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Ukraine blames Russian-occupied dam as village grapples with flooding

By Max Hunder

LYSOHIRKA, Ukraine (Reuters) - As the water lapped against ruined appliances in Ihor Medunov's kitchen, he recalled the dozens of birthdays he has marked in his Ukrainian riverside village, most of which is under several feet of water.

Officials and residents of the island community say the village in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region blame the flooding on Russia's occupation of the Nova Kakhovka dam that lies 100 miles (160 km) downstream on the River Dnipro.

"We would have 50 people sat round a big table here sometimes," said Medunov, the hunting gamekeeper in the village of Lysohirka who turns 69 this week.

He told Reuters that the water level started rising sharply over a month ago, sometimes by up to 30 centimetres (one foot) a day, and had remained elevated since.

Several buildings on his plot were submerged and he said the water had never been this high in 25 years on the river island. Just six people now resided in the village compared with 50 who usually live there during the warm months, he said.

The village lies around 15 miles (25 km) from the front lines with invading Russian forces and residents can no longer take shelter from shelling because their basements are water-logged.

Medunov's neighbour, 74-year-old retired factory worker Mykola, showed off part of a rocket that was found three kilometres away and gifted to him by neighbours.

"Sometimes the explosions shake the houses," he said as artillery rumbled faintly in the distance.

HIGH WATER LEVELS

The Kakhovka dam, one of six dams on the Dnipro that carves through central and southern Ukraine, was captured at the start of Moscow's February 2022 invasion.

"The rise of the Dnipro's water level, as a result of which settlements in the Zaporizhzhia region were flooded, is linked to the Russian occupation of the Kakhovka dam," state company Ukrhydroenergo, which owns the dams, said in a statement.

It said the 17-metre (56-foot) level in the pool held back by the dam was a metre higher than normal for this time of year.

But it said it was unable to say what exactly Russian forces were doing at the dam because it did not have access itself.

The Russian Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a written request for comment about the Ukrainian allegation.

A Russian energy official warned earlier this month that the dam risked being overwhelmed by record-high water levels.

Inna Rybalko, an official from Ukraine's state waterways agency, said this spring had seen an unusually high amount of rain, with 3.5 times the regular amount of monthly rainfall recorded nationwide in April.

Puffing on a cigarette in his inundated kitchen, Medunov said he believed Russian forces were deliberately flooding the area to get at Ukrainian military positions.

Both Russia and Ukraine have accused each of plotting to breach the dam using explosives. Such a move would flood much of the area downstream and likely cause major destruction. Russia accused Ukraine of firing a rocket at the dam last November.

Medunov's son, 39-year-old Dmytro, said the cost of repairs would devastate his family: "Inside it's all rotten, all covered in mould... Wood, insulation. The costs will be very painful."

Dmytro lives in the regional capital Zaporizhzhia, and visited the river island every weekend until the invasion.

His visits have become rarer due to a wartime ban on civilian craft on this stretch of the Dnipro. He now has to catch lifts from police or military boats, which are currently the island's only lifeline for food and supplies.

Medunov and his wife Natalia, who have five dogs, plan to stay on the island rather than move to Zaporizhzhia with their son. If the water level rises further, they may move to another building, he said.

"There's a house which has a second floor," he said.

(Reporting by Max Hunder; editing by Tom Balmforth and Mark Heinrich)