On Sunday, Russian forces opened fire on a boat that was rescuing civilians from floods caused by the destruction of a dam in southern Ukraine, local authorities said, killing three people and wounding 10 others.
The head of the military department of the Kherson region, Oleksandr Prokudin, wrote on the Telegram messaging service that a 74-year-old man was among the dead, and two law enforcement officers were among the wounded. These claims cannot be independently verified.
Russia has launched repeated attacks on rescue efforts since the collapse of the Kakhovka Dam on Tuesday, according to Ukrainian officials and aid organizations. The failure of the dam sent a torrent of water down the Dnipro River, adding to the danger facing communities on the front line of the conflict.
Although the waters had receded, Ukraine’s State Emergency Service, local volunteer groups and aid agencies were struggling to respond. At least 14 people have been killed in the floods and at least 35 others are missing, while scores of communities have been cut off from clean water.
The river’s frontline location further complicated rescue efforts. Russian forces, which withdrew from the city of Kherson in November to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, launched thousands of rocket and missile attacks across the river. Ukrainian authorities said on Saturday that a total of 41 shells exploded over the past 24 hours.
Officials have also been grappling with the environmental toll, which has horrified Ukrainians already battered by 15 months of Russian air strikes, torture and deportation of civilians, and occupation of parts of their country.
Russian forces took control of the dam, and engineering and munitions experts said a deliberate explosion inside it may have caused the dam to collapse. US intelligence analysts suspect that Russia was behind the destruction of the dam, but they do not have conclusive evidence yet as to who was responsible. Moscow’s accusations that the Kiev government was responsible for the disaster were met with scorn in Ukraine.
In its latest update on the toll of the disaster, Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said that 77 urban settlements in the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions were flooded. It added that rescue workers had evacuated more than 3,600 people, many of them elderly. Many more residents fled the area by car and rail on their own.
Ukrainian authorities said six people had died, while pro-Russian officials had earlier put the death toll in the Kherson region they control at eight.
The water flow through the dam peaked a few days after the eruption and has since begun to diminish as the water flows into the Black Sea. Ukraine’s state hydroelectric company, Ukrhydroenergo, said on Sunday that the water level in the reservoir had fallen by about three feet in the past 24 hours, and more than 21 feet in total since the dam collapsed.
The drop in the water level poses a new danger to the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is located on the eastern bank of the reservoir and is controlled by Russian forces. The plant, which this week put the last of its six reactors into a cold shutdown, is using tank water to cool its reactors and spent fuel.
It also complicates the military calculations for both sides as a Ukrainian counter-offensive begins to retake territory in the south and east of the country.
The dam disaster has contaminated the water supply and, over time, will deplete the groundwater levels upstream—creating a long-term problem for a population beyond those in the immediate flood zone. In an initial sign of the impact, the Ministry of Internal Affairs said 162,000 customers in the Dnipropetrovsk region, which lies upstream of the dam, were cut off from clean water supplies.
It will also affect irrigation that nourishes the fertile land in the river basin, a rich source of agricultural exports for the country, and threaten wildlife in a region that has several national parks.
“The situation in national parks is critical,” Ukraine’s environment minister, Ruslan Strelets, said in a Facebook post.
On the Russian-controlled eastern bank, more than 6,000 people have been evacuated from Russian-controlled territory, including 235 children, Vladimir Saldo, the Kremlin-appointed governor, said Saturday morning. He said via Telegram that more than 60 people have been taken to hospital.
The dam disaster also poses potential problems for Crimea, a dry region illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 that relies on a canal fed by the Dnipro River for some of its water supplies.
According to a report on Sunday by Britain’s Defense Intelligence Agency, the floods “severely disrupted this main source of water”.
“Infuriatingly humble analyst. Bacon maven. Proud food specialist. Certified reader. Avid writer. Zombie advocate. Incurable problem solver.”