, in a rare acknowledgment of Russia’s own losses, said 71 Russian soldiers had been killed and 210 wounded. Ukraine followed its standard practice of not commenting on its victims.
Zelensky told reporters his government had information about Russia digging the dam last year, so there may come a time when an explosion will occur. Other Ukrainian officials said Russia blew up the dam to hamper Kiev’s counter-offensive, though observers note that crossing the wide Dnipro River for an assault would be extremely challenging. Other frontline sectors are more likely avenues of attack for Ukraine, analysts say.
Even so, Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, called Russia’s alleged destruction of the dam a deeply defensive measure that betrayed a lack of confidence in the long-term prospects. of Russia in the war. .
Experts have previously said that the dam’s structure was suffering from degradation, which may even have led to its failure. David Helms, a retired US scientist who has monitored the reservoir since the start of the war, said it was unclear whether the damage was intentional or caused by simple negligence by the Russian forces occupying the facility.
But he also noted a Russian history of dam attacks.
Underscoring the global repercussions, wheat prices rose 3% in commodity markets after the crash. Ukraine and Russia are major global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other foods to Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.
Authorities, experts and residents have been expressing concern for months about water flows through and over the Kakhovka Dam. After heavy rains and snowmelt last month, the water rose above normal levels, flooding nearby villages. Satellite images showed water flowing over the damaged sluice gates.
Zelensky said Russian forces caused an explosion inside the dam structure at 2:50 am local time on Tuesday and said some 80 settlements were in danger.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was a deliberate act of sabotage by Ukraine aimed at cutting off water supplies to Crimea.
White House officials were trying to assess the potential impact of the dam collapse and trying to see what humanitarian assistance could be provided to displaced Ukrainians, according to a US official who was not allowed to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Both sides have warned of an impending environmental disaster. Zelensky’s office said about 165 tons of oil leaked from the dam’s machinery and another 331 tons could still leak.
Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelensky’s bureau, released a video showing the flooded streets of Russian-occupied Nova Kakhovka, a city in the Kherson region where some 45,000 people lived before the war.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry has asked residents of 10 villages on the right bank of the river and parts of the city of Kherson downstream to collect essential documents and pets, turn off electrical appliances and leave, warning against possible misinformation.
The Russian mayor of occupied Nova Kakhovka, Vladimir Leontyev, said the city was being evacuated as water poured in.
Ukraine’s nuclear operator, Energoatom, said in a Telegram statement that the damage to the dam could have negative consequences for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, but that for now, the situation is controllable.
The United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement that there is no immediate risk to the safety of the plant, which has been out of action for months but still needs water for its cooling system.
He said IAEA staff on site have been told the dam’s water level is dropping 2 inches per hour. At that rate, the supply from the tank should last a few days, he said.
The Zaporizhzhia power station has alternative water sources, including a large cooling pond that can provide water for a few months, the statement said.
Ukrainian authorities have previously warned that the dam failure could release an estimated volume of water nearly equivalent to that of the Great Salt Lake in the United States, inundating Kherson and dozens of other areas where thousands of people live. Mohammad Heidarzadeh of the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering at the University of Baths in England said the Kakhovka Dam is one of the largest in the world by reservoir capacity, 90 times larger than the UK’s largest dam, Kielder in Northumberland.
The World Data Center for Geoinformatics and Sustainable Development, a Ukrainian non-governmental organization, estimated that nearly 100 villages and towns would be flooded. He also calculated that the water level would only begin to drop after five or seven days.
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Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Zelensky, said a global ecological disaster is unfolding now, online, and thousands of animals and ecosystems will be destroyed in the next few hours.
Videos posted online attested to the effects of the breach. One showed flood waters inundating a long roadway; another showed a beaver running towards high ground from the rising waters.
The incident also sparked international outrage, including from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said the outrageous act once again demonstrates the brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Ukraine controls five of the six dams along the Dnipro River, which flows from its northern border with Belarus to the Black Sea and is critical to the country’s entire country’s water and electricity supplies as well as that of Russian-occupied Crimea.
The Ukrainian State Hydroelectric Company wrote in a statement that the dam’s power plant cannot be restored. Ukrhydroenergo also said Russia blew up the station from inside the engine room.
Ukraine and Russia have previously accused each other of targeting the dam with attacks.
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