by Miceál O’Hurley
DNIPRO — Russia’s continuing attacks on civilian infrastructure overnight included the Soviet-era Kakhovka Dam and hydroelectric power generation facility. Unconfirmed videos show significant damage to the Kahovka Dam which spans the Dnieper River in the southern Kherson region of Ukraine raising the fear that Russia has made good on threats made in October 2022 to destroy the run-of-water dam to thwart any Ukrainian attempt to retake the temporarily occupied region. Images of the dam show significant damage to the bridge and water gushing through a wide breach in the dam wall which already sustained significant damage during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The spectre of a catastrophic collapse of the dam is growing.
In a Tweet on his official Twitter page today, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyii wrote:
"The destruction of the [Nova] Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant dam only confirms for the whole world that they must be expelled from every corner of Ukrainian land. Not a single meter should be left to them, because they use every meter for terror.... The terrorists will not be able to stop Ukraine with water, missiles or anything else."
In November 2022 Russian forces that controlled the dam opened the structure’s spillways causing the Kakhovka Retention Reservoir to drop to the lowest levels recorded in over 30-years. As a result of Russian actions agricultural irrigation and drinking water resources were stressed and the nearby Zaporishia Nuclear Power Plant’s cooling systems were reduced to critical levels with reservoir water dropping to only 2-metres from its usual 26-metre level. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Russia’s attacks upon and maladministration of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant threaten to cause the greatest uncontrolled nuclear energy release in a meltdown scenario paralleling the Reactor No. 4 meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 which released 400-times more radiation than the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima in 1945.
By May 2023 Russian mismanagement of the Kakhovka Dam had caused water levels to reach their highest recorded levels ever with water spilling-over the top of the dam. As a result of the significantly increased water levels over the past month experts have opined that the already compromised dam might succumb to catastrophic failure due to the immense pressure of the excess water levels. Analysts have concluded that the rapid increase in water levels resulting in the over-the-top spillage of the dam created an unnecessary risk to civilian infrastructure and downstream settlements and cities for the sole purpose of “weaponising” the dam to thwart an expected Ukrainian offensive to retake southern Ukraine and Crimea.
In a sign Russia has decided it is likely to lose the Kherson Region and Crimea to Ukrainian forces in an offensive to free Ukrainian of Russian occupiers there have been multiple signs Russia has prepared to pursue a “scorched Earth” policy that would irrevocably damage Ukrainian territory from future human settlement and significantly reduce the agricultural capacity and economic livelihood of Ukraine. According to Oleksandr Prokudin, Governor of Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast, Russian plans to damage the Titan chemical plant in Crimea would have widespread environmental and health consequences, “A possible explosion will release thousands of tonnes of toxic substances into the atmosphere, which will pose a deadly threat to people and the environment. Residents of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and at least seven other regions of Ukraine, as well as Türkiye and the aggressor country itself, will suffer.”
In 1941, Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered the KGB to destroy a dam in Zaporizhzhia, ostensibly to stop the advance of Nazi forces. Although no official death-toll was released at the time estimates are that between 50,000-80,000 civilians drowned as the dam’s destruction caused cataclysmic flooding and long-term environmental damage. Likewise in 1938 during the Second Sino-Japanese War (c. World War II) the Chinese National Army breached its Yellow River Dyke near Henan in an attempt to stymie advancing Japanese forces. The calamitous flooding that ensued flooded the Henan, Anhui and Jiangsu provinces leaving more than 580,000 civilians dead and causing more than 5-million people to live in inundated lands throughout the period. The devastation was so great that the Yellow River’s course was diverted until 1947 when the dam was repaired.
In 1977, additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions (1949) were adopted which would make the attack upon or destruction of dams, dykes and nuclear electrical generating stations a “grave breach” and would constitute a war crime(s). Russia’s destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam would constitute a “grave breach” and war crime as was an attack upon a dam and consequently a nuclear electrical generating station, namely the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
Article 56 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I provides: 1. Works and installations containing dangerous forces, namely dams, dykes and nuclear electrical generating stations, shall not be made the object of attack, even where these objects are military objectives, if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population. Other military objectives located at or in the vicinity of these works or installations shall not be made the object of attack if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces from the works or installations and consequent severe losses among the civilian population.
All of Europe, including large swaths of maritime areas and marine habitat, would be severely adversely impacted by a nuclear breach by the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant now under Russian occupational control. If the Kakhovka dam fails the fresh water upon with the reactor cooling systems relies could cause an uncontrolled meltdown.