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‘Ecocide’ in southern Ukraine The Dnipro River’s water level is rising after a major dam was destroyed near Kherson. Here’s what we know.
The dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, a key piece of infrastructure in the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine’s Kherson region, has been destroyed. Video shared online early Tuesday morning showed water streaming through the broken barrier. Ukraine’s Operational Command South, Kherson Governor Oleksandr Prokudin, and the Ukrainian President’s Office said that Russian forces were responsible for blowing up the critical facility.
Meanwhile, the Russian-installed “mayor” of Nova Kakhovka, Vladimir Leontyev, initially denied that there had been an explosion at all, writing: “That’s nonsense! Everything’s fine, everything’s fine everywhere, I was just in touch over the radio. Everything’s fine everywhere in the city, everything’s peaceful and quiet.”
Later, his “administration” reported that an overnight shelling attack from Ukraine had damaged the plant’s upper section, destroying the dam’s “gate valves” but leaving the dam itself intact. Leontyev accused Kyiv of “terrorism.” According to the Russian state news outlet TASS, 11 of the dam’s 28 spans were destroyed. Leontyev later said that the facility is beyond repair and will have to be rebuilt. The Ukrainian energy company Ukrhydroenergo also said that the station is not recoverable.
Water from the Kakhovka reservoir is flowing uncontrollably down the Dnipro River, Leontyev told the state news agency RIA Novosti. After the dam’s destruction, he said, the water level downstream rose by 2.5 meters (8.2 feet). Kherson Governor Prokudin said at 6:45 a.m. local time that the water would reach a critical level five hours later. Meanwhile, Kherson occupation authorities said that the situation in the region’s coastal areas was “under control” and that the water level was being monitored. “The only threat we’re facing at this moment is problems with supplying water to Crimea,” Leontyev said. He later added that there’s no risk of the North Crimea Canal losing water, saying he didn’t want Crimea residents to worry.
Authorities in Kryvyi Rih, a town in the Dnipropetrovsk region, have imposed limits on water usage for households and industry. “We’re restricting the amount of water industrial enterprises can use, and at night, from 10:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., we’ll reduce water pressure for the public,” said Mayor Oleksandr Vilkul. He also reported that 70 percent of the water used by Kryvyi Rih comes from the Kakhovka Reservoir. Ukrainian Telegram channels posted photos of city residents buying up large amounts of drinking water from stores.
Dozens of settlements are at risk of flooding. Officials from Russian emergency services told the state news agency TASS that up to 80 settlements could soon be underwater. The Ukrainian authorities have already begun evacuating residents from at-risk areas. Ukrainian National Police units and State Emergency Service workers in the Kherson region were instructed to alert and evacuate civilians from potential flood zones on the Dnipro River’s west bank. According to local authorities, 16,000 people live in areas threatened by flooding.
On the Dnipro River’s east bank, which is under the control of Russian forces, Vladimir Leontyev reported that the coastal parts of Nova Kakhovka and other settlements downstream from the plant have already been flooded. Videos of flooding in Nova Kakhovka have appeared on social media. The occupation authorities in the annexed part of the Kherson region warned that residents of coastal areas should be prepared to evacuate if the situation worsens. According to the Russian-installed “administration” in the Kherson region, 14 settlements containing a total of 22,000 residents are at risk of flooding.
Neither the Ukrainian authorities nor Russian occupation authorities have made official statements about injuries or deaths resulting from the flooding.
The Ukrainian President’s Office referred to the dam’s destruction and its aftermath as “ecocide,” saying it threatens both Crimea and the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. “The Russians will answer for the possible loss of drinking water that people in southern Kherson and in Crimea will face, and possibly the destruction of some of the settlements and of the biosphere,” Volodymyr Zelensky’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak wrote on Telegram. “Additionally, the bombing of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant by the Russians is a blow to global food security, which the enemy wants to blow up. Because this catastrophe will affect the irrigation system in southern Ukraine.”
Ukraine's state nuclear power company, Energoatom, said that the rapid drop in the water level in the Kakhovka reservoir poses an additional threat to the Zaporizhzhia NPP as the water is a vital part of the facility’s cooling and safety systems. For now, however, the company said that the water level in the station’s cooling pond is at 16.6 meters (54.5 feet), which is enough to ensure the station’s safety.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), meanwhile, reported that its experts on the ground at the Zaporizhzhia NPP are closely monitoring the situation and that there’s currently no direct nuclear safety threat.
After an emergency meeting of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council that Volodymyr Zelensky called in response to the Nova Kakhovka disaster, Kyiv announced that it would consult the UN Security Council, environmental organizations, and the International Criminal Court. The Ukrainian Prosecutor’s Office has launched an investigation under the country’s laws against ecocide and violation of the laws and customs of war.
Zelensky laid the blame for the blast on “the Russian terrorists.” The Kremlin denied the allegation and claimed the incident was a “deliberate sabotage operation” by the “Kyiv regime.” “By destroying the dam at the Kakhovka HPP, the Russian terrorists are simply demonstrating to the entire world that they need to be expelled from every corner of Ukrainian land. Not a single meter should be left to them, because they use every meter for terror. Only Ukrainian victory will restore security. And this victory is coming. Not water, not missiles, nothing will allow the terrorists to stop Ukraine,” the Ukrainian president said.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia “firmly denies” the allegations that it was responsible for the explosion. According to him, one of the goals of the “Ukrainian sabotage attack” was to deprive Crimea of water. “By all appearances, this sabotage is also linked to the fact that Ukraine’s armed forces, having begun their large-scale offensive operations two days ago, are not accomplishing their objectives,” he added.
Ukraine’s Western allies have condemned the destruction of the Kakhovka HPP. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted that the dam’s destruction puts thousands of civilians at risk and will do serious harm to the environment. “This is an outrageous act, which demonstrates once again the brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine,” he added. European Council President Charles Michel said that he was “shocked by the unprecedented attack” and vowed to hold Russia accountable for destroying civilian infrastructure. Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić called the attack “criminal and reckless.”
The Ukrainian authorities and military experts have repeatedly said in the past that Russia was likely preparing to blow up the Kakhovka dam. In response, Moscow has accused Kyiv of preparing a missile attack on the dam. In October 2022, Volodymyr Zelensky said that the Kakhovka HPP’s “units and dam have been mined by Russian terrorists.” He called on the global community to pre-empt a possible terrorist attack by sending an international monitoring mission to the facility. Around the same time, the Institute for the Study of War wrote in an assessment that Russia was likely planning to damage the dam and cast the blame on Ukraine. Meanwhile, Sergey Surovikin, Russia’s then-commander of its troops in Ukraine, accused Kyiv of preparing a massive missile strike on the Kakhovka dam.
Open-source intelligence analysts suggest that the Kakhovka dam was destroyed as a result of previous damage — not from an explosion. Comparing satellite imagery from May 28 and June 5, Financial Times journalist Christopher Miller noted that a section of the dam’s roadway and gate valves had been damaged prior to the dam’s destruction.
Ruslan Leviev, the founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, concluded that based on the satellite images the dam “gradually collapsed on its own.” “Judging by this [image from June 5 of] water released under a fallen piece of road, the dam gradually collapsed on its own. That may be why a piece of the road fell — since there had been a hole there for a long time,” he wrote. Leviev added that “the occupying administration wasn’t able to regulate the dam” — water levels rose, and controlled releases of water were not carried out. The dam wasn’t able to withstand the water, which caused the breach, according to Leviev.
Washington Post journalist Evan Hill also noted that water levels at the Kakhovka dam were at “unprecedentedly high” levels prior to the dam’s destruction.
Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said that Ukraine blew up the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant in order to prevent a Russian offensive. Shoigu had not previously mentioned a planned Russian offensive.
In a video posted by the Russian newspaper Izvestia, the Russian-appointed “head” of the annexed Kherson region Vladimir Saldo was recorded saying that “people were calmly moving around the streets” of Nova Kakhovka, while the local square was seen flooded in the background behind him. Saldo also reported that the cities along the Dnipro River “are alive” after the destruction of the Kakhovka dam.
Judging by the video, Saldo was speaking with members of the Russian media in a building overlooking a flooded square in Nova Kakhovka.
According to Saldo, local “authorities” prepared buses for those who wished to evacuate. Saldo added that, “people understand that this isn’t forever and it’s possible to not flee their homes. According to all our estimates, this should last no more than three days.”
The Russian-appointed “mayor” of Nova Kakhovka, Vladimir Leontyev, said that the water levels had risen by 10 meters (33 feet). TASS later reported that levels had risen up to 12 meters (39 feet).
This is a developing story. Meduza cannot immediately verify statements from state officials.
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