US, China participate in Indonesian naval drills. Senegalese opposition leader’s jailing sparks violence. Another Indian rail disaster. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Ukraine dam collapse ‘a monumental catastrophe’

Kherson residents ride their bikes along a flooded road following the collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine.
Kherson residents ride their bikes along a flooded road following the collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine.
Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka / AP

Great power rivalry 

Ukraine: At 2.50am on Tuesday, the Nova Kakhovka dam in Russian-controlled Ukraine burst open after a suspected attack, potentially spilling 18 billion litres of water and leaving 42,000 people at risk from flooding. 

In what is likely to be Ukraine’s worst environmental disaster since the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, an explosion inside the dam was believed to have caused its collapse. Within hours, the adjoining Dnipro River had risen by 11 metres in the town of Nova Kakhovka and by almost four metres in the nearby city of Kherson.

Ihor Syrota, from Ukraine’s state hydro-electric company, Ukrhydroenergo, told The Washington Post the dam was “irreparable” and its entire contents could spill out by Saturday. “This will be an ecological catastrophe,” he said.

The dam, crucial to water supplies in Crimea, was seized by Russia on the first day of the war in February 2022. Ukraine and Russia, which have both previously warned that the other side was plotting to destroy the dam, blamed each other for the attack. Russia claimed Ukraine wanted to block Crimea’s water supply and to limit movements around Kherson so it could redeploy troops defending the city. Ukraine said Russia wanted to stop its troops from crossing the Dnipro.

António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, described the attack as a “monumental humanitarian, economic and ecological catastrophe”.

The dam collapse came as Ukraine launched a series of assaults that appeared to signal the start of its long-awaited counteroffensive. Ukraine said it had made advances of up to 1600 metres in areas around the city of Bakhmut, which fell to the Russians last month after one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Russia insisted it had thwarted Ukraine’s attacks. 

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War this week said Ukraine had increased its combat activity on various fronts and appeared to be making gains. “A successful counteroffensive operation may take days, weeks, or even months before its outcome becomes fully clear, during which time Russian sources may falsely claim to have defeated it,” the institute said in a tweet.

The neighbourhood 

Indonesia: Chinese and United States warships participated in a joint military exercise hosted by Indonesia this week, despite heightened tensions between the two navies after a Chinese vessel intercepted a US destroyer in the Taiwan Strait. 

Indonesia’s navy said its four-day exercise involved “non-war” drills aimed at promoting maritime co-operation. The 36-nation exercise brought together rivals from across the world, including South Korea and North Korea, and India and Pakistan. Other participants included Australia, Russia, Brazil, France and Britain.

The exercise came amid growing tensions between the US and Chinese militaries. Last Saturday, the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, told the Shangri-La Dialogue, a conference in Singapore, that Washington would not “flinch in the face of bullying or coercion” from China and would continue sending ships and planes through international waters that China claims. On the same day, a Chinese warship intercepted a US destroyer in the Taiwan Strait, according to the US military, and left just 140 metres between the two ships. 

China’s defence minister, General Li Shangfu, told the conference countries could enjoy “innocent passage” but should not attempt to exercise “hegemony of navigation”.

Li refused Austin’s invitation to talk on the sidelines of the conference, though the two shook hands at the opening dinner.

“A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement,” Austin said.

Still, both nations dispatched ships to Indonesia’s Komodo exercise this week, which has been held four times since 2014. Indonesia’s commitment to non-alignment sometimes leads to criticisms that it is overly quietist, but has allowed it to maintain strong ties with states that, increasingly, have little in common.

Democracy in retreat 

Senegal: A court in Senegal last week sentenced the opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, to two years in prison, prompting violent clashes and claims from his supporters that the decision was a politically motivated ploy to ensure he can no longer contest a presidential election in February.

Sonko, 48, was accused of raping a woman who worked in a massage parlour in 2021, when she was 20, and making death threats against her. He was found not guilty of rape but sentenced to two years for a charge involving immoral behaviour towards individuals younger than 21. Sonko denied the charges.

Following the ruling, Sonko’s Pastef party urged his supporters to take to the streets. The ensuing protests led to clashes with security forces, leaving 16 people dead. About 500 people were arrested.

Tensions have been rising in Senegal, a West African nation with 18 million residents typically seen as one of the region’s most stable democracies. Sonko, a mayor and former tax inspector, has a strong following among younger voters. His initial arrest in 2021 led to protests that left 14 people dead. 

Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, has faced criticism over his failure to boost employment and is rumoured to be planning to run for a third term next year, in violation of the constitution. Sonko has called on Sall to declare he will not run.

Spotlight: India’s trains

India’s rail network consists of 64,000 kilometres of tracks, 14,000 trains, and 8000 stations that are used for eight billion passenger rides a year, more than any other in the world. But the rail system is old, unwieldy and prone to derailments, and some of its tracks date back to British colonial rule in the 1800s. 

Last week, India experienced one of the worst rail disasters in its history after a signalling error diverted an express train from a main line and caused it to slam into a stationary freight train, derailing cars, which then hit a second express train. The three-way collision, in the state of Odisha, killed at least 275 people.

Police this week launched an investigation into criminal negligence by rail staff. But the disaster has raised questions about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to improve rail safety. 

Modi has committed to modernise the network and has spent billions of dollars on new, safer trains and replacing tracks. The program has helped to reduce the number of serious accidents, though most – 69 per cent – still involve derailments. 

But critics say Modi has been too focused on rolling out high-speed trains and has failed to do enough to address safety. The government is introducing a system that causes trains to brake automatically to avoid collisions, but it is currently operational on just 2 per cent of the network. And old tracks, such as those where the accident occurred in Odisha, are still used on some of the country’s busiest lines. Almost $US30 billion was spent on the rail system last year – up 15 per cent from the previous year – yet the amount spent on track renewal and other high-priority work dropped.

Swapnil Garg, a former Indian railways official, told Associated Press this week the crash should “shake up the whole railway system”. 

“We can’t just focus on modern trains and have tracks that aren’t safe,” he said.

From 2017 to 2021, India recorded more than 100,000 train-related deaths. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Ukraine dam collapse ‘a monumental catastrophe’".

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