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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Critical dam destroyed on front line in southern Ukraine

People register for aid after exiting a train carrying evacuees from Kherson, where people were fleeing floodwaters from the Dnieper River, at the train station in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023.

By Haley Willis, Andrew E. Kramer and Victoria Kim

A critical dam along the front line in southern Ukraine was destroyed Tuesday, sending cascades of water pouring through the breach and putting thousands of people downstream at risk. Ukraine and Russia each accused the other of blowing up the dam, which held back a body of water the size of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

As water levels rose south of the dam, residents in the town of Antonivka, about 40 miles downstream, described watching in horror as roiling floodwaters swept past carrying trees and debris from washed-out houses.

Ukrainian emergency crews rushed to evacuate the most vulnerable on the western side of the river, while conservationists warned that a huge and long-lasting environmental disaster was unfolding.

It was more difficult to assess what was happening on the eastern bank of the river south of the dam, which is under Russian control. But more than 40,000 people could be in the path of the flooding on both Ukrainian- and Russian-controlled territory, said the deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine, Viktoriya Lytvynova.

It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the destruction of the Kakhovka dam and electric plant, which lies along the Dnieper River and is held by Russian forces. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy blamed “Russian terrorists,” while the Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said Ukrainian forces carried out a “sabotage” attack.

The disaster came one day after U.S. and Russian officials said a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive might have begun east of the Dnieper in the Donetsk region. Although the dam is far from that fighting, its destruction could divert both sides’ resources from the counteroffensive.

The dam creates a reservoir that supplies water for drinking and agriculture. It also provides water to cool reactors and spent fuel at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, although the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said there was “no immediate nuclear safety risk.” The group said, however, that it was closely monitoring the situation.

Security of the dam, the second largest on the Dnieper, had been a continuing concern during the war, with both sides accusing the other of plotting to destroy it.

Here are other developments:

— Videos and images on social media showed flooding already underway in communities downstream from the Kakhovka dam, and streets filling with rising water. In Nova Kakhovka, the city under Russian control that lies immediately downstream of the dam, the Palace of Culture and administrative center were swamped.

— An energy official said floodwaters across southern Ukraine caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam are expected to continue to rise through Tuesday night and peak Wednesday morning.

— In Mykolaiv, an emergency train collected people fleeing the rising waters in Kherson, about 40 miles to the east. Humanitarian groups were just starting to arrive to provide support for those forced from their homes by flooding.

— Russian officials said the destruction of the dam potentially poses problems for a canal supplying water to Crimea that has for years been a point of geopolitical tension between Ukraine and Russia.

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