Ukrainian Dam Breach: What Is Happening and What’s at Stake 

Streets are flooded in Kherson, Ukraine, Wednesday, June 7, 2023 after the walls of the Kakhovka dam collapsed. (AP)
Streets are flooded in Kherson, Ukraine, Wednesday, June 7, 2023 after the walls of the Kakhovka dam collapsed. (AP)

Ukrainian Dam Breach: What Is Happening and What’s at Stake 

Streets are flooded in Kherson, Ukraine, Wednesday, June 7, 2023 after the walls of the Kakhovka dam collapsed. (AP)
Streets are flooded in Kherson, Ukraine, Wednesday, June 7, 2023 after the walls of the Kakhovka dam collapsed. (AP)

The fallout from the breach of a river dam along a frontline of Russia's war in Ukraine continued to wreak havoc on lives, livelihoods and the environment on Wednesday.

The dramatic rupture of the Kakhovka dam that upheld Ukraine's largest reservoir began releasing a torrent of water a day earlier in areas where tens of thousands of people live along the Dnieper River. The river's southernmost portion has become a makeshift dividing line between the fighting sides.

It's not clear what caused the breach on the dam, which was already damaged in the war. Ukraine accused Russian forces of blowing up the facility, while Russian officials blamed Ukrainian military strikes.

What are the latest developments?

Authorities and rescue workers on both sides stepped up efforts Wednesday to pull beleaguered residents to higher and drier ground, a day after torrential flooding from the dam breach inundated their homes, villages and cities.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on Telegram that hundreds of thousands of people were without normal access to drinking water.

The Russia-appointed mayor of the occupied city of Nova Kakhovka, Vladimir Leontyev, said seven people were missing. The city sits near the dam.

In Ukrainian-controlled areas on the western side, Oleksandr Prokudin, the head of Kherson Regional Military administration, said water levels were expected to rise by another meter (about 3 feet) over the next 20 hours.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday that at least 16,000 people have already lost their homes, and the UN’s humanitarian aid coordinator said efforts are underway to provide water, money, and legal and emotional support to those affected.

The head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, tweeted about “concerning developments” in the wake of the dam breach and said he will travel next week to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which sits upstream. IAEA said Tuesday there was “no immediate risk" to the safety of the plant,” whose six reactors have been shut down for months but still need water for cooling.

Why is the dam important?

The 30-meter-high (98-foot-high) dam and associated hydroelectric power station are located about 70 kilometers (44 miles) east of the city of Kherson — a flashpoint of the conflict in a region that Russia has claimed to have annexed but does not fully control.

Together with the power station, the dam helps provide electricity, irrigation and drinking water to a wide swath of southern Ukraine, including the Crimean Peninsula, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.

Ukraine's vast agricultural heartland, which is partially fed by the Dnieper river, is crucial to worldwide supplies of grain, sunflower oil and other foodstuffs. Global wheat and corn prices rose Tuesday on concerns that production might be disrupted.

The dam — one of the world's biggest in terms of reservoir capacity — retained a volume of water nearly equivalent to that of the Great Salt Lake in the United States.

What has happened to the dam during the war?

Russia has controlled the dam since the early days of the war, and Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of shelling it. Ukraine said the troops occupying it detonated explosives last fall that damaged three sluice gates, which help regulate water levels. Signs of damage to the gates were evident in late May.

Even before the devastation wrought by Tuesday’s breach, hydropower generation was at a fraction of peak levels. Ukrainian officials and independent experts say Russian forces have failed to maintain the dam — built in the 1950s — either deliberately or through neglect.

Earlier this year, water levels in the reservoir were so low that many across Ukraine and beyond feared a meltdown at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Since mid-February, the water level has steadily increased, according to data from Theia, a French provider of geospatial analysis.

The Ukrainian company that manages the dam and power plant estimates that it will take about four days for the reservoir to reach equilibrium and stop discharging massive amounts of water.

Who and what is at risk?

As floodwaters swelled, both Russian and Ukrainian authorities ordered evacuations from among at least 80 towns and villages at risk on both sides of the river, though neither side reported any deaths.

Officials said about 22,000 people live in areas at risk of flooding in Russian-controlled areas, while 16,000 live in the most critical zone in Ukrainian-held territory.

Ukraine’s Energy Ministry said there is a risk of flooding at energy facilities in the Kherson region. Nearly 12,000 customers in the city of Kherson have already been left without electricity, and water supplies are also at risk.

Experts warned about the possibility of an environmental disaster for wildlife and ecosystems — in Ukraine and beyond.

The biggest impact of the breach is likely to be upstream, said Mark Mulligan, a professor of physical and environmental geography at King’s College London and co-leader of the Global Dam Watch, a project that monitors dams and reservoirs.

“This huge reservoir is going to drain down and the shallows upstream are going to dry out,” causing ecological damage to aquatic vegetation and wildlife that have relied on the water for seven decades, he said. The rapid flow of freshwater into the Black Sea could also damage fisheries and the wider ecology of the northwest part of the sea.

What does it mean for the war?

Ukrainian officials said the Russians destroyed the dam to prevent Ukraine from launching a counteroffensive in the area, while Russian officials claimed that Ukraine destroyed the dam to prevent a potential Russian attack on the western bank.

Either way, the destruction of the dam severs a key crossing of the country's most important river. The dam served as a bridge, enabling vehicles to pass over; its destruction also unleashed torrents of water, making it harder to cross the river by other means.

Since last fall, the lower portion of the Dnieper has made up an important part of the front line that stretches more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles).

The crossing repeatedly came under rocket fire as Ukrainian forces led a successful counteroffensive in November that drove Russian forces back across the Dnieper.

Ukraine's military has used groups of scouts to try to gain control of small islands near the Russia-controlled eastern bank and areas in the river’s delta. But experts say a broader offensive would involve major risks and logistical challenges.

Crossing the wide river was always seen as a daunting task for the Ukrainian military. Most observers expected it to launch a counteroffensive elsewhere.

Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said that the flooding would make crossing the river even more difficult, noting that it would impact the minefields on the Russia-controlled eastern bank. “Minefields were flooded, mines will be washed off and no one knows where they will surface,” he said.

For Palestinian Athletes, the Olympics is About More than Sports

Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)

For Palestinian Athletes, the Olympics is About More than Sports

Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)

Most of the athletes representing the Palestinian territories at the Paris Olympics were born elsewhere — Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Germany, Chile and the United States — yet they care deeply about the politics of their parents’ and grandparents’ homeland.

They are eager to compete but say their presence at the Games isn’t only, or even primarily, about sports. With Israel and Hamas locked in a brutal war that has killed tens of thousands in Gaza, these eight athletes — two of whom hail from the West Bank — carry heavier burdens.

Yazan Al Bawwab, a 24-year-old swimmer who was born in Saudi Arabia and lives in Dubai, said he doesn't expect recognition for his performance in the pool. He uses swimming, he said, as a "tool for Palestine.”

“Unfortunately, nobody has ever asked me about my races. Nobody cares,” said al Bawwab, whose parents come from Jerusalem and Lod, a city that today is in central Israel. “I’m going to be plain and honest: France does not recognize Palestine as a country. But I’m over there, raising my flag. That’s my role.”

Omar Ismail, who was born in Dubai to parents who come from the West Bank town of Jenin, has loftier athletic ambitions. Shortly after earning his spot on the team at a taekwondo qualification tournament in China, the 18-year-old said he aims to win a gold medal in Paris.

But even if he does not earn a medal, Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself, The AP reported.

“I represent the identity of the people in Palestine, their steadfastness,” Ismail said. “I’d like to inspire the children of Palestine, show them that each of them can achieve their goals, give them hope.”

Even under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to maintain a vibrant Olympics training program in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Nine months of war between Israel and Hamas has made that challenge next to impossible.

Much of the country’s sporting infrastructure, clubs and institutions have been demolished, said Nader Jayousi, the technical director at the Palestine Olympic Committee.

“Do you know how many approved pools there are in Palestine? Zero,” said al Bawaab, who noted that the Palestinian economy is too small and fragile to consistently support the development of elite athletes. “There is no sports in Palestine. We are a country right now that does not have enough food or shelter, and we are trying to figure out how to stay alive. We are not a sports country yet.”

The Palestinian diaspora has always played an important role at the Olympics and other international competitions, Jayousi said.

Jayousi said it’s not the first time that most of the athletes representing the POC come from abroad. He said the Palestinian diaspora is always represented at any big international sporting competition and Olympics.

More than 38,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war between Israel and Hamas began, according to local health officials. Among those who died were about 300 athletes, referees, coaches and others working in Gaza's sports sector, according to Jayousi.

Perhaps the most prominent Palestinian athlete to die in the war was long-distance runner Majed Abu Maraheel, who in 1996 in Atlanta became the first Palestinian to compete in the Olympics. He died of kidney failure earlier this year after he was unable to be treated in Gaza and could not be evacuated to Egypt, Palestinian officials said.

Only one Palestinian athlete, Ismail, qualified for the Paris Games in his own right. The seven others gained their spots under a wild-card system delivered as part of the universality quota places.. Backed by the International Olympic Committee, it allows athletes who represent poorer nations with less-established sports programs to compete, even though they did not meet the sporting criteria.

“We had very high hopes that we would go to Paris 2024 with qualified athletes,” Jayousi, the team's technical director, said. “We lost lots of these chances because of the complete stoppage of every single activity in the country.”

Palestinian athletes will compete in boxing, judo, swimming, shooting, track and field and taekwondo.

There is a chance Palestinian athletes could compete against Israelis in Paris. The Israel Olympic Committee said it is sending 88 athletes to Paris, and that they would compete against athletes from anywhere.

Jayousi declined to say whether clear guidelines have been issued to Palestinian athletes about whether they would be expected — as a form of protest against the war in Gaza — to drop out of competition rather than face Israelis.

“Let's see what the draws will put our athletes against," he said. “We know what we want to do, but we don't have to say everything that we want to do.”

One Olympic hopeful who did not make the cut was Gaza-born weightlifter Mohammed Hamada, a flag bearer at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. When the war began, Hamada moved to Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah and trained there for 25 days. But because of the shortage of food, Hamada — who competed in the 102 kilograms (225 pounds) weight class — gradually lost about 18 kilograms (40 pounds).

Hamada eventually secured a visa to leave Gaza and moved to Qatar to continue his training. But, Jayousi said, he just couldn't get his body back to Olympic-level condition.

Jayousi said winning medals is not the top priority for the athletes who made it to Paris. (No Palestinian athlete has ever won an Olympic medal).

“We are going here to show our Palestinianism,” he said. “We are focused on fighting until the last second, which we have been doing as a nation for the last 80 years.”

Al Bawaab said he wants to empower the next generation of Palestinian athletes, in part by providing them with greater financial resources. He founded the Palestinian Olympians Association to help athletes prepare for sports and life beyond, including by providing them with mental-health support.

"We don’t have that sports culture yet,” al Bawaab said. “When I’m done swimming, we’ll hopefully get that rolling in the country. But you have to be safe first.”