Several residential areas are fully underwater after a Soviet-era dam and hydroelectric power station in the Russian-controlled part of Ukraine’s Kherson region was blown up, flooding the war zone and sparking frantic evacuations.
Mass evacuations forced residents out of their homes amid fears of widespread flood devastation. President Volodymyr Zelensky said the attack on the critical Kakhovka dam was carried out by Russia, whose military has occupied the area. Ukraine described it as an act of “ecocide,” and called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
The incident has forced Ukraine to evacuate over 17,000 people from flooded areas, Andriy Kostin, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said. According to Ukrainian authorities, some 40,000 civilians in total will need to be evacuated.
More than 20,000 civilians, however, are on territory controlled by the Russians, who are not conducting evacuations, he explained.
“This is yet another blatant disregard for human life and international law,” Kostin said.
It’s not clear how many people have died in the flooding by the White House’s count, but the dam destruction will lead to “likely many deaths,” White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby told reporters in a briefing Monday.
Videos and photos from the area shared on social media showed apocalyptic scenes, with homes and vehicles underwater, and local residents rushing to rescue their pets from the rising flood waters.
A zoo housing 260 animals was also submerged by the torrent of water, according to RBC Ukraine. “It’s hard for me to say the fate of the animals that were there,” Nova Kakhovka Mayor Volodymyr Kovalenko told local media.
Russian state-controlled media reported that at least three villages had been completely swallowed up by the flooding. More than 1,300 people had been evacuated by 3 p.m. local time.
The Russian-controlled town of Oleshky said Tuesday it is “almost completely flooded” after the incident.
“Evacuation… is possible only using special equipment,” the Russian-installed chairman of the Kherson region, Andrei Alexeyenko, said.
Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said the attack on the civilian infrastructure “clearly qualifies as a war crime.”
The United Nations nuclear monitoring watchdog said there was no immediate threat to Zaporizhzhia, which is Europe’s largest atomic energy plant, but the reservoir fed by the dam is responsible for the cooling water needed to keep the nuclear site safe.
The New York Times reported that Ivan Plachkov, a former energy minister of Ukraine, warned that more than 100,000 gallons of water an hour from the reservoir was required to keep the six reactors cool and to stop the spent fuel from melting down.
Oleksandr Prokudin, the head of the Kherson Regional Military Administration, said in a video posted to Telegram it will take mere hours—within five—for the water to reach “critical levels.”
Ukrainian authorities had already warned what might happen if the dam failed: unleashing 4.8 billion gallons of water and flooding districts where hundreds of thousands of people live in what is already difficult terrain as the Russian invasion grinds on.
Residents further downstream on the Dnipro River in Kherson were warned: “Do everything you can to save your life,” according to Oleksandr Prokudin, head of Ukraine’s Kherson region military administration.
Russia’s TASS news agency says at least 300 houses in the settlements of Dnepryan and Korsunka near Nova Kakhovka could fall into the flood zone, but there are more widespread fears that hundreds of thousands of people could be displaced.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry told residents to gather what they needed, including essential documents and pets, then turn off appliances, and flee as soon as possible.
“Russia blew up the dams,” presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in response, adding: “The purpose is obvious: to create insurmountable obstacles on the way of the advancing #AFU [the Armed Forces of Ukraine]; to intercept the information initiative; to slow down the fair final of the war.” President Zelensky described those allegedly responsible as “Russian terrorists,” adding he has convened the National Security and Defense Council for talks after the incident.
According to The Washington Post, Russian military bloggers claimed Ukraine “blew up the dam to trigger flooding that will wash away Russian positions on the left bank of Dnipro and allow a Ukrainian amphibious assault.”
The Russian Defense Ministry also blamed Ukraine for the dam explosion, claiming the Ukrainian military was trying to “weaken” Russian positions in the area.
Other western leaders have blamed Russia, claiming the scheme is aimed at hampering Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
“By all accounts, this is aggression by the Russian side to stop the Ukrainian offensive to defend its own country. This shows that this is a new dimension,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.
The European Union’s Josep Borrell and Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič pinned the blame on Russia as well.
“Russia’s attacks against Ukrainian civilian critical infrastructure reached an unprecedented level today with the destruction of the dam at Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant,” the two said, calling it “a new dimension of Russian atrocities.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called the attack an “outrageous act” and a demonstration of “the brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine.”
It is still too soon to know how the destruction of the dam will impact Ukraine’s counteroffensive operations, according to the White House.
The United States is still working on determining attribution for the incident, Kirby said.
“We’ve seen the reports that Russia was responsible for the explosion at the dam,” Kirby said. “We’re doing the best we can to assess those reports, and we are working with the Ukrainians to gather more information, but we cannot say conclusively what happened.”
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