Officials help people to evacuate their homes after the explosion at the Kakhovka hydropower plant flooded the houses and streets in Kherson, Ukraine on June 7, 2023.
The Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine’s Kherson region was breached early yesterday morning, triggering major flooding in all the local areas.
The deputy foreign minister Andrjj Melnyk compared it to the horrific nuclear disaster of 1986, when an accident in a nuclear power plant led to radiation-related deaths.
In a tweet, he wrote: “The worst environmental disaster in Europe since the Chernobyl disaster. Only this time Moscow deliberately used this weapon of mass destruction against the Ukrainians. Who else wants to negotiate with Putin?”
Similarly, Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said that it was “probably Europe’s largest technological disaster in decades and putting thousands of civilians at risk”, and “a heinous war crime”.
A rescuer helps to save belongings of locals from flooding following the destruction of the Kakhovka dam, on June 7, 2023 in Kherson, Ukraine.
What’s happened since the dam was first destroyed?
Just nine hours after the explosion, according to the UK’s ministry of defence, “the entire eastern portion of the dam and much of the hydro and utilities infrastructure was swept away”.
It claimed: “The water level in the Kakhovka Reservoir was at a record high before the collapse, resulting in a particularly high volume of water inundating the area downstream.”
And the UK intelligence suggested it is likely to get worse, adding: “The dam’s structure is likely to deteriorate further over the next few days, causing additional flooding.”
Thousands of people have already been evacuated, despite Ukraine reporting Russian shelling in the area. Around 24 different areas have already been flooded.
The United Nations has also claimed that there will be “grave and severe” consequences for thousands of people as a result of the attack.
Ukrainian security sails by a placard reading "Kherson is a city of shipbuilders" on June 7, 2023 in a flooded area.
Why does the destruction of the dam matter?
It means homes, food, safe water access and livelihoods across that part of Ukraine will be severely damaged, if not destroyed.
Ukraine already claims that the war has cost 53 billion euros (£45.6 billion) in environmental damages – and this single act could have major humanitarian consequences, too.
Ukraine’s largest environmental NGO called Let’s Do It Ukraine SOS said it was a “catastrophe”.
Coordinator Iiulia Markhel said: “The places the water will leave will turn into deserts; the places the water will stay will become swamps.”
Ukraine has warned that the destruction of the hydroelectric power plant which sat on the dam released oil into the river itself.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Wednesday: “An oil slick of at least 150 tons formed and was taken by the current to the Black Sea. We cannot yet predict how much of the chemicals, fertilisers and oil products stored in the flooded areas will end up in the rivers and seas.”
This is expected to impact the watering system of south Kherson and the local agriculture, too.
Water supply worries
The Crimean peninsula relies on water from Ukraine’s mainland, even though it has been occupied by Russia since 2014 – without it, farmers can’t grow crops and there’s worries about access to drinking water.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – which already has the UN concerned, because it is dangerously near the frontline, occupied by Russian troops but operated by Ukrainians – needs the reservoir’s water as part of its cooling system for its six reactions.
However, this is not a pressing crisis right now, as they are in cold-shutdown. The cooling pool is full, so they needs just a few litres of water per second.
However, the UN’s nuclear watchdog the international Atomic Energy Agency has warned there is not enough cooling water at the plant to last for about six months.
In the short-term though, there is no risk to nuclear safety and security.
Destruction to the power system
The hydroelectric power station was “completely destroyed” and is not “recoverable” according to the company which runs it – although it was not offering much electricity to the country since being occupied by Russia.
The company has vowed to build a new plant once Russia leaves.
Why is the destruction of the dam considered a war crime?
While investigators are still looking for concrete evidence about what happened to the dam, Zelenskyy has claimed it was “mined by Russian occupiers” and “blown up”.
Russia denied this claim, and instead its Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that this was “another terrorist crime by the Kyiv regime” to distract from its supposedly failed counteroffensive. He also called the world to “condemn criminal acts” from Ukraine.
Without directly attributing blame to Russia, Western leaders have condemned the violent act.
The UK’s foreign secretary James Cleverly said: “Intentionally attacking exclusively civilian infrastructure is a war crime.”
NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said that it was an “outrageous act, which demonstrates – once again – the brutality of Russia’s war against Ukraine”.
He said that the damage shows the war, led by Putin, is “totally unacceptable and a blatant violation of international law”.
Meanwhile, UN chief Antonio Guterres said the breach was a “monumental catastrophe” on humanitarian economic and ecological level.
Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz said the attack “fits the way Putin is waging this war”, adding that the destruction “joins many, many of the crimes we have seen in Ukraine that have emanated from Russian soldiers”.
However, the White House’s spokesperson John Kirby said that Washington could not “conclusively” say who was responsible but that the US was working to declassify some of the intelligence.