Gradual engulfment of more than 80 municipalities on the southern banks of the Dnieper, emergency evacuation of the city of Kherson, drying up of the North Crimean Canal, difficulty in cooling the Zaporijia nuclear power plant, ecological disaster… Ukrainian officials identify the potential devastating consequences of the explosion, on the night of Monday June 5 to Tuesday June 6, of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, located in territory occupied by Moscow. At the heart of strategic issues since the start of the war, the damaged infrastructure, which lets torrents of water flow down the Dnieper, was, according to Kiev, dynamited by Russian forces.
“Around 2 a.m. there were a number of repeated strikes on the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station which destroyed its valves. As a result, water from the Kakhovka reservoir began flowing downstream uncontrollably,” said, according to the Russian news agency Tass, Vladimir Leontiev, mayor of the town closest to the dam, Nova Kakhovka. Oleksandr Prokudin, head of the Kherson regional military administration, meanwhile announced in a video posted on Telegram shortly before 7 a.m. that “the Russian army [avait] committed a new act of terror” and warned that the water would reach “critical levels” within five hours. The Ukrainian government called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Tuesday morning. “Russia is at war against life, against nature, against civilization”, reacted, for his part, on Telegram, President Volodymyr Zelensky, who accuses the Russians of having “mined” the dam before “exploding” it. .
One of the largest hydroelectric dams in the country
The dam is located on the Dnieper River, upstream from Kherson. Constructed of concrete and earth, the structure is 16 meters high and 3,850 meters long. It retains more than 18 million cubic meters of water in the artificial Kakhovka reservoir, which is 240 kilometers long and 23 kilometers wide in places. It is one of the largest infrastructures of this type in Ukraine. It also has a hydroelectric plant – with a capacity of 334 megawatts, according to the operating company, Ukrhydroenergo –, and a road bridge, now destroyed.
Built in 1956, during the Soviet period, the purpose of the dam was both to regulate the course of the river on its last, much narrower stretch, and to send water into the North Crimean Canal, whose adduction is sheltered by the structure. Currently, millions of cubic meters flow from the lake and the southern part of the Dnieper, on the banks of which dozens of villages are built. On both sides of the river, these could be engulfed by the gradual rise in water. According to local authorities installed by Moscow, the water had risen from 2 to 4 meters a few hours after the explosion.
24 villages already flooded, 80 threatened
In October 2022, Volodymyr Zelensky was already warning about the chain disasters that the damage to this infrastructure would cause. “More than 80 localities, including Kherson, would find themselves in a zone of rapid flooding, he affirmed then, and [si le canal de Crimée du Nord, zone occupée par Moscou depuis 2014, n’était plus alimenté] this could destroy the water supply to much of southern Ukraine.” According to Ukrainian Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko, 24 villages were already flooded around 1 p.m. By 5 p.m., authorities were proceeding with the evacuation of around 17,000 people in the localities concerned and in Kherson, announced the Ukrainian prosecutor general, Andriy Kostine, specifying that in the long term “more than 40,000 people [risquaient] to be in flooded areas”.
According to estimates by the Swedish site Cornucopia, published in October 2022, modeling the worst-case scenario in the event of a breach in the dam, it would take around nineteen hours for the water to reach Kherson. “If Kherson is on the highest bank, some neighborhoods are completely flood-prone, even if, close to the river, they were probably almost exclusively occupied by Ukrainian soldiers”, points out the historian and consultant in international risks. Stephane Audrand on Twitter. On Telegram, the railway company Ukrzaliznytsia announced to increase the traffic of its trains to speed up evacuations and that the first train from Kherson was scheduled for 12 p.m. (11 a.m. in Paris). “Additional evacuation trains will be scheduled if necessary,” she added.
The security of the Zaporizhia power plant threatened?
The dam, which held back more than 18 million cubic meters of water, also allows the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, located 150 kilometers upstream, in the “energy capital of Ukraine”, Enerhodar, to supply itself with cooling water. As the water level drops in the Kakhovka reservoir, the Ukrainian government is very alarmist on the subject. “The world is once again on the brink of nuclear catastrophe. [car la centrale nucléaire la plus grande d’Europe] has lost its cooling source [et le] danger is now increasing rapidly,” said Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoliak.
But the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is tempered. On Twitter, she said her experts are “monitoring[aient] closely the situation [après avoir pris connaissance] reports of the damage”, and announced that there was for the moment “no immediate risk for the nuclear safety of the plant”. An opinion shared by the nuclear risk specialist Stéphane Audrand, who explains that ” the slices [étant] in hot/cold shutdown, the water requirements are low to ensure the residual cooling of the fuel in the cores and in the storage”. On the other hand, the explosion “will complicate the possible restarting of the Zaporijia nuclear power plant, which represented before the war 6,000 megawatts of installed power and 23% of Ukraine’s electricity production”.
Ecological and health disaster
The banks of the southern part of the Dnieper are also home to green nature. Many voices in Ukraine today denounce the “ecological disaster” which adds to the war crimes. According to Mykhaïlo Podoliak, senior adviser to President Zelensky, “a global ecological disaster is now playing out […]. Thousands of animals and ecosystems will be destroyed in the next few hours.” Videos posted online show beavers rushing to the heights to flee rising waters.
After the plant explosion, “150 tons of engine oil” spilled into the Dnieper River, Ukrainian officials said, warning of an environmental risk. In a statement, kyiv then quantified the “risk of additional leakage [à] more than 300 tons”, denouncing an “ecocide”. “The attacks on the environment are particularly worrying”, for his part declared the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kouleba.
Beyond the evacuations, which should prevent the flood from causing victims, the explosion of the dam could cause health problems in the flooded areas, according to Stéphane Audrand. “In regions in medical tension, the bulk of civilian losses are caused by insalubrity and diseases (typhus, dysentery, etc.) which come, especially in the hot season, with floods”, he recalls.
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