The Nova Kakhovka Dam Collapse
Anna Kane evaluates the arguments for what caused the catastrophic dam collapse in Southern Ukraine.
The Nova Kakhovka Dam incident has been a point of global contention. On the 6th of June, the dam and hydroelectric power station located in Southern Ukraine collapsed, resulting in extreme flooding and the evacuation of 80 impacted communities. The damage caused will clearly have long-term environmental and human impacts in South Ukraine and Russian-annexed Crimea.
The area of the dam was and is under Russian occupation, meaning that independent investigators have been barred access. So, without conclusive proof, the rest of the world is left to ponder: what caused this catastrophic incident?
Ukraine is accusing Russia of blowing the power station up from the inside, Russia counter that the collapse was the result of Ukrainian shelling, and some believe the disaster owes itself to unintended structural damage. I shall explore these three lines of argument and assess their validity.
The more pacifistic angle seems to be the one in which the dam’s structural integrity is called into question. The argument is that since the dam came under Russian occupation during the invasion, it has not been maintained as well as it should have been. There is also evidence that the road above the dam had endured damage days before the collapse and sections of the dam itself had been impacted during November war explosions. Water levels were also at a high the previous month.
However, if the root cause of the collapse was down to structural issues, then the timing is very coincidental, for Ukraine has only recently commenced its summer counter-offensive. Additionally, there are reports on social media of nearby residents hearing explosions around the time it is thought that the dam became damaged. A professional in the dams and reservoirs industry, Craig Goff, has also commented on the proposal that the dam collapsed due to maintenance issues, suggesting that this is unlikely. What we know for certain is that neither Zelensky nor Putin deems structural damage to be the cause of the collapse.
Russia claims that Ukraine is responsible for the incident, and that the dam collapsed after being struck by Ukrainian shells. Journalist Emma Graham-Harrison has pointed out that the flooding provided some military advantages to the Ukrainians, despite water destroying their outposts in Dnipro. This is because the flooding also has negative impacts on the Russian military effort by forcing retreats and destroying weaponry.
Graham-Harrison also suggests that the Ukrainian military would fare well in swampy conditions brought about by flooding. Dmitry Peskov makes the interesting point that the collapse has deprived Crimea (an annexed Russian territory since 2014) of water.
However, both Goff and Chris Binnie (another UK Dams and Reservoirs professional), undermine Russia’s claims that Ukraine shelled the dam for they claim that succeeding in this endeavour would be extremely difficult.
Furthermore, it is beyond question that the long-term impacts will be disastrous for the Ukrainian economy and wildlife – the incident has been termed the ‘new Chernobyl’ for a reason. Ukraine is globally renowned for its farming capacities and it will suffer in this sector due to the flooding. The plant also provided electricity which will now also be limited. The idea that Ukraine would be willing to take on these hardships for the sake of temporarily injuring Russian resistance to the counter-offensive is dubious.
The incident has been termed the ‘new Chernobyl’.
Finally, we have the Ukrainian stance that Russia is undoubtedly to blame for the dam’s collapse and that the incident was a deliberate reaction to the summer counter-offensive. Ukraine believes that Russia may have been trying to pre-empt a feared Ukrainian advance on the east bank of Kherson Oblast.
Particularly damning is the fact that the Russians had already threatened to destroy the dam back in Autumn last year. Zelensky accuses the Russians of planting explosives, which the Russians could easily do whilst the dam was under their control.
Though there are sound arguments for the collapse of the dam being due to structural issues, or Ukrainian shelling (the latter argument made strongest by its point on Crimea), there is overwhelming evidence to conclude that Russia is responsible, and its recent history is certainly not doing it any favours.
There is overwhelming evidence to conclude that Russia is responsible.
Going forward, we can only hope that the residents of flooded areas are able to relocate swiftly and establish a sense of stability. From the conclusions I have reached, this incident provides a dark message for the future of the war. We may well see Russia use more covert and environmentally destructive measures in its efforts to defeat the Ukrainian counter-offensive.