A massive dam on the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine collapsed early Tuesday, sending a torrent of water cascading through the rift, flooding the war zone downstream, endangering tens of thousands of residents and increasing the likelihood of a long-term environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.
Ukraine and Russia quickly blamed each other for the disaster. Officials in Kyiv said Moscow forces had blown up a Russian-controlled dam in the early hours of the morning, and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky blamed it on “Russian terrorists”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov denied Russian involvement and described the destruction as “sabotage”.
It is not yet clear who or what caused the destruction of the Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric plant near the town of Nova Kakhovka. But some top European officials have criticized Russia. Engineering and ammunition experts say a deliberate explosion inside the dam likely caused it to collapse. Structural failure or attack from outside the structure, they say, is possible but makes little sense.
The destruction of the dam was a “monumental humanitarian, economic and ecological catastrophe,” and “another example of the dire cost of war on humanity,” said António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations.
The dam, in the Kherson region, has held back a pool of water the size of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Ihor Syrota, head of Ukraine’s main hydroelectric company, Ukrhydroenergo, said in an interview that it collapsed after an explosion around 2:50 a.m. Tuesday.
“The damage is enormous, and the station cannot be repaired,” he said. “The bottom has been washed away.”
Residents in the town of Antonivka, about 40 miles downstream, described horror as flood waters swept away carrying trees and debris from washed away houses. Ukrainian authorities are racing to evacuate people by train and bus.
Miles along the floodplains, others waded into the water, rescuing pets and property, videos and pictures on social media show. Several people rode bicycles along the muddy water-logged streets. In Mykolaiv, an emergency train collected those fleeing the rising waters in Kherson.
Daria Shulzik, 38, an office manager, awoke to what sounded like a downpour — but the rushing water was filled with the remains of the city. There was “a lot of dirt, branches, building parts, fences, cattails from the swamp – everything,” he said.
Ms Shulzik said the Russian military had created a disaster. “I don’t know why they started this war, and why they are continuing it,” he said. “Agriculture will suffer, and the Black Sea will suffer because all this flows into the sea. Even the fish will suffer now.”
A total of around 16,000 people remain in the “critical zone” on the west bank of the river, which is controlled by Ukraine, said Oleksandr Prokudin, regional military administrator. The Ukrainian National Police said so far 23 towns and villages have been flooded, and the water level on the Dnipro has risen nearly 11 feet in the city of Kherson. As of 9 p.m. local time, at least 1,366 people had been evacuated from the flood zone, police said on messaging app Telegram.
The destruction came a day after American officials said they had detected what could be the start of a long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive to drive back Russian troops east of the Dnipro in the Donetsk region. The Russian military says it has repulsed several attacks by Kyiv forces.
Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, accused Ukraine of destroying the dam because it wanted to transfer troops and equipment defending the Kherson to another front to help counterattack. Ukraine says Russia blew up the dam to prevent Ukrainian troops from crossing the river downstream.
The dam, the southernmost on the Dnipro, was built between 1950 and 1956 as part of a wider effort to harness the economic power of the river known as the “Big Dnipro”. It’s downstream from the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which relies on the Kakhovka reservoir to cool its reactors.
Initially, there were fears that if the river level dropped far enough, the plant, Europe’s largest civilian nuclear facility, would not be able to draw water, potentially causing a meltdown. But Ukraine’s state nuclear company, Energoatom, said in a statement that while the destruction “may have negative consequences” for the Zaporizhzhia plant, it currently has enough water from a nearby pool for cooling.
“The situation is under control,” the statement said.
Experts are still waiting to understand the full scale of the disaster. Video verified by The New York Times and pictures on social media show the water flooding the community downstream. Floods inundated homes, overflowed farm fields, blocked roads and flooded a zoo in the Russian-controlled city of Nova Kakhovka, said mayor Volodymyr Kovalenko. The City Hall and Palace of Culture there were also submerged.
Satellite imagery shows the dam has broken in three places. About 200 yards from the central area was destroyed, and the structure at the hydroelectric station that was above the dam was split in half. A drone videos initially indicated the south end of the dam was intact. Several hours later, the area was underwater.
Emergency crews are heading to southern Ukraine from Kyiv, the head of the country’s emergency services, Serhiy Kruk, said in a statement. Vehicles designed to weather floods, generators, mobile water treatment plants, water trucks and other equipment are also on their way. Volunteers from the Red Cross drop aid in Mykolaiv.
Even as the water level rose, Russian troops were still shelling the town on the outskirts of Kherson.
Tatyana Yeroshenko, 32, a teacher and volunteer with an aid group, said by phone she woke up around 5 a.m. Tuesday to an artillery explosion. “I heard a bang, and my window shook,” said Ms. Yeroshenko.
Then he checked his phone and saw a news report about a major flood.
In this southeastern region of Ukraine, where the Dnipro River separates Russian and Ukrainian troops, floodwaters are pouring into towns where tens of thousands of people have been evacuated after the massive Russian invasion 15 months ago. In Antonivka, about 4,000 residents out of a pre-war population of around 13,000 remained before the flood, said Ms. Yeroshenko.
In a sign of how widespread the damage to the dam could be felt, the head of Russian-controlled Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, issued a warning about the water levels of the North Crimean Canal, which supplies fresh water to the peninsula from the Dnipro. In Telegram, he said that Crimea has sufficient water reserves in its reservoirs, but that levels could drop.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Safety Council, said the United States was monitoring the impact of the destruction. “It is very clear that the willful destruction of civilian infrastructure is not permitted by the laws of war,” he said.
“We know there have been casualties,” he said, “including possibly many deaths, although these are preliminary reports and we cannot count them.”
He did not provide further details, and Ukrainian officials did not immediately release information about casualties.
The dam wars in Ukraine are nothing new. In August 1941, during World War II, retreating Soviet troops ripped a hole in the Dnipro hydroelectric station, flooding some 50 miles downstream and killing thousands of people. The Germans also dynamited the dam years later when they withdrew after repairing Soviet damage.
Last fall, as Ukraine drew closer to retaking Kherson, officials in Kyiv and Moscow warned that the other side would try to damage the dam. Appearing via video, Zelensky told a meeting of European leaders in Brussels that Russia was preparing a “false flag” operation to blow it up and frame Ukraine for a possible humanitarian and ecological disaster.
Military analysts said later that neither side would benefit from destroying the dam, as it would affect both armies.
Some military analysts warn against blaming limited information.
“It’s too early to say whether this was a deliberate act by the Russians or the result of negligence and prior damage caused to the dam,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Va.
“This is a disaster that ultimately benefits no one,” added Mr. Kofman. “Russia is responsible for controlling the dam, and its actions in Ukraine led to this result, one way or another.”
But on Tuesday, Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU’s top diplomat, said the disaster represented a “new dimension of Russian cruelty”. He vowed in a post on Twitter that “all commanders, perpetrators and accomplices” would be held accountable for these “violations” of international humanitarian law.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, described the destruction of the dam as “ecocide,” added: “Russia destroyed the Kakhovka dam, in what may have been Europe’s biggest technological disaster in decades and endangered thousands of civilians. This is a heinous war crime.”
Experts say flooding is expected to increase as water from the reservoir continues to flow before reaching a peak in a day or two.
The loss of the dam is not expected to have a severe impact on Ukraine’s energy grid, said Alex Riabchyn, former deputy energy minister of Ukraine, because hydroelectric power plants have not been running on the power grid since October. But that could lead to a severe shortage of drinking water in the Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, he said.
Flooding can also expose underground landmines and wash them downstream. The HALO Trust, a British-American charity which has cleared mines planted by Russian troops, said it was now operating in flooded areas.
Others expressed concern about the potential for industrial pollution and threats to nature conservation areas.
“This will have a series of acute as well as long-term environmental effects,” said Doug Weir, director of research and policy at the UK-based Conflict and Environment Observatory. “It will have a very large legacy.”
Reporting contributed by Haley Willis, Victoria Kim, Eric Schmitt, Paul Sonne, Maria Varenikova, Anna Lukinova, Evelina Riabenko, Farnaz Fassihi, Max Bearak, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Isabella’s egg And Monika Pronczuk.