Water levels have risen several meters in the Kherson area, trapping dozens of people in their homes and killing scores of animals, with health authorities warning of possibly contaminated drinking water after the destruction of a major dam on the Dnieper River that has prompted massive flooding and the hasty evacuation of tens of thousands.
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on June 7 that hundreds of thousands of people have been left without drinking water following the collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam, pointing the finger once again at Russia as the perpetrator of an “absolutely deliberate” act.
Russia has blamed Ukraine for the incident.
“At least 100 thousand people lived in these areas before the Russian invasion,” Zelenskiy said on Telegram, referring to Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
“At least tens of thousands are still there. Hundreds of thousands of people have been left without normal access to drinking water. Our services, all those who can help people, are already involved. But we can only help on the territory controlled by Ukraine. In the Russia-occupied part, the occupiers are not even trying to help people,” Zelenskiy said.
While water levels were rising in some areas, they began dropping upstream, Oleksandr Khorunzhy, a spokesman for Ukraine’s State Emergency Service, said on June 7.
“As of this morning, the water level has risen by approximately five meters at the Kherson post since the incident. In Nikopol, we have a water drop of up to 2.2 meters,” he told Ukrainian television.
Nikopol is located 125 kilometers upstream from the dam. Kherson Governor Oleksandr Prokudin previously had said the water level may rise by another meter within the next 20 hours.
Prokudin said that more than 1,450 people have been evacuated from the Ukrainian-controlled right bank of the Dnieper, where some 1,850 houses have been flooded.
“As of 6 a.m., 1,457 people have been evacuated, including 1,286 people from [Kherson city’s] Korabel neighborhood,” he added.
Ihor Syrota, the head of Ukrhydroenerho, Ukraine’s hydroelectric power authority, said the water — more than 30,000 cubic meters of it has poured out of the reservoir held back by the Soviet-era dam — was expected to peak early on June 7 and would recede over the following days.
The Ukrainian Health Ministry on June 7 warned about the possible contamination of water in wells and open bodies in the flooded area.
“Chemicals, agents of infectious diseases from cemeteries, latrines, and landfills may end up in wells and open water bodies in the flooded area,” the ministry said on Telegram, also warning against the consumption of fish from the area.
Ukrainian authorities meanwhile continued the evacuation of tens of thousands of people as the flooding was expected to peak downstream on June 7.
Ukraine has estimated that some 42,000 people were at risk from flooding.
The Russia-installed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, Vladimir Leontyev, said “thousands of animals” at the Nizhnedniprovsky National Nature Park had been killed in the flooding, along with other domesticated and farm animals in the region.
In the Moscow-controlled part of Kherson, Russia-installed authorities imposed a state of emergency on June 7, the TASS news agency reported.
The British Ministry of Defense estimated that, since the reservoir had been filled to a record level, continued water pressure will further erode the breach and more flooding could be expected.
“The water level in the Kakhovka Reservoir was at a record high before the collapse, resulting in a particularly high volume of water inundating the area downstream,” the ministry said in its daily intelligence report on June 7.
“The dam’s structure is likely to deteriorate further over the next few days, causing additional flooding,” it said.
The breach of the Russian-held dam early on June 6 unleashed a massive torrent of water that flooded tens of settlements downstream and sent tens of thousands people fleeing.
“Such deliberate destruction by the Russian occupiers and other structures of the hydroelectric power station is an environmental bomb of mass destruction,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres labeled the destruction of the dam a “monumental humanitarian, economic, and ecological catastrophe” in a statement but stopped short of blaming Russia directly.
Ahead of an emergency UN Security Council meeting, Guterres called it “another devastating consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
The UN’s humanitarian agency said it was gravely concerned about the destruction of the dam and the severe humanitarian impact on hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the front line.
UN aid chief Martin Griffiths told the Security Council’s emergency meeting late on June 6 that thousands of people in southern Ukraine were facing “the loss of homes, food, safe water, and livelihoods.”
Oleksiy Kuleba, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said the destruction of the dam will cause a large ecological problem, noting that more than 400 tons of lubricating oil had been stored in tanks at the Kakhovka hydropower plant.
“We cannot be sure yet what amount has already ended up in the Dnieper River, but it will be a huge problem and an ecological disaster,” Kuleba told RFE/RL.
“We are also anticipating that the water level in the Kakhovka basin will drop dramatically and this will lead to a complete change of the ecological environment of the Kherson region. It is necessary to get ready for that as well,” he said.
Russia denied it carried out the attack, with the Kremlin instead calling it “deliberate sabotage” by Kyiv.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu charged that Ukraine destroyed the dam to prevent Russian attacks in the Kherson region after what he alleged was a failed Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The Nova Kakhovka dam — which is 30 meters tall and 3.2 kilometers long — is part a vital route for transport and irrigation, as well as supplying water to Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant, which are both under Russian control.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the power plant has enough water to cool its reactors for “several months” from a pond located above the reservoir.
With reporting by AP and Reuters