KHERSON, Ukraine – Devastating floods have engulfed vast areas of southern Ukraine, leaving Ukrainians grappling with homelessness and an increased risk of diseases. The catastrophic situation arose from the collapse of a hydro-electric dam located on the front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces. Both sides are embroiled in a blame game, accusing each other for the dam’s destruction. The aftermath of this disaster includes the disruption of drinking water supplies, the destruction of fertile farmlands, and the conversion of once-irrigated areas into arid “deserts” spanning approximately 500,000 hectares.
As floodwaters surged through streets, residents were forced to evacuate their inundated homes. They braved the rising waters, carrying children on their shoulders, cradling dogs in their arms, and clutching their belongings in plastic bags. Rescue teams, employing rubber boats, scoured the areas where floodwaters reached dangerous levels, sometimes surpassing the height of a person.
Oleksandr Reva, a resident from a village near the riverbank, expressed concerns over the rising water level, fearing the loss of his house. In preparation, he began moving his family’s possessions to the abandoned residence of a neighbor situated on higher ground. The swollen Dnipro River carried away the roof of a house, a disheartening sight for the affected villagers.
The catastrophic breach of the Nova Kakhovka dam coincides with an imminent counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces against the ongoing Russian invasion. This anticipated military operation is considered a pivotal phase of the conflict. Both sides continue to engage in shelling across the flood-affected region, warning of the presence of floating landmines unearthed by the flooding.
Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, announced significant territorial gains in eastern Ukraine, specifically in the devastated city of Bakhmut. These advances mark a notable achievement for Ukrainian troops since Russia reported the initiation of the Ukrainian offensive earlier this week. Russia, however, claims to have successfully repelled the attack.
Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, clarified that the ongoing assaults are currently limited in scope and magnitude. The comprehensive offensive, he emphasized, has yet to commence. Danilov assured that once initiated, the scale of the operation would be unmistakable and widely visible to all.
Several months ago, Kyiv revealed that Russian forces, who have controlled the dam since the beginning of the 15-month-long invasion, had mined it. Consequently, Kyiv alleges that Moscow deliberately detonated the dam to impede the progress of Ukrainian forces attempting to cross the Dnipro River in their counteroffensive.
Residents in the flood-affected zone in southern Ukraine, a region abundant in fertile and marshy lands stretching to the Dnipro estuary on the Black Sea, attribute the dam’s collapse to Russian troops stationed on the opposite bank. They perceive this as an expression of hatred towards Ukrainians and an attempt to annihilate their nation.
In response to the disaster, Russia declared a state of emergency in the Kherson province, which falls under its control. The affected region encompasses numerous towns and villages situated in low-lying areas below the dam.
Nova Kakhovka, a town adjacent to the dam, found itself submerged in brown water, with main streets sparsely populated by residents. Valery Melnik, a resident of the town, expressed disappointment over the lack of assistance from local authorities in pumping water out of his flooded home.
According to Russia’s TASS news agency, over 30,000 cubic meters of water per second were pouring out of the dam’s reservoir. The mayor of Nova Kakhovka, Vladimir Leontyev, appointed by the Russian-installed administration, raised concerns about potential contamination risks associated with the torrential flooding.
Authorities in Ukraine expect the floodwaters to cease rising by the end of Wednesday, following a peak overnight at approximately five meters (16.5 feet). Evacuation efforts have already relocated two thousand individuals from the Ukrainian-controlled portion of the flood-affected zone. The floodwaters have reached their highest levels in 17 settlements, which collectively accommodate 16,000 people. TASS reports that water levels in certain areas may remain elevated for up to ten days.
The Dnipro River, a significant waterway dividing Ukraine, serves as the frontline in the southern region. The expansive reservoir formed by the dam played a crucial role in Ukraine’s geography, providing irrigation to vast agricultural areas in one of the world’s leading grain-exporting nations. Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, was also dependent on these waters for irrigation.
Martin Griffiths, the United Nations aid chief, addressed the U.N. Security Council, emphasizing that the full magnitude of the catastrophe would only be comprehended in the days to come. Targeting dams during war is explicitly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. However, neither side has publicly presented conclusive evidence attributing responsibility for the dam’s collapse.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy condemned the dam’s destruction as an “environmental bomb of mass destruction” during his televised address, vowing to make the world aware of this alleged Russian war crime. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a conversation with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, referred to the dam’s collapse as an “environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Ukraine of sabotaging the dam, characterizing it as a diversionary tactic to divert attention from the purportedly faltering Ukrainian counteroffensive. The United States has indicated that it is in the process of gathering evidence to ascertain culpability but has expressed skepticism regarding Ukraine’s motives for inflicting such devastation upon itself.
Even amid the ongoing evacuation efforts, Russia continues to shell Ukrainian-held territory on the opposite riverbank. The sound of incoming artillery prompted panicked civilians attempting to flee to seek shelter in Kherson. Reuters reporters witnessed four artillery blasts near a residential neighborhood that residents were vacating on Tuesday evening. Regrettably, one person lost their life, as confirmed by the governor.
In response, Russia claimed that a Ukrainian drone had struck a town on their side of the river during evacuation operations, further accusing Ukraine of persisting with shelling despite the ongoing flooding crisis.