Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has visited the southern region of Kherson where rescue teams are working to save thousands of people trapped by catastrophic flooding caused by the rupture of a major dam on the Dnieper River as Russian shelling nearby further frays residents’ nerves.
Zelenskiy thanked rescuers and volunteers on June 8 as he visited a crossing point for those evacuated from flooded areas and discussed with authorities measures to alleviate the situation of the people affected and eliminate the consequences of the disaster.
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“It is important to calculate the damage and allocate funds to compensate residents affected by the disaster and develop a program to compensate for losses or relocate businesses within the Kherson region, Zelenskiy said on his Telegram channel.
“Our task is to protect lives and help people as much as possible. I thank the rescuers and volunteers! I thank everyone involved in this work!”
The rescuers’ work has been hampered by additional dangers posed by continuing Russian shelling from across the river and land mines displaced by the floods.
Oleksandr Prokudin, governor of the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson, said on June 8 that the water level downstream had risen almost 6 meters (20 feet) with 600 square kilometers of the region under water, most of it on the Russia-occupied left bank of the Dnieper.
“This morning, the average level of the water is 5.61 meters. Some 600 square kilometers are under water, of which 32 percent is on the [Ukrainian-controlled] right bank and 68 percent on the [Russian-controlled] left bank,” Prokudin said in a video message.
He said that as of 6 a.m. local time, almost 2,000 people had been rescued form the dangerous areas, most of them — 1,495 — from Kherson city’s Korabel district.
The Kherson region comprises 28,461 square kilometers.
WATCH: Boat after boat of exhausted and stressed civilians arrived in the flooded streets of Kherson on June 7. Some of the people had made it here from Russian-occupied areas on the east bank of the Dnieper River.
As high water wreaked havoc downstream, state-owned hydroelectric power plant operator Ukrhydroenerho said the level of the huge reservoir upstream dropped by a meter over the past day as water continued to gush out through the breach in the dam.
Ukrhydroenerho chief Ihor Syrota said it would take about two months to repair the breach in the dam — if the region is liberated from occupying Russian forces.
“We can do it and we will do it, we are already preparing today, but only after the deoccupation,” Syrota told Ukrainian national television.
“It will take time — approximately two months,” he said.
It is still unclear what caused the breach, but Zelenskiy has pointed the finger at Russia as the perpetrator of an “absolutely deliberate” act.
Moscow has accused Ukraine of destroying the dam in an act of “deliberate sabotage” at the suggestion of the West. The dam had been under Russian control for more than a year when it was breached.
Russia accused Ukraine at the UN’s top court June 8 of destroying the dam with artillery strikes and alleged Kyiv was led by neo-Nazis — a claim Moscow has used to try to justify its invasion. Moscow’s comments to judges at the International Court of Justice came as it denied wider allegations by Ukraine that Russia had breached terrorism laws by backing separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
Ukrhydroenerho’s Syrota said that such a large breach could only have been caused by powerful explosions in three different spots inside the dam.
“To blow up the dam you need to drop at least three bombs weighing half a ton in one place. This cannot be done with a single missile. It was a very powerful explosion in three places inside the station,” Syrota said.
Ukraine’s Agriculture Ministry says several millions of tons of crops may be lost due to flooding. The ministry said in a statement on June 8 that the growing of grain and oil crops, along with vegetable and melons, will be most affected by the disaster. Unless a solution for lost irrigation is found, several millions tons of grain and oil crops won’t be grown, threatening international food security, it added.
Russian forces have continued shelling Kherson and its surroundings from across the Dnieper River despite the catastrophic flooding caused by the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam upstream, Nataliya Humenyuk, head of the United Coordination Press Center of the Southern Defense Forces, said on June 8.
“Because of the continued rise in the water level, the enemy was forced to pull back 5-15 kilometers from their previous positions, and the shelling isn’t so intense now, but the Beryslavskiy district (just east of Kherson city) continues to be targeted by shelling,” Humenyuk told Ukrainian television.
Humenyuk also said that Russian forces jammed communications in the area around the time of the alleged blast in order to conceal it, and that some of their own troops may have been left to drown or isolated on rooftops. Her claims could not be independently verified.
On the Russia-occupied side of Kherson, the Moscow-appointed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, Vladimir Leontiev, said early on June 8 the death toll was already five people, and 41 people were injured.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters