One year after Ukraine’s Kakhovka dam disaster

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam in Ukraine last June devastated communities, cutting off the water supply to one million people and making health care harder to access.

MSF patient Liudmyla Maslovska, 67, Novosofiyivka, Mykolaiv region, Ukraine.

Liudmyla rode her bike to the MSF mobile clinic in Novosofiyivka, Mykolaiv region. Ukraine 2024 © MSF

After the dam at Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant in Ukraine's Kherson region was destroyed on June 6, 2023, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams provided medical and humanitarian aid to people affected. One year after the tragedy, communities are still trying to cope with the consequences, including mental health effects such as anxiety and sleep disturbances. 

On the banks of the Inhulets River in the Kherson region of Ukraine, cows graze on greenery beside ripened fields. The idyllic scene is interrupted, however, by the sight of destroyed buildings and “Beware of mines” signs—reminders of the ongoing war.

A year ago, this part of southern Ukraine suffered one of its biggest disasters since the start of the full-scale war when the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station dam was destroyed, killing 15 people. According to the United Nations, the breach damaged over 37,000 homes, 37 educational institutions, an estimated 11 health facilities, and disrupted the provision of drinking water and sanitation services to one million people, impacting their access to housing, education, health, and water. 

Some of the territories that flooded are now under Russian military occupation, and the international community has been denied humanitarian access. 

Boat used by volunteers to send medications provided by MSF to another bank of the Inhulets river, Fedorivka, Kherson region, 2023
A boat used by volunteers to send medications provided by MSF across the Inhulets River. Ukraine 2023 © MSF

Delivering medicines by boat

The Inhulets is a tributary of the Dnipro River that flows through three regions: Dnipro, Mykolaiv, and Kherson. After the destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station on the night of June 6, 2023, 18 cubic kilometers of water poured into the Dnipro River within three to four days, significantly raising the water level of the river and its tributaries, including the Inhulets.

MSF medical activity manager Vladyslav Butskyi remembers that day well. At the time, he was working as a doctor in one of our mobile clinics. "In the morning, as usual, we went to Snihurivka in the Mykolaiv region,” he recounts. “But the water was rising, and by the end of the day, it was impossible to cross the Inhulets River on the bridges."

"Covering most communities in Kherson and Mykolaiv regions along the Inhulets presented a significant challenge," Butskiy explains. "We encountered two problems simultaneously. First, there was a shortage of drinking water, as all wells and boreholes were flooded. Second, on the inaccessible side of the river, we were the sole organization offering medical services and medicines at that time."

MSF teams provide people with water and and containers for storage, Oleksandrivka, Mykolaiv region, Ukraine.
The day after the disaster, Doctors Without Borders distributed water and storage containers to residents. Ukraine 2023 © MSF

The following day, MSF purchased large quantities of water and storage containers and began distributing them to residents. However, reaching the opposite bank of the Inhulets proved to be a much more challenging task.

For this, our teams sought the support of volunteers. We brought packs with water, water disinfectants, and medicine kits, which residents transported to the other side by boat.

Vladyslav particularly remembers the story of a patient from a village with the same name as the river. "I got a call from a doctor there and she said that a woman's [blood]sugar was extremely high and rapidly increasing. Neither the paramedic nor any of the neighbors had any medicines that could help. So we sent everything we needed by boat from the village of Fedorivka, located across the river."

After a while, the MSF team found a single bridge that had not been flooded, thanks to the help of residents. This allowed our team to continue seeing patients on the other side of the river.

MSF patient Olha Panich, 58, speaks with an MSF staff member in Novosofiyivka, Mykolaiv region, Ukraine
Dr. Ruslan Shpara checks Olha Panich's blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Ukraine 2024 © MSF

Bitter memories, one year later

In Novosofiyivka, Mykolaiv region, the MSF mobile clinic team conducts consultations at the local medical unit. Residents are lined up in the corridor; most are elderly women. While they wait, MSF health promoter Olena Lyubarska explains how to avoid cardiovascular diseases as she offers them tea.

Among those waiting is Olha Panich, talking and laughing with her friends until it’s finally her turn to see a doctor. After MSF doctor Ruslan Shpara checks her blood pressure and blood sugar levels and prescribes the necessary medicines, Panich begins to cry.

"The street, the river bank, the houses, and gardens were all flooded,” she says, remembering the destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station. “People left that area and moved to higher ground."

Dr. Shpara explains, "The village was once under Russian military occupation and was partially flooded. Unfortunately, the patients here do not have access to quality medicine. Most of them are middle-aged and elderly people with chronic diseases. I have observed a change in their mental state after the events: anxiety and sleep disturbances."  

A modular house in Virivka, Kherson region, Ukraine
The mobile clinic team regularly visits the village of Virivka and works with Olha in this modular house. Ukraine 2024 © MSF

A village with one nurse

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam has had a significant impact on the health care system in southern Ukraine, which is also affected by the fighting. Health care workers in the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions work amid poor conditions including destroyed hospitals, a lack of medical staff, and daily shelling.

Only 200 people are left in the village of Virivka in Kherson. During the Russian military occupation of the village, its medical facility was destroyed and looted. Ministry of Health nurse Olha Varenyk initially had to conduct medical check-ups in her home, but recently a modular structure was installed in her yard, allowing her to see patients there. The MSF mobile clinic team regularly visits the village and works with Olha in this structure.

Varenyk admits that working alone is not easy, but she does not want to leave: "This is my home. I grew up here. I help people in their time of need. These are my people. I love them."

About our work in Ukraine

MSF continues to work near the front lines of Ukraine. Our mobile clinics are staffed by doctors, paramedics, nurses, social workers, and psychologists who provide medical services and medicines to residents of towns and villages in the Kherson, Mykolaiv, Kharkiv, and Donetsk regions. Our teams transport patients to hospitals in our ambulances and support frontline hospitals with medical donations.