Nova Kakhovka | Water as a weapon

The destruction of the dam on Dnipro has flooded the frontline in southern Ukraine forcing both sides to evacuate thousands of civilians and troops 

June 11, 2023 01:52 am | Updated 05:34 pm IST

The Nova Kakhovka Dam and hydroelectric plant after its collapse, in Nova Kakhovka in Ukraine on June 7, 2023.

The Nova Kakhovka Dam and hydroelectric plant after its collapse, in Nova Kakhovka in Ukraine on June 7, 2023. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The Dnipro River (also called Dnieper), which originates from the Valdai Hills near Smolensk, Russia, flows through Belarus to enter northern Ukraine and joins the Black Sea in the south, is one of the major transborder rivers in Europe. During the Soviet time, a number of reservoirs were built along the river, what came to be known as the Dnipro reservoir cascade, which tamed its currents in the river, prevented flooding in its adjoining settlements, and generated electricity. Nova Kakhovka, Dnipro’s southernmost dam and power plant located in Kherson, was the largest in this chain.

The Russians took over the dam in the initial stage of the invasion, which began on February 24, 2022. Russian troops had crossed Dnipro and took control of Kherson city, the administrative capital of the Kherson Oblast. But in November, Russian troops were forced to leave Kherson and withdraw to the eastern bank of Dnipro in the oblast by a Ukrainian offensive. They continued to keep Nova Kakhovka under their control.

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On June 6, the dam was destroyed, probably by explosives or shelling, causing flooding downstream (in about 600 sq km areas). Both Russia and Ukraine had to evacuate thousands of people, including troops, from the settlements in areas they control.

The dam, whose construction began under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and completed under Nikita Khrushchev, is 30 metres tall and 2.3 km long. The 2,155 sq. Km Kakhovka reservoir holds about 18 cubic km of water, roughly the volume of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the U.S. Canals from the reservoir supply water to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant, the largest nuclear plant in Europe, which is also now in Russia’s control. The dam was in the news last year when its sluice gates were damaged during Ukraine’s offensive in Kherson. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky then said Russian forces were trying to destroy the dam. The Russians blamed Ukraine.

In October, Russia’s Permanent Representative at the UN sent a letter to the Secretary General and the President of the Security Council, saying the “Kiev regime was planning to destroy” the dam. “Ukrainian forces are considering launching sea mines downstream the Dnieper River or a massive missile strike,” Vassily Nebenzia wrote in the letter.

In a December report in the Washington Post, Maj. Gen. Andriy Kovalchuk, who was leading Ukraine’s Kherson offensive, was quoted as saying that his troops had considered flooding Dnipro. The Ukrainians, he said, “even conducted a test strike with a [U.S.-supplied] HIMARS launcher on one of the floodgates at the Nova Kakhovka dam, making three holes in the metal to see if the Dnieper’s water could be raised enough to stymie Russian crossings but not flood nearby villages.”

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Different claims

After Kakhovka was destroyed last week, Mr. Zelensky immediately held Russia responsible for the “terrorist act”. The Kremlin has said Ukrainian shelling has caused the dam’s collapse. Like the bombing of the Nord Stream pipeline, which was built to take Russian gas to Germany and wider Europe through the Baltic Sea, the attack of Kakhovka is also shrouded in mystery. In the case of Nord Stream, which was blown up in September, Russia was initially blamed by both Ukraine and the West. But later, different theories emerged, which put the blame on Kyiv, pro-Ukraine saboteurs or even on Washington. In the case of Kakhovka, the Ukrainian argument is that the dam was destroyed to derail Kyiv’s much-anticipated counteroffensive, which is currently under way. But the focus of the counteroffensive is on Zaporizhzhia where Ukrainians seek to cut into Russian defence lines and destroy Russia’s land bridge to Crimea, not on Kherson. Pro-Russian military analysts point out that if Russia’s goal was to prevent the crossing of Dnipro by Ukrainian forces, Russia could have done that by opening the shutters as they control the dam. Now that the dam is destroyed, Russian fortifications along the western bank were swept away and they had to evacuate their troops, along with civilians. Water supplies to Crimea, which hosts Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, will also take a hit.

Whoever has done it, the destruction of Nova Kakhovka and the power plant has redrawn and the frontline in southern Ukraine, widened the no-go areas between the two sides and displaced thousands of people, mostly in Russia-controlled parts of Kherson. Like in the case of Nord Stream, it may never be established beyond doubt who is the destroyer. But it can be seen in the near future which side benefits more from this act of terror.

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