As Flooding Subsides, Scale of Kakhovka Dam Disaster Starts Coming Into Focus

Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

The surge of flooding around the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine subsided further on Sunday, leaving authorities grappling with a disaster in which at least 13 people have been killed, at least 29 others are reported missing and dozens of communities lack access to clean water.

Ukraine’s State Emergency Service, local volunteer groups and aid agencies are struggling to respond to the consequences of the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam on Tuesday, which sent a torrent of water from the reservoir upstream coursing into the river basin. Emergency workers also are assessing the long-term environmental impact of the disaster.

The dam collapse has horrified Ukrainians already battered by 15 months of Russian aerial attacks, the torture and deportation of civilians and the occupation of swathes of their country, partly because of the scale of its environmental destruction.

Russian troops controlled the dam, and engineering and munitions experts have said that a deliberate explosion inside the dam probably caused its collapse. American intelligence analysts suspect that Russia was behind the dam’s destruction, but do not have conclusive evidence yet about who was responsible. Moscow’s accusations that the government in Kyiv was responsible for the disaster have been met with scorn in Ukraine.

In its latest update on the toll of the disaster, Ukraine’s internal affairs ministry said that 77 urban settlements in the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions had been flooded and that rescue workers had evacuated more than 3,600 people, many of whom are elderly. Many more residents have fled the area in cars and by rail on their own.

The surge of water through the dam reached a peaked a few days after the explosion and has since started to diminish as water rushes into the Black Sea. On Sunday, Ukraine’s state hydropower company, Ukrhydroenergo, said the water level in the reservoir had dropped by around three feet in the previous 24 hours, and by more than 21 feet in total since the dam collapsed.

The reduction in the water level poses a new risk to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is situated on the reservoir’s eastern bank, is also controlled by Russian forces and uses reservoir water to cool its reactors. But the Ukrainian authorities and the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog say that the threat is contained. It also complicates the military calculations for both sides as a Ukrainian counteroffensive gets underway to retake land in the south and east of the country.

The dam disaster has poisoned water supplies and, over time, it will deplete groundwater levels upstream — creating a long-term problem for a population well beyond those living in the immediate flood zone. It also will affect irrigation that feeds the fertile land in the river’s basin, a rich source of the country’s agricultural exports, and threaten wildlife in a region with several national parks.

“The situation in national parks is critical,” said Ukraine’s environment minister, Ruslan Strilets, in a post on Facebook.

Ukraine controls the territory west of the river, while Russian forces occupy a belt of land to the east, from which they have launched thousands of missile and rocket attacks on the city of Kherson and its surrounding villages in recent months.

On the Russian-held east bank, Vladimir Saldo, the Kremlin-installed governor, saidon Saturday morning that more than 6,000 people had been evacuated from the Russian-held flooded territories, including 235 children. More than 60 people had been hospitalized, he said on Telegram.

The dam disaster also poses potential problems for Crimea, a dry region illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 that relies on a canal fed by the Dnipro River for some of its water supply.

The flooding has “severely disrupted this primary water source,” according to a report issued on Sunday by Britain’s defense intelligence agency.

“The Russian authorities will likely meet the immediate water requirements of the population using reservoirs, water rationing, drilling new wells, and delivering bottled water from Russia,” the report said.

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