Ukraine has said it could lose millions of tonnes of crops and hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland due to the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam, and accused Russia of shelling civilians and rescue workers in flooded areas.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited the partly inundated Kherson and Mykolaiv regions on Thursday, two days after Russia’s alleged detonation of explosives at the dam sent water surging from its vast reservoir and down the Dnipro river towards the Black Sea.
The Kremlin blames Ukraine for the disaster and accused its military on Thursday of shelling an evacuation area on the Russian-held eastern bank of the Dnipro, allegedly killing two people. Ukrainian officials and Moscow-installed figures in occupied areas say several people have died and thousands have been evacuated due to flooding.
Mr Zelenskiy said he met local and emergency officials to discuss “the operational situation in the region as a result of the disaster, evacuation of the population from potential flood zones, elimination of the emergency caused by the dam explosion, organisation of life support for the flooded areas. Also, the prospects for restoring the region’s ecosystem and the operational military situation in the ... disaster area.”
Ukrainian officials said about 600 sq km of the Kherson region – famous throughout the country for its melons and other produce – was now under floodwater, most of it on the Russian-occupied eastern bank of the Dnipro.
“Several million tonnes of Ukrainian crops may be lost due to flooding,” said Taras Vysotskyi, a deputy minister at Ukraine’s ministry of agrarian policy and food.
In addition to unharvested crops, he said more than 100,000 tonnes of stored crops were lost on the western bank of the Dnipro, and an unknown amount in occupied areas, where he estimated that “several hundred thousand tonnes of grain were stored”.
The ministry said it expected tens of thousands of hectares of farmland near the Dnipro to be flooded as water pours through the destroyed dam, and for dozens of vast irrigation systems that relied on the now emptying reservoir above the dam to be left dry.
“In 2021, these systems provided irrigation for 584,000 hectares, from which we collected about 4 million tonnes of grain and oil crops, worth about $1.5 billion ... The destruction of the [dam] will lead to fields in the south of Ukraine possibly becoming deserts as early as next year,” the ministry added.
“Without the Kakhovka reservoir, not only farmers and water users will suffer, but also sources of drinking water supply in populated areas ... The death of fish, both young and adult, is [also] already being recorded. The spawning period has just ended, and due to the drop in the water level, the spawn will dry out.”
The dam breach also threatens to disrupt water flow to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsular that Russian occupied in 2014, which relies on supplies from a canal connected to the Dnipro. Moscow-installed governor Sergei Aksyonov said the region did not face a water crisis, but some 3,200 hectares of rice fields could be affected.
Experts say people in flooded areas on both banks of the Dnipro face dangers including shortages of food and drinking water, disease, and the displacement of landmines and other explosives.
“In the past we knew where the hazards were. Now we don’t know. All we know is that they are somewhere downstream ... It is with a certain horror that we look at the news coming out,” said Erik Tollefsen, head of the weapon contamination unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Kyiv’s military says the flooding will not derail its planned counteroffensive, and claims its forces are now retaking land around the devastated city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region.