A major dam in Russian-occupied southern Ukraine was destroyed early Tuesday, prompting mass evacuations and fears for large-scale devastation as Ukraine accused Moscow’s forces of committing an act of “ecocide.”
Residents downstream from the Nova Kakhova dam on the Dnipro River in Kherson were told to “do everything you can to save your life,” according to the head of Ukraine’s Kherson region military administration, as video showed a deluge of water gushing from a huge breach in the dam.
Two videos posted to social media and geolocated by CNN showed the destroyed dam wall and fast-moving torrents of water flowing out into the river. Multiple buildings at the entrance to the dam were also heavily damaged.
The critical Nova Kakhova dam spans the Dnipro River, a major waterway running through southeastern Ukraine and there are multiple towns and cities downstream, including Kherson, a city of some 300,000 people before Moscow’s invasion of its neighbor.
Ukraine’s Operational Command South on Tuesday confirmed the dam’s destruction in a post on its official Facebook page, saying they were assessing the scale of the damage and calculating likely areas of flooding.
Following the dam breach, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said its destruction “only confirms for the whole world” that Russian forces “must be expelled from every corner of Ukrainian land.”
He also convened an emergency meeting of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine.
Other senior Ukrainian officials blamed Russia.
“This is ecocide,” Andriy Yermak, the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said of the dam’s destruction.
“The Russians will be responsible for the possible deprivation of drinking water for people in the south of Kherson region and in Crimea, the possible destruction of some settlements and the biosphere,” he added.
In a video statement posted on Telegram, Oleksandr Prokudin, the Ukraine-appointed head of the Kherson region military administration, said the water “will reach critical level in five hours.”
“The Russian Army has committed another act of terror. It has blown up Kakhovka Hydro Power Plant… Evacuation in the area of danger has started,” he said.
Prokudin said evacuations in the “area of danger” around the dam had started and asked citizens to “collect your documents and most needed belongings and wait for evacuation buses.”
“I ask you to do everything you can to save your life. Leave the dangerous areas immediately,” he added.
Units of Ukraine’s National Police and the state emergency service of the Kherson region have been put on alert to warn and evacuate civilians from potential flood zones, Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said.
Those zones are on the west bank of the Dnipro River, including “the villages of Mykolaivka, Olhivka, Liovo, Tiahynka, Poniativka, Ivanivka, Tokarivka, Poniativka, Prydniprovske, Sadove, and part of the city of Kherson – Korabel Island,” the ministry said.
With the water level rising, authorities urged everyone in the flood zone to turn off all electrical appliances, take documents and essentials, take care of loved ones and pets, and follow the instructions of rescuers and police.
The Russian-installed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, Vladimir Leontiev, initially on Tuesday denied information about the dam collapsing in an interview with Russian state media RIA Novosti, calling it “nonsense.”
He later confirmed the destruction of parts of the dam in what he called “a serious terrorist act” but said there was “no need to evacuate.”
“Overnight strikes on the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant destroyed gate valves, causing water to be spilled downstream uncontrollably,” Leontyev said.
CNN was not immediately able to verify the claims made by Ukrainian and Russian officials attributing blame.
Throughout the course of the war in Ukraine both Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of plotting to blow up the Soviet-era dam.
The escaping torrent of water has the potential to cause major destruction around Kherson city and other populated areas along the Dnipro River, according to analysts who have been fearing a breach could occur in the fighting.
And President Zelensky had previously warned that a breach of the dam could have catastrophic consequences for those living downstream.
“Destroying the dam would mean a large-scale disaster,” he said in October last year.
However, a Russian-installed Kherson official Andrey Alekseenko said the situation along the areas of the banks of Dnipro was “under control.”
“There is no threat to people’s lives,” Alekseenko said, adding that Ministry of Emergency Situation staff are in control of water levels in the river.
“If necessary, we are ready to evacuate the residents of embankment villages, buses are prepared,” Alekseenko added.
The dam is a critical piece of infrastructure, holding around 18 cubic kilometers in the Kakhovka Reservoir, about equal to the Great Salt Lake in the US state of Utah, according to Reuters news agency.
The 30-meter-high, 3.2-kilometer (2 miles)-long structure is one of six dams along the Dnipro and supplies water for much of southeastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
It also supplies water for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which lies upstream and is also under Russian control.
On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern command said the dam’s destruction will “certainly” affect the operation of the nuclear power plant but there was “no need to escalate the situation now and draw the most critical conclusions.”
“Because all experts are involved and will try to create better conditions to avoid the next technogenic catastrophe,” said Natalia Humeniuk, adding that “the situation is currently under control.”
And the International Atomic Energy agency said “no immediate nuclear safety risk” exists at the Zaporizhzhia plant and their experts are “closely monitoring the situation.”
In November, the Nova Kakhovka dam was damaged in shelling and satellite images from Maxar Technologies obtained by CNN showed water flowing out of three sluice gates at the dam.