The humanitarian situation following the destruction of the Kakhovka dam in Ukraine is still a “moving target”, immediate needs are “huge”, and concerns are rising for what the future holds, according to the UN’s top official in the country, Denise Brown.
Speaking to journalists from Bilozerka, a town on the Dnipro River about 20 kilometres west of Kherson and five kilometres from the frontline, Ms. Brown, the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, said that on Friday, the UN brought in a five-truck convoy to the affected areas, with desperately needed drinking water, food and equipment to help repair damaged homes.
Ms. Brown has been visiting affected areas and said that people were completely taken by surprise by the flooding, which came in the middle of the night on Tuesday after the dam suffered a massive breach. Both Ukraine and Russia have blamed each other for its destruction.
She stressed that people were “distraught” by the latest catastrophe to hit them, but remained resilient, even though they faced “daily shelling” – including just a day ago.
In many places, the waters haven’t receded yet, which is why the impact remained hard to assess and satellite imagery was “critical”, Ms. Brown said. The UN aid coordination office (OCHA) said on Thursday that flooding would still last “for at least a week”.
For the moment, an estimated 17,000 people were affected in the flooding zone according to Ms. Brown. UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Shabia Mantoo, added that this number could rise to 40,000 as the situation evolved.
‘Doing my darndest’
Asked to comment on earlier criticism from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of the UN’s relief effort, Ms. Brown said that the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) had been bringing in supplies “from day one” with commercial vehicles and that UNHCR and the UN migration agency (IOM) were also on the ground.
“I have asked that question to the Ukrainian authorities, ‘Did we get here on time?’ And the answer was yes,” she said.
Ms. Brown explained that the current situation was very difficult and fast-moving, and that the fact that UN agencies brought in relief with commercial transporters may have made them less visible to the authorities.
She also recalled her conversation with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Thursday, focused on “what more we can do together”.
“I am doing my darndest to ensure that we do our job,” she insisted.
Call for access to Russian-occupied areas
OCHA said on Thursday that the UN was “extremely concerned” about the plight of civilians in areas under Russian military control and that it had no access to those areas in the Kherson region.
UN rights office (OHCHR) spokesperson Jeremy Laurence, told reporters on Friday that just like humanitarian actors, human rights monitors cannot enter the Russian-occupied territories, as Russia had denied the Office’s repeated requests on the issue.
He reiterated the urgent call for access, along with an appeal for an independent investigation into the exact circumstances of the Kakhovka dam destruction.
Waterborne diseases on the rise
Humanitarians insisted that stagnant water in the flooded was a “major” health concern, carrying risks of cholera and diarrhoea.
UNHCR also pointed out that sewage, heavy oil and pesticides were mixing with the floodwaters and creating additional health hazards.
The UN World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Thursday about the impacts of the flooding on sanitation systems and public health services. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted that WHO is supporting the authorities to prevent waterborne diseases and to improve disease surveillance.
WHO teams are on the ground, performing health needs assessments, and the agency’s Ukraine office said that in the coming days, additional supplies to strengthen access to health services will be delivered.
With landmines floating downstream with the floodwaters, Ms. Brown said that a UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) mine expert had been deployed to work with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to assess the risks and that a map had been produced of the most heavily mined areas.
On Thursday, Ms. Brown discussed the situation with Ukraine’s First Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Svyrydenko, the Government’s focal point on landmines.
She said that the UN was asked to work closely with Ms. Svyrydenko to communicate the risks from unexploded ordnance in the floodwaters to the population and specifically involve UNICEF in spreading the word in schools.
Fresh concerns for the future
While the immediate impact of the dam’s destruction is staggering, Ms. Brown expressed her concerns about “what the future holds”, amid the destruction of homes, farmland and livestock, the dramatic impact on water and energy supplies and the serious risk of environmental contamination.
To plan for the long-term effects of the disaster, the veteran aid official said that on Thursday, the UN team met with representatives of the Ukrainian Government, the European Union and the Kyiv School of Economics to look at the available satellite imagery and continue the needs assessment.