What to know about the major dam destruction in Ukraine

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A screen grab captured from a video shows the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant after a blast occurred in the plant, which is in the Russian-controlled part of Ukraine’s Kherson, on June 6, 2023. The explosion unleashed floodwaters across the war zone. | Zelenskyy Social Media Account / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Did Russia do it?

A large dam on the Dnipro River, in southern Ukraine, has been destroyed, leading to major flooding and putting thousands at risk of another catastrophe along the war’s front lines.

Right now, both Ukraine and Russia are accusing the other of attacking the Nova Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power plant, which sits about 20 miles from the city of Kherson.

Ukraine blamed Russian “terrorists” for the explosion. “This is just one Russian act of terrorism,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on Telegram. “This is just one Russian war crime. Now Russia is guilty of brutal ecocide. Any comments are superfluous.”

Russia, meanwhile, accused Ukraine of staging an attack to cut off water to the Crimean peninsula and to distract from the start of its counteroffensive, which may finally be underway. “Apparently, this sabotage is also connected with the fact that, having started large-scale offensive actions two days ago, now the Ukrainian armed forces are not achieving their goals — these offensive actions are faltering,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

US and Western officials have also not made any definitive assessments yet, though most are leaning toward Russia as the likely suspect, especially given its history of targeting Ukrainian energy and civilian infrastructure intended to create humanitarian emergencies. Of course, Western leaders have been wrong before in attributing attacks to Russia, as with the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline, which is why Western and NATO officials have not drawn firm conclusions.

Russia also has controlled the Nova Kakhovka dam since the early days of the war, which means, even if this was somehow an accident or unintentional explosion, it’s happening on its watch. Ukraine has also been warning since last year that Russia had mined the dam, and previously claimed Moscow had plans to destroy it ahead of its retreat from Kherson last fall.

And the dam explosion is happening against an uptick in Ukrainian attacks that have some Western officials believing Ukraine’s counteroffensive is underway. Though a lot of that fighting is currently happening in the east, away from the dam, a disaster could tie up Ukrainian resources and potentially make it more difficult for troops to advance in the future.

Map of the Ukrainian region of Kherson showing the Kakhovka dam.
Yasin Demirci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam is a massive disaster — now and in the future

The Kakhovka reservoir and power plant was built in the Soviet era in 1956. The reservoir has about the same volume of water as Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The levels in the Dnipro River had been at record-high water levels in recent days, so the possibility of mismanagement or some sort of accident can’t be ruled out, although that is harder to square with the scale of the damage (and reports of explosions).

And the dam is also right along the front lines of the war and had faced shelling and damage during the past year. Right now, the Dnipro is essentially the dividing line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

“This is a massive event, a huge story,” said Peter Gleick, co-founder and senior fellow at the Pacific Institute in California. “The Nova Kakhovka dam is one of the largest dams in Europe.”

Early Tuesday local time, reports first emerged of a dam breach, and videos began surfacing of water rushing from the dam. The flooding immediately put communities downriver at risk, and Ukrainian authorities launched evacuation operations. Officials said about 1,300 people had been evacuated so far from Kherson city and other Ukrainian-held areas. About 80 communities total are at risk, including the city of Kherson, according to officials.

According to Ukrainian officials, about 40,000 people along the banks of the Dnipro must evacuate — but that population is split between about 17,000 in Ukrainian-controlled territory and another 25,000 or so in the Russian-occupied side of the river.

Russian officials, meanwhile, downplayed the emergency a bit, though evacuations have reportedly started in some Russian-controlled towns. Vladimir Saldo, the Russia-appointed governor of the Kherson region, said on Telegram that the dam breach “will not greatly affect the situation in the Kherson region. Even a large-scale evacuation of people will not be required.”

Water was quickly rushing out of the reservoir, with the peak of the flooding expected Wednesday, around noon local time, according to officials, adding urgency to evacuation efforts. Ukrainian officials accused Russia of continuing to shell flood-affected areas.

Beyond the immediate emergency, the dam destruction poses risks to the environment, ecology, drinking supply, and energy infrastructure — all in different and complex ways.

The area near the Dnipro River is heavily mined, and flood waters could dislodge those explosives. Already there are reports of contamination of industrial chemicals in the Dnipro River. “The surrounding areas, in the Kherson region, Mykolaiv region, they rely on the water for irrigation purposes, for agricultural purposes, and of course, drinking water,” said Maksym Chepeliev, senior research economist at the Center for Global Trade Analysis at Purdue University.

Another place at risk of losing access to a water supply is Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. At the time, Ukraine blocked off a canal that flowed to the peninsula. But after Russia’s invasion in 2022 and Moscow took control of the dam, it restarted the water supply to Crimea, at substantial cost. Though most goes to agriculture and only a fraction goes to drinking water, Russian officials have already said that the canal is at risk because of the dam damage.

Ukrhydroenergo, the Ukrainian state-owned operator of Ukraine’s hydroelectric plants, said that the machine hall inside the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant was completely destroyed, but so far, the threat to Ukraine’s power grid and electricity supply is pretty contained. Since the plant was seized by Russian forces in the early days of the war, it had not currently been supplying electricity to territory controlled by Ukraine, said Oleksandr Diachuk, leading researcher officer in the Department of Energy Sector Development and Forecasting at the Institute for Economics and Forecasting of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

But that power plant isn’t the one everyone is concerned about. That distinction goes to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is about 75 miles northeast of the dam. That plant relies on water from the reservoir to cool its nuclear reactors. Ukrainian and international nuclear officials have so far said that the dam break poses no “immediate risk” to the plant. The reactors at the power plant have been shut down for many months because of the war, so although they still need to be cooled, they need less water than they would if they were active. Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a statement that the reservoir could supply water to the plant for “a few days” and that the cooling ponds were full, and could provide additional sources of water. (The power plant is also not at risk of flooding.)

The Zaporizhzhia plant, in the middle of a war zone, has remained a perpetual possible catastrophe throughout the war, and while those risks are contained now, they have not gone away. “The fact that things are under control now is great, but the situation is very volatile there [at the Zaphorizhia nuclear power plant]. And it’s just something that is an additional thing for us to worry about,” Gleick said.

So what does this mean for the war Russia is waging in Ukraine?

Experts I spoke to cited a litany of potential dire environmental, humanitarian, and ecological risks. Biodiversity destroyed as the reservoir empties. Chemicals leaching into the Dnipro River, polluting water that communities depend on. Those pollutants could travel downstream, into the Black Sea, and contaminate fishing waters. It could affect irrigation levels for wheat and watermelon crops in the region, further choking off food supplies.

It will also force the evacuation of thousands who survived a year and a half of artillery shelling, bombs, and war. This flooding would be a disaster at any time, but amid the conflict, it is a potential war crime, one more humanitarian crisis piled on top of all the others, and another years-long rebuilding project Ukraine must take on.

“It’s not necessarily easy to mobilize during peacetime,” said Nickolai Denisov, deputy director of the Geneva-based Zoï Environment Network, referring to the disaster response. “During wartime, it’s even more difficult, and it definitely distracts resources from other tasks.”

These kinds of disasters are omnipresent in war, but it has become something of a feature of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moscow has systematically targeted Ukrainian infrastructure, and in this case, they had full access to the dam and its facilities. Ukraine has engaged in sabotage efforts against Russian infrastructure, but usually on Russian soil or on strategic targets.

US and Western officials have not confirmed publicly who was behind the attack, though the statements have alluded to Russian responsibility. The US said it was aiming to declassify intelligence about the explosion soon.

“All things considered, one must naturally assume that this was an aggression perpetrated by the Russian side in order to stop Ukraine’s offensive aimed at liberating its own land,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Tuesday.

The timing of this likely explosion is impossible to ignore. Ukraine has been planning to mount a counteroffensive to retake territory for months, and as spring inches into summer, it now seems as if Kyiv is at least laying the groundwork for that major assault.

This week, Western officials said they noticed an increase in fighting in the past few days in the east, in Donetsk, with Ukrainian stepping up artillery attacks and ground assaults, potentially to probe Russian fortifications.

This isn’t close to the Nova Kakhovka dam, but many Ukraine observers have long pointed to areas in the south as a possible staging point for any operation because it would allow Ukraine to cut off the “land bridge” Russia has built from occupied territories to Crimea.

The area now flooded out by the dam breach could potentially have been one attack point, and now it definitely cannot be. But it also probably wasn’t the most likely one, either. Russia was pretty well dug in on its side of the Dnipro, and crossing a river is not exactly an easy operation in the best of times. Ukraine’s forces are likely limited in their ability to conduct an operation like that.

Which is also why, if Russia is responsible, this isn’t a hugely strategic move. The flood waters could wash away some of Russia’s fortifications in the Kherson region. And while it may consume Ukrainian resources and attention, it could do the same for Russia, which controls areas that will be affected by this catastrophe.

“The motivations for both sides are lacking,” said Emil Kastehelmi, an open source intelligence and military analyst who has been following Russia’s war in Ukraine.

But, Kastehelmi pointed out, that doesn’t always matter, especially when it comes to Moscow’s motivations. “As we have seen, they can make huge decisions that might not be beneficial to them. A good example is this whole war that they are waging.”

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