Dam destroyed in Ukraine: flooding, a weapon of war as old as it is deadly

Dam destroyed in Ukraine: flooding, a weapon of war as old as it is deadly

2023-06-10 09:12:19

In the Ukrainian region of Kherson, the green landscapes along the banks of the Dnieper River have given way to a vast expanse of muddy water studded with debris. As a direct consequence of the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam, on June 6, an area of ​​more than 600 km2 was flooded. If Kyiv and Moscow blame each other for this disaster – forcing thousands of Ukrainians to leave – many military experts and Western officials suggest the involvement of Russian forces, which controlled the infrastructure before its destruction.

This flooding for military purposes, a new major escalation in the conflict, is not an isolated case in history. “The use of water as a means of combat is a very old phenomenon that can be traced back to Antiquity, recounts General Nicolas Richoux, former commander of the 7th Armored Brigade. The destruction of dams is a variation of this. , which has already been used several times in contemporary times.”

defensive use

One of the most emblematic examples is in Ukraine, already in 1941, during the Second World War. Some 250 kilometers from Nova Kakhovka, upstream of the Dnieper, the Soviet forces blew up, on Stalin’s orders, the large hydroelectric power station of Zaporijia, baptized Dnipro HES. The objective: to slow the progress of German troops and prevent them from getting their hands on this key infrastructure, supplying the region with energy.

The torrents of water released by the explosion fell violently on the valley and the surrounding villages, causing the death of 20,000 to 100,000 civilians and soldiers, including many Soviets who had not been warned of the operation. Two years later, in 1943, German forces in turn blew up the dam to cover their retreat during the Battle of the Dnieper.

“It’s a way of considerably slowing down enemy operations: flooding an area can artificially create the same difficulties as the mud of the rasputitsa (bad road season, in Russian), underlines Michel Goya, former colonel of the troops Navy, now a war historian. This same strategy has been used extensively by the Netherlands throughout its history, especially during the uprisings against the Spanish monarchy.”

A study published in 2015 in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences revealed that a third of the floods that occurred in the south-west of the country between the 16th and 20th centuries had been deliberately caused by man in times of war.

A tactic that the French and Belgian forces also used during the First World War, during the battle of the Yser. Faced with the “race to the sea” of the German army which aspired in 1914 to cross the Yser river, in the direction of Dunkirk, the allied forces opened the floodgates of the Nieuport lock. “The vast flood definitively stopped the progress of the German forces, relates General Richoux. It is a very good example of the use of water as a defensive means.”

War crime

Other examples attest to a more offensive use. This is the case with Operation Chastise, launched in 1943 by British forces against three German roadblocks. The aim of the Royal Air Force: to undermine the energy and water resources of the industrial region of the Ruhr. “It was an extremely complex operation which required the creation of special bombs capable of bouncing on the surface of the water”, explains Michel Goya. At the end of the attack, one of the dams gives way, the other two are damaged. Millions of m3 of water flow downstream and cause more than 1,200 deaths, flooding factories, mines and surrounding homes.

“Historically, water is a formidable weapon that has proven to be very deadly, points out General Richoux. Flooding an area is by nature indiscriminate, and therefore does not only have military effects.” The flooding of the Yellow River during the Second Sino-Japanese War is a sad demonstration of this. To counter the rapid advance of Japanese forces towards central China, the Kuomintang caused a flood in 1938, on the orders of Chiang Kai-shek, by blowing up the dikes of the river in the province of Henan.

While the operation significantly disrupted Japanese operations, it came with an exorbitant human cost: between 30,000 and 89,000 civilians drowned in the flood, which extended to three regions, while 500,000 to 900,000 Chinese die as a result of the disaster (disease, famine).

“Today, this practice has been banned by many armies, and is considered a war crime,” recalls General Richoux. In its article 56, the additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, indeed stipulates that “works of art or installations containing dangerous forces, namely dams, dykes and nuclear power stations […]will not be attacked […] when such attacks may cause the release of these forces and, as a result, cause severe casualties among the civilian population.” But since the start of the war in Ukraine, many laws of war have been flouted.

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