Kakhovka dam destruction is a major blow to Ukraine counteroffensive

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DNIPRO, Ukraine — The destruction of a massive dam in southern Ukraine will have severe implications for the war, not only making it harder for Ukrainian troops to advance into Russian-occupied areas, but also threatening drinking water for the region.

The Nova Kakhovka dam, which supplies water to much of southern Ukraine, is in a part of the Kherson region that was seized by Russian forces at the start of the war. Ukrainian officials blamed Russia for an attack, but it was also possible that Ukraine blew up the critical dam to slow Russian troop movements.

The Russians seized the dam in February 2022, a strategic move aimed at disrupting hydroelectrical power in Ukraine and allowing water to flow to the Crimean Peninsula. After Russia occupied and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, Ukraine cut off the water supply flowing from the dam’s reservoir.

Supplying fresh water to Crimea had become a huge burden on Russia’s budget. In 2020, the Kremlin had approved more than $650 million for it.

A dramatic drop in the dam’s reservoir could lead to an ecological disaster and disrupt the cooling of reactors at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, 75 miles to the northeast, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources. The plant is under Russian control.

Live Updates: Nova Kakhovka dam destroyed on front line, causing flooding and evacuations

The flooding Dnieper River is threatening dozens of Ukrainian communities in the low-lying Kherson region, where Kyiv recaptured much of the territory from Russian forces late last year.

Police and emergency teams have rushed to evacuate thousands of villagers by bus and transfer them by train to other cities, where they could take shelter.

Officials at the state agency in Kherson that formerly controlled the dam said explosions had detonated inside its engine room, destroying the power-generating station for the reservoir.

The damage also affected areas on the Russian-controlled east bank of the river. At midmorning, Volodymyr Kovalenko, the mayor of Nova Kakhovka, where the dam was built in 1956, said he had been in contact with residents of the east bank who described flooding in parks and a zoo.

A video posted online from the scene showed water pouring into a park and the zoo while a woman filming it sobbed.

The dam’s destruction has potential advantages for Russia, but it also means that water will be cut off to Crimea, where Moscow has spent huge sums to keep the region supplied with drinking water. It could also flood Russian defensive positions.

“Since the level of water in the reservoir dropped, this channel cannot function,” Kovalenko said, referring to the canal that carries water from the dam to Crimea. He said the channel needed 10 feet of water to operate, and if it drops below that, no water could flow.

Kherson, a largely agricultural region of 1.2 million people before the war, is known for its production of wheat and watermelons and uses water from the dam largely to irrigate fields. The port city of Kherson, where the Dnieper flows toward the Black Sea, is also a major shipbuilding center.

A city resident said the river had already risen by five feet. In the Russian-occupied east bank, “the area is totally covered with water,” Dmytro Fomin, a boat owner who has ferried people across the river for years, said by telephone at 10 a.m.

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