Already at risk of the threat of an escalating war, Ukrainians in the south on either side of the Dnipro river are now facing flooded villages, homelessness and exposure to infections after a huge dam collapse.
The Nova Kakhovka dam blast on Tuesday caused widespread flooding. More than 30,000 cubic metres of water are reportedly gushing out of the reservoir every second.
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With humanitarian and ecological disasters still unfolding, it is already clear that tens of thousands of people have been deprived of drinking water, many are homeless, crops are ruined, land mines have been displaced, and the stage is set for long-term electricity shortages.
Evacuation efforts are under way – about 3,000 have fled so far – amid a sense of despair as people try to wade through the rising floodwaters to safer locations.
“If the water rises for another metre [3.3 feet], we will lose our house,” said Oleksandr Reva said, who was moving family belongings into the abandoned home of a neighbour on higher ground.
“Our local school and stadium downtown were flooded. The stadium was completely underwater, and the floodwaters were reaching the school,” Lidia Zubova, another resident of the Kherson region, told Al Jazeera.
About 60,000 people are at risk from flooding in Russian and Ukrainian-controlled areas along the Dnipro after the dam was destroyed.
The dam and reservoir – essential for fresh water and irrigation for a huge area of southern Ukraine – lies in the Kherson region that Moscow illegally annexed in September and has occupied for the past year. The reservoir is also critical for water supplies to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
‘Were in a panic’
Reva, who lives in Ukrainian-controlled territory, blamed Russia. “They hate us. They want to destroy a Ukrainian nation and Ukraine itself. And they don’t care by what means because nothing is sacred for them.”
Inga, an evacuee who reached the capital Kyiv, told the Save the Children charity: “At around 7am [on Tuesday], our neighbours knocked at our door and told us to collect our belongings, evacuate, because the Kakhovka dam had been destroyed.
“We were in a panic. We didn’t know what to do, what to grab and where to run. All people have been leaving en masse wherever they can. We want to return to our apartment – if there will be anywhere to return to.”
Ukrainian officials accused Russian forces of a targeted attack.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stressed the evacuation of people and animals “is a priority” despite the difficulties of evacuating people amid Russian shelling.
Ukraine’s defence ministry shared a video on Twitter of what appears to be rescue workers using drones to drop supplies to people trapped by flooding.
— Defense of Ukraine (@DefenceU) June 7, 2023
On the Russian side, officials have brought in buses and trains to rescue residents and have accused Ukraine of the dam destruction. Moscow also imposed a state of emergency in parts of the Kherson province it controls.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called the dam’s destruction an “environmental and humanitarian catastrophe”. He accused Ukraine of destroying it at the suggestion of the West in what he called a “barbaric” war crime that escalated the conflict with Moscow.
The Russian-installed governor of the occupied areas of Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, said disinfectant procedures will begin in its flooded territories in the coming days to prevent the spread of disease.
As the warring sides continue rescue efforts and trade blame, UN aid chief Martin Griffiths told the Security Council the “sheer magnitude of the catastrophe will only be realised in the coming days”.
With the dam collapsed, some of the 18-cubic-kilometres (4.3 cubic miles) of water held in the reservoir is now flooding a swathe of southern Ukraine, including areas controlled by Russian forces.
“It’s a nightmare,” said a woman who gave her name only as Tetyana, as she tried to climb onto a dry spot to rescue her dogs and belongings.