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President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed that the loss of the Nova Kakhovka Ukraine dam, which he blamed on Russia, might flood 80 towns and villages.
Water is rushing down the Dnipro River, threatening the city of Kherson with severe floods.
Russia has denied destroying the dam, which it owns, blaming Ukrainian bombardment instead.
The BBC has not confirmed either Ukraine’s or Russia’s assertion.
The Kakhovka dam, which is located downstream from the massive Kakhovka reservoir, is critical to the region.
It supplies water to farmers, inhabitants, and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power facility. It is also a major sea route south to Russian-occupied Crimea.
The administrator of Ukraine’s state-owned hydropower facilities, Ukrhydroenergo, has warned that the peak of a water spill downstream from the emptying reservoir is likely on Wednesday morning.
This would be followed by a period of “stabilisation,” with the water projected to decrease swiftly in four to five days.
Concerns have been raised concerning Europe’s largest nuclear power station, Zaporizhzhia, which uses reservoir water for cooling.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the situation is under control and there is “no immediate nuclear safety risk” for the plant.
A torrent of floodwater is seen rushing through a break in the dam in video footage. Several towns have already been flooded, and residents in downstream areas have been forced to flee by bus and train.
According to Deputy Prosecutor-General Viktoriya Lytvynova, 40,000 people must be evacuated – 17,000 in the Ukraine-controlled area west of the Dnipro River and 25,000 in Russian-controlled territory east of the Dnipro.
Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko stated on Ukrainian television that over 1,000 people had been evacuated and 24 communities had been flooded.
He accused Russia of shelling Kherson’s southern district, from which residents were being evacuated, and warned of the dangers presented by mines exposed by rising water levels Ukraine dam.
Andriy, a local who lives near the dam, which was seized by Russian soldiers immediately after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, believes Russia intends to “drown” his community.
“We’re afraid of flooding,” said Lyudmyla, who was packing her things, including a washing machine, onto a caravan attached to an old car in the Ukraine-controlled city of Kherson. “We’re taking things a step higher.”
She demanded that Russian troops be “kicked out of here… they’re shooting at us.” They are either drowning us or doing something else.”
Serhiy, another city resident, expressed concern that “everything is going to die here.”
“All living creatures and people will be flooded out,” he said, motioning to neighbouring homes and gardens.
Vladimir Leontyev, the Moscow-installed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, said the city was submerged and 900 people had been evacuated.
Authorities, he added, had dispatched 53 evacuation buses to transport residents from the city and two other surrounding communities to safety.
Water levels at Ukraine dam had risen to about 11m (36ft), he said, and some residents had been evacuated to the hospital.
According to Kremlin-appointed officials, the little village of Oleshky was also seriously flooded.
The Kazkova Dibrova zoo on the Russian-controlled riverside had been entirely inundated, and all 300 animals had died, according to a Facebook post.
The cause of the Ukraine dam rupture in the early hours of Tuesday is unknown, but Ukraine’s military intelligence has accused Russia of purposefully blowing it up.
This appears possible, as Moscow may have worried that Ukrainian forces would utilise the route over the dam as part of their counter-offensive into Russian-held territory.
The dam posed an obvious difficulty for Russia, which was eager to defend seized territory in southern Ukraine.
Just as Ukrainian forces successfully assaulted road and rail crossings lower downstream last autumn in an attempt to isolate Russian forces in and around Kherson, Russia may have decided to demolish the dam to stall Ukraine’s counter-offensive, which it thinks will come from several sources.
A Russian official, however, alleges Ukraine carried out the dam strike to distract from the shortcomings of its counter-offensive and to deprive Crimea – Ukraine’s southern peninsula illegally taken by Russia in 2014 – of fresh water.
A significant Ukrainian surge has long been anticipated. Kyiv has stated that it will not provide early notice of its launch, but a recent spike in military activity is being seen as a new hint that the counter-offensive has begun.
President Zelensky stated on Tuesday evening that the dam disaster will not deter Ukraine. “We will still liberate all of our land,” he stated on camera.
Mr Zelensky had called an emergency meeting of the country’s security and defence council earlier in the day.
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, claimed on Monday that Ukrainian soldiers had advanced near the “epicentre of hostilities” in Bakhmut, but she did not clarify whether the counter-offensive had begun.
Bakhmut has been at the centre of fierce conflict for months. It has minimal military significance, but it is significant symbolically for both Kyiv and Moscow.
Ukraine dam: Ukraine’s defence minister Comment
According to Yuri Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defence ministry, phone intercepts indicate that Russia aims to strike other dams.
“They’re actually calling for more Ukraine dams on the Dnipro,” he explained.
Ukraine has called the dam attack “ecocide” and said that 150 tonnes of engine oil have flowed into the Dnipro River.
According to Ukrhydroenergo, a power station connected to the Ukraine dam was “completely destroyed… the hydraulic structure is being washed away.”
The blast has been blamed on Russia by world leaders, with some calling it a war crime.
If Russia is discovered to be involved for the dam’s collapse, it will “demonstrate the new lows that we will have seen from Russian aggression,” according to UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the dam’s destruction underlined the savagery of Russia’s conflict in Ukraine, while European Council President Charles Michel said he was “shocked by the unprecedented attack.”
Because of the threat it poses to civilians, the Geneva Conventions expressly prohibit striking dams in war.