Thousands of people sought shelter after escaping rising floodwater amid an unfolding humanitarian and ecological disaster caused by the rupture of a major dam on the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine.
Ukrainian rescue teams used boats on June 7 to rescue residents from their flooded homes a day after the collapse of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam and the emptying of its reservoir.
It is still unclear what caused the breach, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy again on June 7 pointed the finger at Russia as the perpetrator of an “absolutely deliberate” act. Russia, in turn, has blamed Kyiv for the destruction.
“The situation in the occupied part of Kherson region is absolutely catastrophic,” Zelenskiy said on Twitter. “The occupiers simply abandoned people in these terrible conditions. Without rescue, without water, just on the rooftops in flooded communities.”
“I woke up several hours ago, and I realized that the first floor of my building is under water,” Volodymyr Barsak, 66, told RFE/RL as he stood meters away from a flooded district of Kherson city wearing only black swimming trunks.
Speaking after being rescued from his third-floor flat, Barsak was not sure what he would do next but said, “This is nothing compared to the oppressive atmosphere of Russian occupation.”
Mykola Blonskiy stood nearby with a puppy in his hand and a box of chirping yellow chicks. He left his dacha on an island in the river just moments earlier with his wife, Neonilla, who managed to take only a thick old Bible with her.
“We hoped the water wouldn’t reach us, and we ended up climbing on a roof,” he said.
Live Briefing: Russia’s Invasion Of Ukraine
RFE/RL’s Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia’s full-scale invasion, Kyiv’s counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL’s coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been left without normal access to drinking water, he said, adding that Ukrainian services are involved but can only help on the territory controlled by Ukraine.
Desperate residents of flooded Russian-occupied towns are begging for help, according to news reports describing the situation in Oleshkiy, opposite Kherson on the Dnieper River. Residents tried to flee immediately after the dam ruptured, but Russian troops blocked them and offered them “evacuation only to the territory of Russia,” the head of the city’s military administration said.
In comments to German and U.S. media, Zelenskiy expressed shock over what he said was the failure of the United Nations and the Red Cross to provide help, but he added that Russian soldiers were shooting from a distance while rescue attempts were in progress.
The 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 power plant, located some 150 kilometers to the northeast.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that while water levels in had fallen in ponds that are crucial in supplying cooling water to the plant, “back-up options are available” and there is “no short-term risk to nuclear safety and security.”
But IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi expressed concern over how the situation could play out in the next few weeks, telling Sky News in an interview that “in the worst case without cooling” there is a risk of an accident with tragic environmental consequences. The situation is serious, he said, because a nuclear power plant requires guarantees when it comes to cooling water.
Fears of a humanitarian disaster grew as more and more countries expressed concern over the fallout from the dam’s destruction. European Council President Charles Michel called it a “war crime” and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg condemned it as “outrageous.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said France would send aid in response to the crisis and condemned the “atrocious act” of the dam’s destruction.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is on a visit to the United States, could not say definitively whether Russia was responsible for the destruction.
“If it does prove to be intentional, it will represent a new low. It’s an appalling act of barbarism on Russia’s part,” Sunak told British broadcaster ITV.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said it was “very concerned” about social, economic, and environmental impact from destruction of dam.
Ukraine’s Energy Ministry said on June 7 that as many as 20,000 people in the Kherson region had been left without electricity in the aftermath of the destruction of the dam. Two solar power plants were also flooded in the Mykolayiv region, the ministry added.
Oleksandr Kharchenko, a Kyiv-based energy analyst, told RFE/RL that the flooding had damaged electricity transmission lines and heating stations that supply residential buildings in the winter.
He said the damage to those pieces of critical infrastructure alone would likely total in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but a more precise estimate would only be possible in a few weeks after the water recedes.
Adding to the crisis, the Ukrainian Health Ministry on June 7 warned about the possible contamination of water in wells, rivers, and lakes in the flooded area.
“Chemicals, agents of infectious diseases from cemeteries, latrines, and landfills may end up in wells and open bodies of water in the flooded area,” the ministry said on Telegram, also warning against the consumption of fish from the area.
Andriy Yermak, Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, said the destruction of the dam had killed a huge number of fish in the Dnipropetrovsk region. Yermak tweeted a video showing what he said was an “ecocide” of fish that died after the dam ruptured.
There was no independent verification of the video.
In the Moscow-controlled part of Kherson, Russian-installed authorities imposed a state of emergency on June 7, the TASS news agency reported.
The Russian-installed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, Vladimir Leontyev, said that “thousands of animals” at the Nizhnedniprovskiy National Nature Park had been killed in the flooding, along with other domesticated and farm animals in the region.
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.
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.
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 an emergency UN Security Council meeting late on June 6 that thousands of people in southern Ukraine were facing “the loss of homes, food, safe water, and livelihoods.”
Russia has denied it carried out the attack, with the Kremlin instead calling it “deliberate sabotage” by Kyiv.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 7 accused Ukraine of destroying the dam at the suggestion of the West despite the dam having been under Russian control when it ruptured.
With reporting by By Aleksander Palikot in Kherson, AP, Politico, and Reuters