Zelenskyy calls for international aid as waters rise, Ukrainians flee homes after dam break
About 2,000 people left as part of evacuation order in Ukrainian-controlled part of flood zone
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Wednesday that international aid groups must take immediate action to tackle the aftermath of the destruction of a hydropower dam in Ukraine.
"It is necessary for international organizations, like the International Committee of the Red Cross, to get immediately involved in the rescue operation and help people in the occupied part of Kherson region," Zelenskyy said in his daily video address.
"If an international organization is not present in the disaster zone, it means it does not exist at all or is incapable."
Ukrainians abandoned their inundated homes as floodwaters crested across a swath of the south on Wednesday after the destruction of a vast dam on the front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces that each blamed on the other.
Residents waded through flooded streets carrying children on their shoulders, dogs in their arms and belongings in plastic bags while rescuers used rubber boats to search areas where the waters reached above head height.
Zelenskyy said residents in areas of southern Ukraine occupied by Russian troops were without water, food or medical help and it was impossible to determine how many people might die.
Officials said that parts of the Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv and Kherson regions in the south and southeast of Ukraine would suffer from disrupted water supplies. The Health Ministry warned of potential health hazards because of chemicals in the water, and it urged residents to drink only bottled and safe water, and to use safe water when cooking.
Ukraine expects the floodwaters will stop rising by the end of Wednesday, presidential deputy chief Oleksiy Kuleba said.
So far, 2,000 people have been evacuated from the Ukrainian-controlled part of the flood zone, and the water level had reached its highest level in 17 settlements with a combined population of 16,000 people.
"Everything is submerged in water, all the furniture, the fridge, food, all flowers, everything is floating. I do not know what to do," said Oksana, 53, a resident in the city of Kherson, downriver from the dam.
Putin calls destruction 'barbaric act'
Russian President Vladimir Putin called the destruction of the dam an "environmental and humanitarian catastrophe" during a call with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Kremlin cited him as saying on Wednesday.
According to Russia's TASS news agency, Putin referred to the dam's destruction as "Kyiv's barbaric act." Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev said on Wednesday that the United States, Britain and NATO allies were "co-ordinating Ukraine's activities" and therefore "gave consent to the bombing" that damaged the dam, the same news agency reported.
Erdogan told Putin that an international commission that includes the United Nations and Turkey could be formed to look into the issue, a statement from the Turkish president's office said. Erdogan earlier talked to Zelenskyy regarding the same issue.
Residents in areas where Ukraine retains control blamed the disaster on Russian troops who controlled the dam from their positions on the opposite bank.
"They hate us," Reva said. "They want to destroy a Ukrainian nation and Ukraine itself. And they don't care by what means because nothing is sacred for them."
Dozens need rescue in Russia-controlled town
Vladimir Saldo, the top Russia-installed official in Ukraine's Kherson region, said on Wednesday he had declared a state of emergency. So far 1,500 people had been evacuated from flooded settlements and 48 temporary accommodation centres had been set up, he said.
Up to 100 people in the Russian-controlled town of Nova Kakhovka are trapped and thousands of wild animals have been killed after the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine collapsed, the town's Russia-installed mayor said, Russian news agencies reported.
More than 30,000 cubic metres of water were pouring out of the reservoir, which the dam held back every second, and the town was at risk of contamination from the floods, the TASS news agency quoted the official, Vladimir Leontyev, as saying.
He said rescue efforts were being undertaken to free people trapped by the floods.
Valery Melnik, 53, waded through what remained of his home. Ankle-high floodwater lapped against a refrigerator and a green couch, and valuables had been placed out of reach.
"We're waiting until the water leaves, we will dry it out," Melnik said. He added that he had hoped for help from the local authorities to pump out the water, but so far "they are not doing anything."
'Far-reaching consequences': UN official
The consequences of the disaster will be felt for decades in southern Ukraine. The huge reservoir behind the dam was one of Ukraine's main geographic features, and its waters irrigated huge swaths of agricultural land in one of the world's biggest grain exporting nations, including Crimea, which was seized by Russia in 2014.
The flood "will have grave and far-reaching consequences for thousands of people in southern Ukraine on both sides of the front line through the loss of homes, food, safe water and livelihoods," UN aid chief Martin Griffiths told the Security Council. "The sheer magnitude of the catastrophe will only become fully realized in the coming days."
Targeting dams in war is explicitly banned by the Geneva Conventions. Neither side has presented public evidence demonstrating who was to blame.
Even as the evacuation was underway, Russia shelled Ukrainian-held territory across the river. Cracks of incoming artillery sent people trying to run for cover in Kherson. Reuters reporters heard four incoming artillery blasts near a residential neighbourhood where civilians were evacuating on Tuesday evening. The governor said one person was killed.
Russia said a Ukrainian drone had struck a town on the opposite bank during evacuations there and accused the Ukrainian side of continuing shelling despite the flooding.
Ukraine claims to have clawed back in Bakhmut
Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops have advanced up to 1,100 metres near the eastern city of Bakhmut in the past 24 hours, Kyiv said on Wednesday — the first gains it has reported since Russia said Ukraine had started a counteroffensive. Deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar made the claim on the Telegram messaging service without providing further details.
Russia said last month that its forces had captured Bakhmut, site of the longest and bloodiest battle since its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, though Kyiv said it retained a small presence in the ruined city and was advancing on the flanks.
The Russian Defence Ministry said on Wednesday that Ukraine had mounted attacks near Bakhmut but that they had been unsuccessful.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the situation on the battlefield.
The emptying reservoir supplies water that cools Europe's biggest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia upstream. The UN nuclear watchdog said the plant should have enough water from a separate pond to cool its reactors for "some months."