Russian forces were on Wednesday shelling residents as they were being evacuated from areas affected by the breach of the Kakhovka dam in Ukraine, as authorities warned of the dangers of floating mines unearthed by flooding.
Parts of the Moscow-controlled dam on the Dnipro river imploded in the early hours of Tuesday, unleashing a torrent that flooded part of the front line in the Kherson region, forcing thousands of villagers to flee.
Ukrainian police and troops in Kherson city were using inflatable boats to rescue people from inundated areas, most clutching only a few documents and their pets.
Russian forces were shelling civilian areas as residents were being helped to safety, news agencies reported. Russia also accused Ukraine of continuing shelling despite the flooding.
Ukraine said the flood would leave hundreds of thousands of people without access to drinking water, swamp tens of thousands of hectares of agricultural land and leave more barren.
Visiting the city of Kherson on the Dnipro river on Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said more than 80 settlements had been affected in a disaster. “We see that the occupation authorities are not evacuating people,” Mr Kubrakov said, calling for the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to help evacuate flood victims in occupied regions.
Although it denies blowing up the dam, Moscow has engaged in a campaign of air strikes against Ukraine’s energy system, in which Kyiv says infrastructure of other dams has been damaged.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called the destruction of the dam an "environmental and humanitarian catastrophe" during a call with Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He also logged a phone call with his South African counterpart.
About 22,000 people live in places at risk of flooding in Russian-controlled areas, while 16,000 are in the most critical zone in Ukrainian-held territory, according to official tallies.
Flooding in Ukraine following dam destruction – in pictures
Oleksandr Prokudin, the head of the Kherson regional military administration, said 1,852 houses had been flooded by early Wednesday.
Water levels were expected to rise by another metre over the next 20 hours.
The water level in Kherson, a city of 279,000 before Russia's full-scale invasion in February last year, had risen by 12-16cm an hour on Tuesday but was now rising at 1-2cm an hour, Mr Kubrakov said. On Wednesday, the daily intelligence update by the UK’s Ministry of Defence said water levels in the reservoir were at a “record high” before the breach.
It warned that the structure was “likely to deteriorate further over the next few days, causing additional flooding”.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said any intentional attack on the Kakhovka dam would represent “the largest attack on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine since the start of the war and would demonstrate the new lows that we would have seen from Russian aggression”.
Ukrainian MP for Odesa Oleksiy Goncharenko, speaking from Kherson, said only Russia could have been responsible. “We have several theories. The most probable is that they were afraid that the dam could be used by Ukrainian forces in our counter-offensive because it is the only bridge from the right bank of the Dnipro river to the left bank, which could possibly be used.
“And also that is completely in the Russian playbook of war. They attacked the power grid in Ukraine for months, trying to freeze people, and that’s a new step in what they were already doing.”
Russian officials have offered various explanations, including Ukrainian sabotage, shelling and spontaneous collapse.
Analysts said it was not immediately clear how either side would benefit from the damage to the dam, because both Russian-controlled and Ukrainian-held territory is at risk.
The village of Korsunka on May 15 and the same area on June 6
But some have suggested reasons why Russia would have done it, highlighting the country’s history of attacking dams.
Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station dam on June 5 and 6
The structure supplies water to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
Government and UN officials have warned of a human and ecological disaster, the repercussions of which will take days to assess with a far longer recovery process.
The dam break, which both sides had long feared, added a new dimension to the war, now in its 16th month. Ukrainian forces were widely seen to be moving forward with a long-anticipated counter-offensive in areas along more than 1,000km of front line in the east and south.