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The dam breach that could become a major ecological disaster and a war crime  

Welcome to Wednesday’s Early Edition from i.

There are no weapons in sight, but the footage of tremendous volumes of water bursting over the collapsed walls of a dam on the Dnipro River, threatening all those in its path, is the latest catastrophe in Ukraine to be described as a potential war crime. Standing at 30 metres tall, about 2km wide, and holding an estimated 18 cubic km of water – roughly the same as the Great Salt Lake of Utah – the Soviet-era Nova Kakhovka dam was a vital structure. It carries fresh water to farmland and also to Russian-occupied Crimea, and – concerningly – to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. It also separates Russian and Ukrainian forces. Rishi Sunak said if the attack which destroyed it was intentional, “it would represent, I think, the largest attack on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine since the start of the war, and just demonstrate the new lows that we would have seen from Russian aggression.” Amid fears of the worst ecological disaster since Chernobyl, we will look at what has been affected by the breach, and what it means for the war now.

 Today’s news, and why it matters

Prince Harry claimed he has experienced “hostility from the press since I was born” as he made a landmark appearance in the High Court as part of his hacking case against the publisher of the Daily Mirror. The Duke of Sussex alleges Mirror Group Newspapers used methods including phone hacking to publish 140 stories about his private life from 1996 to 2010, and said in court that this alleged behaviour is “utterly vile” and “led to bouts of depression and paranoia”. Here is what we have learned from the case so far.

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Sir Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have formally ordered the Shadow Cabinet not to make any unfunded spending pledges ahead of the next general election, i can reveal. The move follows claims by the Institute for Fiscal Studies the party could struggle to pay for its more ambitious policies without putting up taxes.

The Cabinet Office has mounted a fresh attempt to block Baroness Hallett from accessing Boris Johnson’s notebooks or old phone containing crucial WhatsApp messages from the pandemic. Nicholas Chapman KC, representing the Cabinet Office, told the inquiry that it planned to keep hold of the ex-prime minister’s 25 notebooks, which were handed to the government by Mr Johnson last week, and was “reserving its position” on whether to redact them for any material unrelated to Covid.

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Who blew up the dam, and just how serious is it?

Who is responsible? Both Ukraine and Russia have blamed each other for the attack. Moscow said Ukraine sabotaged it to cut off water supplies to Crimea and distract attention from a “faltering” counter-offensive. Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, said Russia must be held to account for a “terrorist attack”. Washington says it’s unclear who is responsible, but Robert Wood, deputy US Ambassador to the UN, said it would not make sense for Ukraine to destroy the dam and harm its own people. Security and defence analyst Professor Michael Clarke told i: “There’s a military logic to it for [Russia],” explaining that it makes it more difficult for Ukrainian troops to cross the Dnipro River, a strategic waterway that is key to Ukraine’s economy. Other military analysts have also said the flooding could benefit Russia by slowing or limiting any potential Ukrainian advance along that part of the front line. Some pro-Ukrainian commentators have also pointed to the fact that Russian authorities had recently allowed water levels to reach a 30-year high in the Kakhovka reservoir, citing this as evidence Moscow planned to make a dam burst as devastating as possible.

How serious are fears it could affect the nuclear power plant? The worst case scenario in terms of the nearby Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is that falling water levels threaten the cooling facilities. The station is the largest on the continent with the power to serve four million homes, increasing the risk of nuclear fuel overheating and potentially exploding. But the UN nuclear watchdog said Zaporizhzhia should have enough water to cool its reactors for “some months” from a separate pond. Ukraine’s energy authority Energoatom also said water levels at the plant were “sufficient” for its needs with monitoring ongoing. Dr Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear engineering at MIT and a member of the American Nuclear Society Rapid Response Taskforce on Ukraine, says that nuclear risks have been “exaggerated”. He told i: “The reactor site has been shut down for more than six months. So the amount of heat that has to be dissipated is actually very low. A single fire hose would be enough to dissipate heat for the entire station – and there are multiple backup (water sources)”. Read the full piece here.

What is the human and environmental impact? UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres described it as a “monumental humanitarian, economic and ecological catastrophe”. Tens of thousands of people have already lost their homes – with safe and clean drinking water supplies at risk for many thousands more. Ukrainian officials estimated about 42,000 people were at risk from the flooding, including some 25,000 in Russia-held parts. A UN spokesperson said the flood caused by the dam breach was projected “to have severe and longer-term consequences on the humanitarian situation in the area” such as by moving mines and explosive ordnance to new areas. Flooding at a nearby zoo has already killed the 300 animals that were kept there, according to a statement on its Facebook page. Volunteers helping people evacuate their homes have spoken about the difficulties in helping people escape. “Considering this area has been exposed to shelling and completely ruined there are not so many people left, mostly older people, and it is very difficult to work with them because they don’t want to leave, whatever you tell them,” one told i. Ukraine is investigating the blast as possible “ecocide”, the office of its prosecutor general said. There are fears the flood could spread harmful agrotoxins and petrochemicals into the Black Sea. “This will have an impact on Romania, Georgia, Turkey and Bulgaria,” former minister of ecology Ostap Semerak told the Guardian. “It will be harmful for all the region. Our government has announced this is the biggest environmental catastrophe in Europe over the past 10 years, and I think it may be the worst in Ukraine since Chernobyl in 1986.”

Is it a war crime? The Geneva Convention explicitly ban war-time attacks on structures such as dams. The destruction of Kakhovka could be considered a weapon of mass destruction and an indiscriminate war crime. Charles Michel, President of the European Council, promised to “hold Russia and its proxies accountable” because “the destruction of civilian infrastructure clearly qualifies as a war crime”. Amnesty International has already called for the international community to unite “to bring those responsible to justice”. “The human and environmental cost of the destruction of the Kakhovka dam is a huge humanitarian disaster,” regional director for Eastern Europe Marie Struthers said, adding: “The rules of international humanitarian law specifically protect dams, due to the dangers their destruction poses to civilians.” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said: “A dam near a nuclear power plant is misused as a weapon of war and human lives are put into grave danger. There is only one thing responsible for this environmental catastrophe: Russia’s criminal war of aggression on Ukraine”. And Foreign Secretary James Cleverly tweeted: “The destruction of Kakhovka dam is an abhorrent act,” adding: “Intentionally attacking exclusively civilian infrastructure is a war crime. The UK stands ready to support Ukraine and those affected by this catastrophe.”

Could this signify a new direction for the conflict? Ukraine has accused Russia of blowing up the dam to slow Kyiv’s mass counteroffensive. Mikhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, wrote on Twitter: “The purpose is obvious: to create insurmountable obstacles on the way of the advancing [Ukrainian army]; to intercept the information initiative; to slow down the fair final of the war. On a vast territory, all life will be destroyed; many settlements will be ruined; colossal damage will be done to the environment.” Some analysts believe the Russians have attacked the dam, in part, as a reminder of the devastating damage it could yet unleash if its military risked being routed, writes Michael Day. Security and defence analyst Professor Michael Clarke said: “It’s classic Russia scorched earth policy. It’s partly revenge and partly a military overreaction to the situation that they’re in at the front.” Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House, said it would not be the first time that Russia had caused a crisis on its own side and blamed Ukraine. “It’s part of the pattern of Russia’s continuing attempts to degrade and destroy Ukrainian infrastructure, which has faded into the background recently as they have focused more on random attacks on populated areas, simply to cause civilian casualties.”

A local resident makes her way through a flooded road after the walls of the Kakhovka dam were destroyed. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Around the world

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 Watch out for…

 Rishi Sunak, who is meeting Joe Biden in Washington for talks on a range of topics from the economy, to AI, to Ukraine.  

 Thoughts for the day

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Give over Prince Harry, it really doesn’t matter if you miss your child’s birthday. Kids need to be seen and heard and understood, not thrown lavish parties, says Esther Walker.

Prince Harry is due to give evidence at the High Court today (Photo: Alastair Grant/AP)

Culture Break

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Nick Drake (Photo: Bryter Music/the estate of Nick Drake)

The Big Read

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Something to brighten your day

Scientists have recorded a virgin birth by a crocodile for the first time, shedding light on how dinosaurs were able to reproduce. An egg containing a fully formed foetus was laid by an 18-year-old female American crocodile in Costa Rica, despite the fact that the reptile had been housed alone and never mated. The egg did not hatch. According to a study, it is the first instance of “facultative parthenogenesis”, or virgin birth, seen in the species.

An American Crocodile on the banks of a mangrove in Costa Rica, (Photo: Getty Images)

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