KHERSON, Ukraine — Thousands of people fled flooded homes in southern Ukraine on Wednesday, including many rescued from rooftops, a day after the collapse of the Kakhovka dam led to another humanitarian disaster on the front lines of the 15-month-old war.
The floods engulfed streets and houses and sent residents fleeing with what little belongings they could carry from dozens of communities on both sides of the Dnieper River, which separates warring armies across much of southern Ukraine.
As the debris-choked waters began to peak on Wednesday, reports said about 4,000 people had been evacuated to areas controlled by Russia and Ukraine, according to officials from both countries, a fraction of the estimated 41,000 residents Ukraine estimates , that they are at risk from the flood. The US State Department estimated that about 20,000 people would have to be resettled.
It is still unclear what caused the dam to fail. Experts said a deliberate explosion inside the dam, which has been under Russian control since the start of the war, most likely caused the massive reinforced concrete structure to collapse.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian forces, which have consistently used the destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure as a military tactic, blew up the dam to “use the flood as a weapon.” Russian officials blamed Ukrainian shelling for the damage to the facility, but experts said it was highly unlikely to cause it to collapse. State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said the United States could not say who was behind the damage to the dam.
In talks with Mr. Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a “comprehensive investigation” by a commission with UN representatives as well as Russian and Ukrainian experts. Mr Erdogan said the investigation should be carried out “in a way that leaves no room for suspicion”.
No deaths have yet been confirmed and the scale of the disaster, which dried up a giant reservoir used for drinking water and irrigation, is only beginning to emerge. At least seven people were reported missing in the flood, Russia’s state news agency TASS reported, citing Vladimir Leontiev, the Russian-elected mayor of Nova Kakhovka. On the Ukrainian side, three people are missing, the National Police reported.
Mr Zelensky said hundreds of thousands of people were “without normal access to drinking water” and that emergency services were working to quickly deliver drinking water to Ukrainian-controlled areas.
In the Ukrainian-controlled west bank city of Kherson, rescuers completely evacuated a neighborhood submerged in foul-smelling floods, venturing out in boats to pull people from rooftops and upper floors of homes. The river peaked at about 10 feet above normal in Kherson, and Ukrhydroenergo, the country’s main hydroelectric company, said it would begin to recede in the coming days. Nikolaev, a Black Sea port city already under pressure as a hub for people fleeing fighting, offered shelter to evacuees.
It was difficult to get information on areas in the Russian-occupied east coast, but state television broadcast images of flooded villages, and Russian-appointed officials said about 1,500 people there had been evacuated.
Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-appointed occupation governor of Kherson region, said 48 temporary housing facilities with 2,700 beds had been set up, in part with the help of the Russian Emergencies Ministry. It declared a state of emergency and listed 35 towns that had been affected by flooding on the Russian-controlled side of the Dnieper, including places where water had reached the roofs of buildings.
Fueling fears that Russia was continuing a practice that prompted the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Mr Putin and one of his top aides, Mr Saldo said occupation authorities were taking children from flooded villages below the dam and sending them to holiday camps in other parts of the Kherson region or in the Crimea. Over the past year, Ukraine and human rights activists have condemned the displacement or forcible transfer of Ukrainian children, calling it a war crime.
The environmental damage of the disaster was also becoming clear. Ukraine’s agriculture ministry warned that the dam’s destruction had cut off water to hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland, turning some of the country’s most productive grain fields “into deserts as early as next year.” The dam holds back a body of water the size of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
Ukraine’s health ministry said thousands of fish had died, and environmental groups warned that falling water levels in the reservoir would make it difficult for fish eggs to hatch and populations to recover.
Ukrainian officials also said an estimated 150 tons of engine oil had been released from an engine room into the dam, sending toxic waters downstream. Another 300 tons of oil were still at risk of leaking into the river. Environmental groups have warned of pesticides, fuels and other toxins being washed into the Dnieper.
Demolishing the dam could also risk diverting attention, resources and personnel from a long-planned Ukrainian counteroffensive, which U.S. officials said could begin this week. Flood-affected communities are calling for large quantities of fuel, water and vehicles – all components also essential to military operations – while National Guard soldiers are helping with disaster relief.
Fighting continued Wednesday on the front lines in eastern Ukraine, with Ukraine bombing Russian positions and Russia attacking Kherson, even as the flooded city tried to evacuate residents.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned on Wednesday against focusing too much on the Kremlin’s mistakes on the battlefield so far.
“What they lack in quality — they have poor morale, poor equipment, poor training, poor leadership, poor logistics — they make up for in quantity, and quantity has quality in itself, as the generals keep telling us,” he said.
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kherson, Ukraine, Paul Sonne from Berlin and Victoria Kim from Seoul.