Ukraine said water supply to hundreds of thousands of people had been affected by the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro river, and accused Russia of having “completely failed” to evacuate residents of flooded areas in occupied territory.
According to officials on either side of the Dnipro in southeastern Ukraine – where Kyiv controls the western bank and Russia’s invasion force the eastern – more than 2,700 people had fled their homes by Wednesday afternoon, some 36 hours after the dam and its hydroelectric power station were breached in an incident that the warring neighbours blame on each other.
Senior European officials joined Ukraine in placing responsibility on Russia, which Kyiv accuses of blowing up the dam to hamper its planned counteroffensive in the area. The Kremlin says Ukraine attacked the facility to distract from its alleged problems on the battlefield and disrupt water flow to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
Analysts say it would be almost impossible to destroy the dam from outside, by shelling or a missile strike, but relatively easy with explosives placed inside the facility, and that flooding the area to the south has military advantages for Russia but not Ukraine.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have been left without normal access to drinking water,” said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “Our services, all those who can help people, are already involved. But we can only help on the territory controlled by Ukraine. On the part occupied by Russia, the occupiers are not even trying to help people.”
Mr Zelenskiy said the priority for his officials was to ensure “evacuation of people” and “urgent provision of drinking water and long-term solutions for settlements that were dependent on the reservoir.”
Some 12,000 people in the Kyiv-held city of Kherson were without power due to flooding, and experts said scenes of thousands of dead fish on the banks of the emptying Dnipro reservoir and of farm and domestic animals stranded and struggling to escape the floodwaters were just the beginning of what could be a decades-long legacy of environmental damage in the region.
Ukrainian officials said about 80 settlements that are home to some 40,000 people along the front line would probably have to be evacuated, even as shelling continued 15 months into a Russian invasion that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.
Russian president Vladimir Putin told Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Ukraine blew up the dam with the backing of its western allies, and called the incident “a barbaric action ... leading to a large-scale environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.”
Mr Erdogan also spoke to Mr Zelenskiy, who said he told the Turkish leader “about the humanitarian and environmental consequences of the Russian act of terrorism” and “handed over a list of Ukraine’s urgent needs to alleviate the disaster”.
Mr Erdogan’s office said he proposed that “a commission could be established with the participation of experts from the warring parties, the United Nations and the international community, including Turkey, for a detailed investigation into the explosion.”
The European Union announced that it was sending water filters, generators, pumps and other equipment to Ukraine, to help it cope with what it called the “devastating humanitarian and ecological consequences” of the dam’s destruction.
Ukraine insists the disaster will not derail its plans for a counteroffensive to oust Moscow’s military from occupied areas, and the army says it is now regaining ground near the ruined city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region.
“When all this will begin, it will be decided by our military,” said Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defence council. “When we start the counteroffensive, everyone will know about it, they will see it.”