Households flee war-torn Ukraine towns as dam floods spread

Ilona was driving through Ukraine in the early hours of Tuesday when she heard news of the damage to the Nova Kakhovka dam. She panicked — her mother still lived across the frontline, in Russian-occupied territory close to the river.

“She doesn’t walk well. She never leaves her yard,” Ilona said. Her mother lives two streets from the Dnipro river, close to the dam, in a settlement where the water had started rising. The power had gone out, Ilona said, and the signal was patchy, but mother and daughter managed to stay in touch. 

“In the morning she was crying,” Ilona said. “Now she has calmed down. She’s waiting to see what happens. Maybe the water will stop rising and won’t reach their street.”

Floodwaters were rising on both Ukrainian and Russian-held sides of the Dnipro, which currently marks the front line in the conflict, on Tuesday following the breach — threatening towns and cities and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.

Residents of Russian-occupied areas along the river described a tense and nervous atmosphere as they waited to see which areas would be affected.

Ilona’s own house, which she had to leave behind when she fled the Russian invasion last spring, is not far from her mother’s. After living with her three children “out of our car” for the past year, she had hoped to return to the family home some day.

Now, the house had been completely flooded, she said. “It tears me apart.”

On the Ukrainian-controlled side of the river, authorities urged tens of thousands of residents in and around flooded areas to leave and to take their pets if they could.

Zoriana Stelmakh, a Ukrainian volunteer in the settlement of Sadove, on the west bank of the Dnipro about 40km downstream from the dam, said residents were reluctant to leave despite the devastation and rising waters. 

“People don’t want to go because they hope that everything will change soon,” she added.

She described pleading with an older man who had climbed on top of his roof to get away from the flood, and refused to leave.

Stelmakh and other volunteers sent a boat to pick him up and he was eventually helped down safely and would be taken to Kherson city, where evacuees were being set up with shelter and aid, she said. 

By 1pm local time, more than 1,000 people had been evacuated from flooded areas of Kherson region by Ukrainian emergency services and volunteers, said interior minister Ihor Klymenko. Twelve settlements had been completely flooded, he added.

Inhabitants of Kherson said Russian artillery fired on the city on Tuesday as the floodwaters rose. “The evacuation takes place in a very tense situation, because now Kherson is under fire,” said Vyacheslav, a resident.

Ukraine’s government deployed a mobile emergency unit to the area with all-terrain vehicles, boats and other equipment, as well as trucks carrying potable water. Five aid stations were set up, Klymenko said.

Kakhovka dam: the immediate concerns

On the Russian-held side, the Moscow-installed head of the occupied areas of Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, said in a video on Tuesday morning that “as a result of an explosion, water in the Dnipro river below the Kakhovka reservoir rose by up to four metres”, but had stabilised.

In the video recorded from a car, Saldo said the breach would not affect local residents or Russia’s ability to defend its positions on the river — but half an hour later his administration announced the start of evacuations from coastal areas.

It asked residents to take their documents and enough food and water for two to three days. Fifty buses had been deployed for the evacuation, authorities claimed.

Alexander, a resident of Dnipryany, about 10km south of the dam, said he did not plan to evacuate yet. But friends closer to the river were watching the water rising, he added. “It’s already reached Embankment Street [beside the river]. Of course, everybody’s worried.”

Videos showed severe flooding in the main square of the Russian-controlled town of Nova Kakhovka, beside the dam, with water levels rising to the door handles of an administration building. Swans could be seen swimming near its white columns and fountains.

Natalya, a resident of Nova Kakhovka, said her home was safe, but those of her relatives and friends had been damaged. “The situation is bad, everything is being flooded!” she said.

Echoing Russian state media propaganda channels, which presented the breached dam as the work of the Ukrainian army, Natalya vehemently blamed Ukraine.

Some residents expressed concerns about the fate of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant upriver from the dam. The breach cut off supplies to a pond used to cool the plant, but nuclear scientists said an atomic accident remained highly unlikely.

“It’s a catastrophe,” said Maksim, a young man from Nova Mayachka. “The main thing is for everything to stay OK on the Zaporizhzhia [plant].”

The Nova Kakhovka dam not only controls water levels in the Dnipro river, but also supplies water from its reservoir to the Crimean peninsula along the North Crimea Canal.

This has been a point of tension since the start of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. After Moscow annexed the peninsula that year, Kyiv suspended water flow along the canal. It was restored after Russia occupied parts of the area last spring.

The governor of the Russian-controlled peninsula, Sergei Aksyonov, said on Tuesday that water levels in the canal could start to fall because of the damage to the dam, the state Interfax news agency reported.

But he said that reserves were currently 80 per cent full, meaning “there is more than enough drinking water” at the moment.

“Work is being done to minimise water loss in the canal,” Aksyonov said. “In the coming days, the dynamics and possible risks will be clear.”

Additional reporting by Ben Hall in London

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