A rupture in Ukraine’s largest reservoir, the Kakhovka dam, has caused devastating flooding in areas where tens of thousands of people live. The cause of the dam’s breach is unknown, but Ukraine blames Russian forces for blowing up the facility, while Russian officials claim Ukrainian military strikes are to blame. The Soviet-era dam, which is 98 feet high, provides electricity, irrigation, and drinking water to southern Ukraine, including the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula. The reservoir holds 18 million cubic meters of water, equivalent to that of the Great Salt Lake in the United States. The waters supply cooling systems at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, where fighting has led to fears of a catastrophic accident.
The dam has been under Russian control since the start of the conflict, and three sluice gates were damaged last fall due to explosives detonated by troops occupying the dam. Ukrainian officials and independent experts claim that Russian forces have either deliberately or through neglect, failed to maintain the dam, leading to signs of damage to the gates that were evident in late May. The water levels in the reservoir have steadily increased since mid-February, according to data from Theia, a French geospatial analytical organization.
The floodwaters have led to evacuations from towns and villages in both Russian and Ukrainian-controlled areas, with Ukrainian authorities warning of a potential environmental disaster. Nearly 12,000 consumers in the city of Kherson have already been left without electricity, and there may be issues with water supply in the region. The situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe’s largest, is under control, and there is no immediate risk to safety, according to the Ukrainian utility operator, and the U.N. atomic energy agency. Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has warned that “thousands of animals and ecosystems will be destroyed in the next few hours.”