Ukraine’s emergency services are carrying out rescue operations across dozens of towns and villages in the wake of the dam – which is under Russian occupation – unleashing the waters of one of Europe’s largest reservoirs across the war-torn south. The deluge has destroyed homes, drowned animals, severed clean water supplies and forced thousands of people to evacuate.
The sudden emptying of the reservoir has crippled key irrigation systems in three surrounding regions. That has stopped the water supply to nearly 600,000 hectares of agricultural land, and endangered the production of 4 million tonnes of grain and oil crops, Ukraine’s agricultural ministry wrote in a statement.
“The fields in the south of Ukraine may turn into deserts as early as next year,” the ministry said, adding that the surrounding countryside and water supplies have also been destroyed and fish stock killed. “In total, according to preliminary calculations, the losses from the death of all biological resources will amount to [$285m dollars],” it concluded.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a chief advisor to President Zelenksy, warned this “global ecological disaster” could impact worldwide food supplies, as Ukraine, nicknamed the bread basket of the world, is a major producer of grains and oils.
“The instantaneous death of a large number of fish and animals, the waterlogging of drained lands and the change in the climatic regime of the region will later be reflected in the food security of the world,” he told The Independent.
Ukraine holds the western bank of the Dnipro River near the dam - where some 16,000 people were affected by the flood. Russia controls the eastern side, which is lower and more vulnerable to flooding and where some 22,000 people are impacted. About 3,000 people have already been evacuated from flooded areas on both sides of the river, officials said.
The Ukrainian military has blamed Moscow for the attack, saying Russia wants to prevent an advance by Ukrainian forces. The Kremlin denies the accusations saying Kyiv is seeking to distract from a “failing” counteroffensive, that is ongoing.
The Kakhovka hydroelectric dam and reservoir are essential for drinking water and irrigation for a huge area of southern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014. It lies in a part of the Kherson region that has been controlled by Moscow’s forces for the past year since president Vladimir Putin launched his invasion.
On Wednesday the authorities and charities rushed to get drinking water and food supplies to the flooded areas and to help save those who are stranded. In the city, people used boats and rafts to try to find missing inhabitants, while others waded through knee-deep water clutching their belongings.
“There were people standing on the street just in their underwear because the water had come in too fast and submerged their homes and belongings,” said Yuliya Konovalova, an aid worker who works for Ukrainian animal charity Hachiko. She had spent the day bringing hot meals and water to the inhabitants of Kherson, and rescuing and feeding stranded pets.
“The water was rising so fast we hope those people manage to escape,” she added.
She said in the centre of the city trains were leaving every two hours despite the flooding and the shelling to ferry people to the nearby city of Mykolaiv
“It is a disaster, it is a catastrophe, it is difficult to understand how it is possible.”
“It was a really painful day, on the way back I was crying,” she added breaking down in tears.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said that Russian soldiers were shooting from a distance while rescue attempts were in progress. “As soon as our helpers try to save them, they are shot at,” he told German newspapers Bild and Die Welt and also Politico.
The country’s deputy prime minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, also warned of drifting landmines unearthed by the flooding. “Water is disturbing mines that were laid earlier, causing them to explode,” Mr Kubrakov said.
“As a result of the flooding, infectious diseases and chemicals were getting into the water,” he added.
Mr Zelensky said later said on Telegram he had spoken to French president Emmanuel Macron about the environmental and humanitarian situation in the Kherson region.
“I laid out Ukraine’s general needs in dealing with the disaster. And we discussed the possibility of involving international mechanisms to investigate its causes,” the president said.
Meanwhile, in his first public comments on the disaster, President Putin repeated Moscow’s line that Ukraine is to blame for destroying the Kakhovka dam.
In a call with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr Putin alleged that Kyiv authorities had escalated “war crimes, openly using terrorist methods and staging acts of sabotage on the Russian territory,” the Kremlin said in its account of the call.
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