Ukraine warns of 'global ecological disaster'

Ukraine accuses Russia of destroying major dam; villages flooded, thousands evacuated

Official warns some 16,000 people are in ‘critical zone’ on bank of Dnipro River in Kherson region; Moscow counter-accuses Kyiv of damaging embankment in strikes

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine on June 5, 2023. (Maxar Technologies via AP)
This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine on June 5, 2023. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine on Tuesday accused Russian forces of blowing up a major dam and hydroelectric power station in a part of southern Ukraine that Russia controls, ordering hundreds of thousands of residents downriver to evacuate over fears of a massive flood.

Russian officials countered that the dam was damaged by Ukrainian military strikes in the contested area.

Several villages have been “completely or partially flooded” following the damage to the Russian-occupied Kakhovka dam, and evacuations from the area have begun, a Ukrainian official said Tuesday.

“About 16,000 people are in the critical zone on the right bank of the Kherson region,” Oleksandr Prokudin, head of the Kherson military administration, said on social media, adding that there was flooding in eight areas along the Dnipro River.

Ukrainian authorities have previously warned that the dam’s failure could unleash 18 million cubic meters (4.8 billion gallons) of water and flood Kherson and dozens of other areas where hundreds of thousands of people live, as well as threatening a nearby Russian-occupied nuclear power plant.

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,” but at the moment situation is “controllable.”

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency wrote on Twitter that its experts were closely monitoring the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant upstream, and there was “no immediate nuclear safety risk” at the facility.

In this image taken from video released by the Ukrainian Presidential Office, water runs through a breakthrough in the Kakhovka dam in Kakhovka, Ukraine, Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Ukrainian Presidential Office via AP)

According to the Ukraine War Environmental Consequences Working Group, 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.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior advisor to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said that “a global ecological disaster is playing out now, online, and thousands of animals and ecosystems will be destroyed in the next few hours.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky called an emergency meeting to deal with the crisis, Ukrainian officials said.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry wrote on Telegram that the Kakhovka dam had been blown up, and called for residents of 10 villages on the river’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 Nova Kakhovka Vladimir Leontyev said Tuesday that numerous strikes on the Kakhovka hydroelectric plant destroyed its valves, and “water from the Kakhovka reservoir began to uncontrollably flow downstream.”

Leontyev said the strikes were “a very serious terrorist act” said Moscow-appointed authorities are “preparing for the worst consequences” — though stopping short of urging an evacuation of city residents.

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.

This general view shows a partially flooded area of Kherson on June 6, 2023, following damage sustained at Kakhovka hydroelectric dam. (Photo by Sergiy Dollar / AFP)

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.

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.

Energoatom wrote that the Kakhovka reservoir, where water levels are “rapidly decreasing,” is necessary “for the plant to feed the turbine condensers and ZNPP safety systems,” the statement said.

“Currently the station cooling pond is full: as of 8 am, the water level is at 16.6 meters, and this is enough for the needs of the station,” it said.

Energoatom will continue to monitor the situation together with the IAEA, the statement said.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine on June 5, 2023. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

Ukraine and Russia have previously accused each other of targeting the dam with attacks, and last October Zelensky predicted that Russia would destroy the dam in order to cause a flood.

Authorities, experts and residents have for months expressed concerns about water flows through — and over — the Kakhovka dam.

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.

Built on the Dnipro River in 1956, during the Soviet era, the structure is partly made of concrete and partly of earth. It is one of the largest pieces of infrastructure of its kind in Ukraine.

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