Ukraine blames Russia for ‘man-made disaster’
Throughout the war both sides have accused each other of targeting the dam with attacks, while Kyiv has voiced fears that Moscow would destroy the dam to cause a flood.
Ukrainian officials warned that water would reach critical levels within hours and urged people on both sides of the Dnipro River to evacuate.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy convened an emergency meeting of the country’s defense and security councils, after which Kyiv called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
He said the Russians had carried out “an internal detonation” of the dam and that about 80 settlements were in danger of flooding. He ordered a mass evacuation from risk areas, adding that the Kremlin needs to face “strict accountability.”
Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said the destruction of the dam was a “carefully planned act of terrorism” and a “global ecological disaster.”
“The terrorists’ goal is obvious — to create obstacles for the offensive actions of the armed forces,” Podolyak told NBC News.
The head of the president’s office, Andriy Yermak, called it “the biggest man-made disaster in the world in recent decades,” while the country’s prosecutor general said he was treating the incident as an international crime.
Meanwhile, Russian-installed authorities in the Kherson region blamed Ukraine for shelling the dam overnight, which they said destroyed its valves, leading to an uncontrolled discharge of water.
Russian-installed chairman of the government of the Kherson region, Andrey Alekseenko, said there was no threat to human life but that 14 settlements, where 22,000 people live, were “in the flooding zone” after the dam incident.
Rescue services had been dispatched and “the situation is under complete control,” Alekseenko added.
But Vladimir Leontiev, the Russian-installed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, the town just across from the dam, said the town was completely flooded hours after the incident, according to state news agency Tass.
Earlier, Leontiev said the water level there had already reached more than 32 feet and about 300 houses located on the banks of the Dnipro river were being evacuated.
Nuclear plant risks
Experts have speculated that destruction of the dam, which holds water equal to the Great Salt Lake in the U.S., could have a catastrophic impact on local communities and the environment.
The Soviet-era dam, 30 yards tall and 2 miles long, was built in 1956 on the river as part of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant.
Water from the reservoir helps cool the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, and supplies drinking water to Russian-occupied Crimea.
Ukraine’s state energy company, Energoatom, said the dam breach could have “negative consequences” for the nearby Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, but that the situation was still under control.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said it was monitoring the situation and there was no immediate nuclear safety risk at the plant. A Russian-installed official from the Zaporizhzhia region, Dmitry Vorona, told Tass that the consequences for the nuclear plant would be “minimal” as it was built to withstand such emergencies.
The damage caused by the breached dam “looks much worse” than a worst-case scientific model from last year because the water level of the reservoir was so high, a leading water expert told NBC News.
“It’s a massive disaster,” said Henrik Ölander-Hjalmarsson, CEO and founding partner of Dämningsverket AB, a Swedish hydrological modelling company, who wrote a “catastrophic dam break scenario” at the request of UNICEF last year.
Tuesday’s dramatic developments come a day after Russia said that Ukraine’s military had launched a significant attack in a bid to break through its defenses on the war’s southeastern front lines.
Reports of heavy fighting from officials in Moscow and the country’s cadre of influential military bloggers fueled speculation that it could be the beginning of the major counteroffensive that Kyiv has been preparing for months.
Ukraine denied claims that a major offensive had been thwarted, accusing Russia of lying to sow distrust and suggesting that the long-anticipated attack was still yet to come.
The Kherson region was one of four annexed by the Kremlin last year, but it is only partly controlled by Moscow’s forces after a previous Ukrainian offensive recaptured the regional capital of the same name.
It has long been speculated that Ukraine will renew its push to drive Russian troops from the area and look to threaten the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula farther south.
Ukrainian officials have been careful not to give out any details on the precise nature and timing of the counteroffensive, but have touted a major push to reclaim occupied land.
The Ukrainian thrust could prove a decisive moment in the country’s bid to repel the Russians and show the world it has put to good use the billions of dollars in military aid supplied by its Western allies.