Damage to the Russian-occupied dam undermined the community of the Ukrainian reservoir island
LYSOHIRKA, Ukraine — The rising water was at first a relief both for the small community living on the islands of the southern Kahovka Reservoir and for everyone who feared that the low water level risked the collapse of the nearby Russian-occupied nuclear power plant.
According to data from the French GIS analysis organization Theia, the reservoir’s water level has been rising continuously since mid-February. An Associated Press analysis of satellite images showed that the water had already risen high enough to wash over the top of the damaged Russian-occupied dam downstream.
The waves first covered the natural shoreline and then submerged the marsh grasses. Then they came to Lyudmila Kulacsok’s garden and then to Ihor Medjunov’s guest room. The wild boars fled to higher ground, and were replaced by waterfowl. Medjunov’s four dogs are allowed to roam around on the smaller and smaller grassy area, and Kulacsok serves food on a picnic table, hidden by the waders.
Ukraine controls five of the six dams along the Dnipro River, which runs from Belarus’s northern border to the Black Sea and is crucial for the entire country’s drinking water and electricity supply. The last dam – located upstream in the Kherson region – is under the control of Russian forces.
All of Ukraine’s snowmelt and runoff from rainy spring days is winding up here in the Kahovka Reservoir, said David Helms, a retired meteorologist who monitored reservoir levels during the war. Russian forces blew up the floodgates of the Nova Kahovka dam during the Ukrainian counterattack last November, although this slice of the Kherson region was ultimately retained.
Now, whether on purpose or through negligence, the gates remain closed.
Dams work as a system. The idea is to regulate the flow to provide a constant water level that anchors both ships on the water and buildings on land, Helms said. This is done mechanically, using a combination of locks, turbines and sluices – and constant communication between the operators of each dam.
Because the sluices are closed, the water rushes over the top of the dam, but not nearly as fast as the Dnieper. So there is little visible relief for the handful of people left on the islands. The small community consisted primarily of second homes, but became permanent with the start of the war as people sought safety in isolation.
Their contact with the outside world is now limited to a few food deliveries a week by a Ukrainian police boat, as all unofficial watercraft are prohibited in the reservoir to protect against sabotage of the basin, which supplies about 40% of Ukraine’s drinking water. .
They listen to the sound of artillery and rocket fire. They joke darkly about needing masks and snorkels to take cover in the basement.
“There were onions, garlic and greens here. There were peaches and apricots. Everything is dead, Kulacsok said, standing knee-deep in water in his vegetable garden. “I cried at first. But now I understand that my tears won’t help.”
Fish is the only thing that is abundant on the island at the moment. He had two people swimming in the kitchen as he prepared the traditional borsch soup with chicken parts delivered by the police earlier this week.
“This is a war. Many people lose things in their lives. And then I thank God that all my loved ones are alive,” she said. She said her son is a soldier in the eastern city of Bakhmut, the epicenter of the battle against Russia. “He didn’t see this, and I don’t know how to show him. You’re going to say, ‘Oh my God, how many years did we work to make this happen?'”
By early February, water levels were so low that many across Ukraine and beyond feared the collapse of the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, whose cooling systems are fed by water from the reservoir. The spring rains came early and hard, followed by snowmelt.
“The Russians are simply not actively managing and balancing the flow of water,” Helms said. He likened it to a bucket with a small hole, now being filled by a fire hose. Finally, the water splashes over the top “almost as if the emergency switch had been hit.”
Satellite images from May 15 showed water washing over the damaged lock gates, exactly as Helms had described.
All this is invisible and yet obvious to Ihor Medjunov, whose yard is now a small patch of marshy grass. Even the neighbors, who came to the island to escape the war, decided that the prospect of missiles was better than the endless floods.
According to Helms, water levels are likely to slowly recede during the summer dry season. But that seems like a distant future for Medjunov, whose job as a hunting guide ended with the war.
“There is nowhere to go now,” he said. “We are waiting for a better time to rebuild and repair. Very painful.”
Evgeniy Maloletka contributed in Lysohirka, Ukraine, and Michael Biesecker in Washington.