Four-and-a-half days after Ukraine’s Nova Kakhovka dam burst, the longer-term scale of the flooding disaster is gradually becoming apparent. In the station at Mykolaiv, the first city inland, pensioner Olena Lysiuk, says she had no choice but to quit her apartment in Kherson, even though it was too high up to be flooded.
“It’s not just that we don’t have any water, gas or electricity. We have also got used to not having those during the Russian occupation. But now the sewage doesn’t work. That’s the new problem,” Lysiuk says. Now she plans to stay in Mykolaiv with relatives, with the state having given her about 10,000 hryvnia (£215) in support.
Vasyl Chornyi gets off an evacuation carriage from Kherson while the train is joined with another and lights a cigarette. The Inhulets river flooded part of his village, Fedorivka, 18 miles (29km) north-east of Kherson, and while his house wasn’t directly affected, he too was leaving because “we are fearing a pandemic”.
“The cemetery is drowned, the sewers have been drowned,” Chornyi says, even claiming to have seen coffins floating downstream. “When the waters go down, there will be lots of dead fish, other decay. In Kherson the wells are spoiled. Outside toilets are flooded,” he says, and acknowledges that while the Russian occupation between March and November did not force him out, the flooding disaster has.
Whole houses are being washed into the Black Sea. On Friday an intact roof ended up on a beach in Odesa, 130 miles away. Locals in the city have been told not to try to clean up the rubbish, reeds and other waterborne detritus amid concern that landmines, some made of light plastic, could be floating dangerously within. That though, leaves the clean-up to the already stretched state emergency services.
Kyiv’s interior ministry counts 27 people missing so far, although the true figure is likely to be far higher, following a disaster that came at the most critical point in the war since Russian troops were repelled from Kyiv. A day earlier, on Monday, Ukraine started, albeit without any fanfare, its long awaited counter-offensive on which the future of the war, of Ukraine and perhaps even Russia, hinges.
Then at 2.50am on Tuesday, cataclysm struck the Nova Kakhovka dam. Locals reported hearing a deafening explosion with the “sky turning to white” in the small hours. Subsequent seismic analysis by Norsar of Norway, relying on sensors in Romania, has so far borne that out, while US media report that spy satellites also detected a blast around that time. Experts add that it would have been very much harder to destroy the dam from outside, than to have blown it up from the inside.
If it was Russia, as seems most likely, what motive could its forces have? One explanation is that it was an instinctive defensive response to the threat of an amphibious attack in Kherson oblast across the Dnipro, a fearful reaction to the possibility of a surprise strike by Kyiv across the country’s central, defining river.
Certainly, a marine assault is now more difficult for Ukraine, and the building of a pontoon bridge across the widened Dnipro is all but impossible. But if there was an attempt to emulate Stalin’s destruction of the larger Zaporizhzhia dam in the face of the advancing German army in 1941, the consequences of Tuesday’s events would be borne largely by civilians, and paradoxically Russian soldiers, on the left, southern bank of the Dnipro, the side held by the invaders.
A group of Russian anti-war groups reported that 1,842 residents in and around the flooded town of Oleshky, across the Dnipro river from Kherson, are “currently not allowed to leave by the Russian military” of which 338 are in need of urgent assistance with water and food supplies running dangerously short. The Red Cross has been prevented from reaching the area, prompting the groups to appeal on Saturday to the US government to use “diplomatic means” to ease the crisis.
Nevertheless, it was the Russians who held the hydroelectric station perched on the top of the dam. Under the occupation Nova Kakhovka had long since stopped generating power and had been turned into a garrison, from which the Russians could fend off any attempt by Ukrainian forces to approach the dam from the right bank.
There are other signs that Russia saw the dam as a chip in a military game, without clear regard for the consequences. The Russian occupiers had allowed water levels in the Kakhovka reservoir behind the dam to build up to a 30-year high, filling the reservoir with more than 18m cubic metres of water, the size of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
Also concerned was the Ukrainian power company that used to run the hydro plant before it was overrun. “At the end of September, beginning of October, the Ukrainian workers at the station spotted that the Russians brought a lot of explosive material inside,” said Ihor Syrota, the head of Ukrhydroenergo. “But later in October, the Ukrainian workers were sent away and it became a military headquarters for the Russians.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told an online meeting with environmental activists on Thursday: “We warned the world about the mining of the dam and other facilities. It was obvious that Russia had an intent to cause disaster.”
Another possibility has been raised by the publication by the Ukrainian security service on Friday of a recording of what it claimed was an intercepted conversation between two Russian soldiers, in which one reveals to the other that it was a sabotage unit from their own side that set off the explosion, and that the resulting devastation had been far greater than intended.
“Our saboteur group is there. They wanted to cause fear with this dam. It did not go according to the plan. More than they planned,” the soldier said.
The authenticity of the call is unverified and probably unverifiable. If authentic though, it adds weight to the screw-up version of history, that the intention had been to wash Ukrainian forces off the river islands which made up the no man’s land between the two banks, and the saboteurs got their calculations wrong.
Whatever the motives, there is no doubt about the consequences. While the immediate attention in the past week has been on the human and environmental tragedy unfolding downstream, an even greater catastrophe may be looming upstream in the coming months and years.
By the end of the week, the water level in the Kakhovka reservoir sank below 12 metres, entering what Ukrainian officials called the “dead zone”. That meant it was too low to feed the four Soviet-era canal systems that feed the entire region, particularly Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts and Crimea. Together those regions represent one of the world’s breadbaskets, and the Ukrainian agriculture ministry warned that, without those life-giving canals, they could become “deserts” as early as next year.
The sinking water levels in the reservoir also threaten drinking water supplies to cities, towns and villages all along the course of lower Dnipro. And there is another threat, less certain but potentially even more catastrophic. The level of the Kakhovka reservoir is now well below the 13.3 metres required to reach the intake channel for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, about 125 miles upstream from the dam. Normally, water would be sucked up from the reservoir into spray ponds used to cool the six reactor cores and the spent fuel stored at the plant. The draining of the reservoir is not an immediate threat, because all six reactors at Zaporizhzhia had been shut down after the plant’s occupation by Russian forces and its transformation into a garrison and military depot. One of the reactors had been kept in “hot shutdown”, kept warmer than the others to help with heating to the adjacent town of Enerhodar.
That has now been put on cold shutdown. The water needs of the plant are far less than when it was functioning.
Furthermore, there is a sizeable cooling pond for emergencies. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that it contains enough water to keep cooling operations going for several months. Ukrainian officials from the Ukrainian nuclear energy corporation, Energoatom, believe it is enough for several years.
However, it emerged last week that studies commissioned by Energoatom after the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in 2011 found that, without the counteracting force of the waters of the Kakhovka reservoir on the other side, the dyke around the cooling pond could burst from the pressure of the water inside. Energoatom’s president, Petro Kotin, played down that scenario, and reassured Ukrainians there were other sources of water in an emergency to prevent a meltdown of the radioactive fuel at the plant. “These are mobile pumping units that can be deployed if necessary, and the last frontier is the use of underground drinking water wells,” Kotin said on Friday.
The real threat, Kotin said, was that of deliberate sabotage by the plant’s Russian occupiers. If the Russians did indeed blow up the Kakhovka dam, it raises fears they could also blow up the Zaporizhzhia plant, regardless of the consequences that would almost certainly spill onto Russian territory.
At present, the waters have hardly receded from their peak – and the situation is complicated by the fact that, after a one-day pause on Wednesday, Russian shelling and Ukrainian retaliation resumed. Two rescuers were wounded in the Ukrainian-held city on Saturday, emphasising the dangers, while the security situation was too serious for another group to brief the Observer on their latest emergency efforts.
Islands in the Dnipro delta, previously occupied by the Russians, have been submerged, and drone footage shows that former shoreline settlements such as Hola Prystan are also inundated. A humanitarian disaster on the Russian-held left bank “would undoubtedly heighten the risk” of an outbreak of cholera or other intestinal infections, says Prof Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia and adviser to the World Health Organization.
“Flooding could wash sewage into water extracted for drinking, which if not adequately treated could lead to a whole range of water-borne problems, of which the scariest is in cholera,” Hunter says. Cholera has not appeared in Ukraine so far, he adds, but the disease has a history of surfacing in and around wars, most recently in Syria. To avoid problems, Ukraine will help with medical surveillance, vaccinations and ensuring that when people get ill they can get good healthcare, he adds.
Meanwhile, with terrible effect, the destruction of the Kakhovka dam raises the already enormous stakes riding on the Ukrainian counter-offensive. Already the challenge facing Ukrainian troops as they try to storm well-prepared Russian defensive lines was daunting, and pictures began to circulate on social media of the first losses of western armour, German Leopard tanks and US-made Bradley fighting vehicles.
“With the exception of the US, no other western-style military can conduct sustained combined arms operations at scale. So Ukrainian forces are attempting to do something at the tactical level that no other European Nato member is currently capable of,” Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote on Twitter.
But now the flooding has deepened the crisis in Ukraine. The dramatic moments in the small hours of Tuesday morning mean the country is no longer just fighting a war, but also grappling what is almost certain to have been a human-made and entirely unnecessary environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.