Russia is draining a massive Ukrainian reservoir, endangering a nuclear plant
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
In Ukraine, an important reservoir is apparently being drained by Russia. That's according to satellite imagery obtained by NPR.
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
At stake is drinking water for many thousands of people, as well as agricultural production and safety at Europe's largest nuclear plant.
FADEL: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has been covering this story.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.
FADEL: Good morning. So what's happening at this reservoir?
BRUMFIEL: So this reservoir is called the Kakhovka Reservoir.
BRUMFIEL: It's about the size of Utah's Great Salt Lake. And it's really important to southern Ukraine. It supplies drinking water and fills irrigation canals all over the region. My colleagues and I have been looking over satellite data and images which clearly show that since November, the water level has been plummeting at this reservoir. It's now at its lowest level in 30 years.
FADEL: OK, so two questions - what's causing it to drain so quickly, and how do we know it's Russia?
BRUMFIEL: Right. So here's sort of the setup of the whole situation. The thing holding the water in the reservoir is a large hydroelectric dam. That's holding the water back. The dam also is on the front lines of the war. And on one side is Ukrainian territory, and on the other side is Russian territory. Satellite images very clearly show that sluice gates on the Russian side of the dam are open. They're letting the water out. I spoke to David Helms. He's a retired meteorologist and satellite expert with the U.S. government who's sort of become obsessed with this whole situation. And he told me that the way the dam is set up, there's really only one side that could be doing this.
DAVID HELMS: It's the Russians. The Ukrainians, if they wanted to, they can't get across. They can't just, like, swim across, climb up. They can't do that. They would be dead (laughter) because the Russians would shoot them.
BRUMFIEL: And a statement from local officials in the Ukraine indicates that they, too, think Russia is to blame for what's happening.
FADEL: And it sounds like if this huge reservoir empties out, the consequences are dire.
BRUMFIEL: Yeah, one of the biggest dangers is at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. That plant has, of course, been on the front lines throughout this conflict, and it needs cooling water for its nuclear cores. That water comes from this reservoir. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already put out a statement about falling water levels. Beyond that, this reservoir supplies drinking water to several cities in southern Ukraine, and it's used to irrigate around half a million acres of farmland. So this is a very arid part of the country, and it really depends on it.
FADEL: Why would the Russians be doing this?
BRUMFIEL: Well, we don't really know. David Helms thinks this may be another tool of attack against Ukraine and its economy.
HELMS: That's as good as knocking out the power grid.
BRUMFIEL: But I spoke to Brian Kuns. He's at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. And he says that most of the irrigation channels run to the Russian-held side of the reservoir. So he doesn't really understand why they'd drain it.
BRIAN KUNS: It just seems strange that they'd be doing a scorched earth on territory that they claim publicly that they want to keep.
BRUMFIEL: Another possibility is that the Russians are doing this for military reasons, to flood the Dnipro River below the reservoir and prevent Ukrainian troops from advancing.
FADEL: So can Ukraine do anything?
BRUMFIEL: You know, local Ukrainian officials said on Telegram they're looking to try and slow the loss by filling the reservoir with water from other reservoirs. But as long as those sluice gates are open, it's going to be really tough.
FADEL: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.
BRUMFIEL: Thank you.
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