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Damage to Russian-occupied dam overwhelms Ukrainian reservoir island community

LYSOHIRKA, Ukraine — The rising waters were initially a relief, both for the small community living on the southern islands of the Kakhovka Reservoir and for all those who feared the low levels could risk a collapse at the nearby nuclear power plant occupied by Russia.

Since mid-February, the water level in the reservoir has been steadily rising, according to data from Theia, a French geospatial analysis organization. An analysis of Associated Press satellite images showed the water has now risen so high it is overflowing downstream of the damaged Russian-occupied dam.

The waves first covered the natural shore, then overwhelmed the marsh grasses. Then they came to the garden of Lyudmila Kulachok, then the guest room of Ihor Medyunov. Wild boars flee to the heights, replaced by aquatic birds. Medyunov’s four dogs have a shrinking patch of grass to roam, and Kulachok serves meals on a picnic table wading through the darkness in waders.

Ukraine controls five of the six dams along the Dnipro River, which stretches from its northern border with Belarus to the Black Sea and is crucial for the supply of drinking water and electricity to the whole country. The last dam – the one furthest downstream in the Kherson region – is controlled by Russian forces.

All of Ukraine’s snowmelt and runoff from rainy spring days ends up here in the Kakhovka Reservoir, said David Helms, a retired meteorologist who monitored reservoir levels during the war. Russian forces blew the valves of the Nova Kakhovka dam last November during the Ukrainian counteroffensive, although they eventually retained control of this part of the Kherson region.

Now, deliberately or negligently, the doors remain closed.

River dams work as systems. The idea is to manage flow to provide consistent water levels that make both ships on the water and buildings on land safe, Helms said. This is done mechanically with a combination of sluices, turbines and gates – and constant communication between the operators of the individual dams.

Because the locks are closed, the water rises above the dam, but nowhere near as fast as the waters flow down the Dnipro. So there is little relief in sight for the handful of people left on the islands. The small community was mostly made up of second homes, but became more permanent with the onset of the war, when people sought safety in its isolation.

Their contact with the outside world is now limited to a few food deliveries each week by Ukrainian police boat, as the reservoir is off-limits to any unofficial craft to protect against sabotage of the basin which provides around 40% of the water. drinking from Ukraine. .

They listen to the sound of artillery and rocket fire. They darkly joke about needing a mask and snorkel for shelter in the basement.

“Here, there was onion, garlic, green vegetables. There were peaches, apricots. Everything died,” Kulachok said, standing knee-deep in the water in his vegetable garden. “At first, I cried. But now I understand that my tears are useless.

Fish is about the only thing plentiful on the island right now. She caught two swimming in the kitchen as she made the traditional borscht soup with pieces of chicken delivered by police earlier in the week.

“It’s a war. Many people lose things in their lives. And then I thank God that all my relatives are alive, ”she said. She said her son is a soldier in the city east of Bakhmut, the epicenter of the battle against Russia. I don’t know how to show it to him. He’ll say, “My God, how many years have we worked just to get to this point?”

In early February, water levels were so low that many across Ukraine and beyond feared a meltdown at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, whose cooling systems are supplied with water from the reservoir. Spring rains came early and heavy, then combined with melting snow.

“The Russians just aren’t actively managing and balancing the water flow,” Helms said. He compared it to a bucket with a small hole that is now filled by a fire hose. Eventually, water splashes over it “almost as if the emergency circuit breaker had been hit”.

Satellite images from May 15 showed water pouring over the damaged valves, just as Helms described.

All this is invisible and yet obvious to Ihor Medyunov, whose yard is now a small patch of swampy grass. Even the neighbors who came to the island to escape war have decided that the prospect of missiles is better than endless flooding.

Helms said water levels are expected to drop slowly during the summer dry season. But that seems a distant future for Medyunov, whose job as a hunting guide ended with the war.

“Now there is nowhere to go,” he said. “We will wait for a better time to rebuild, to repair. It’s really painful. »


Evgeniy Maloletka in Lysohirka, Ukraine, and Michael Biesecker in Washington contributed.

ABC News

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