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Impact of the Nova Kakhovka dam collapse in Ukraine
03:13 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine is one of the biggest industrial and ecological disasters in Europe for decades. The catastrophe has destroyed entire villages, flooded farmland, deprived tens of thousands of people of power and clean water, and caused massive environmental damage.

It’s still impossible to say whether the dam collapsed because it was deliberately targeted or if the breach could have been caused by structural failure. The dam and hydroelectric power plant are under Russian control and therefore inaccessible to independent investigators, leaving experts around the world trying to piece together what happened based on limited visual evidence.

Several Western officials have blamed Russia for the disaster, either directly accusing Moscow of targeting the dam or saying that Russia is responsible simply because it is the aggressor in the war on Ukraine.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres described the destruction as “another devastating consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” but added that the UN doesn’t have access to information to independently verify the cause.

A NATO military official told CNN that, while it will take some time before they know for certain who was responsible for the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine, they believe Russia was likely behind it. The official added that Russia stood the most to gain by the move, which could potentially slow down an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, if it were to take place in that part of the country.

Satellite images of the Nova Kakhovka dam before its collapse (left, on June 5) and after the disaster (right, on June 7).

A number of civil engineering experts have suggested that an explosion inside the structure is the most likely cause of the dam breach, although it’s not the only possible explanation.

Here are the three main theories on what caused the collapse – and what experts and officials say about each:

Did Russia do it?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, his government and the country’s military were quick to blame Moscow for the disaster. They said Russian forces blew up the reservoir from inside, with Zelensky quoting a report by Ukrainian intelligence last year that claimed occupying troops had mined the dam.

The Ukrainians point out that the facility has been under Russian control for the past year, making it easy for Russian forces to plant explosives.

Social media posts indicate that people in the area heard the sound of explosions around the time the dam was thought to have been damaged.

The wider timing of the incident is not insignificant. While Moscow and Kyiv have previously accused each other of plotting to blow up the Soviet-era dam, this collapse coincided with Ukrainian forces gearing up for their widely expected summer counter-offensive.

The dam spans the Dnipro River, a major waterway that has become a front line in the conflict and the scene of heavy fighting in this part of southern Ukraine. The city of Kherson, which sits on the west bank of the Dnipro river, was liberated by the Ukrainian military in November after eight months of Russian occupation. But much of the east bank of the river south of the Nova Kakhovka dam remains under Russian control.

Ukraine’s forces have increasingly taken the battle to Russia’s entrenched front lines in the south and east, and Kyiv has accused Russia of blowing up the dam “in panic.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to Zelensky, said “the terrorists’ goal is obvious – to create obstacles for the offensive actions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.”

“This once again confirms that the Kremlin is not thinking strategically, but rather in terms of short-term situational advantages. But the consequences are already catastrophic,” he told CNN.

The damage is also affecting the area north of the reservoir, where water levels are falling. The collapse has left 94% of irrigation systems in Kherson, 74% in Zaporizhzhia and 30% in Dnipro regions “without a source of water,” according to the Ukrainian Agricultural Ministry.

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant also lies upst