Winter in Unalaska by Sam Zmolek
Your voice in the Aleutians.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ukraine flooded a village to save Kyiv. Residents are racing to clean up before winter

Seven months after blowing up a dam in Demydiv, Ukraine, to stop Russian forces from advancing on the capital, the area remains flooded and attempts to remove the water continue.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Seven months after blowing up a dam in Demydiv, Ukraine, to stop Russian forces from advancing on the capital, the area remains flooded and attempts to remove the water continue.

Updated September 26, 2022 at 7:25 AM ET

DEMYDIV, Ukraine — It was the second day of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, and Russian forces were heading south toward the capital, Kyiv. To keep them from advancing, the Ukrainian military was destroying bridges and infrastructure. Part of the strategy included blowing up a dam that regulates the Irpin River flowing south.

The thinking was if they blew up the dam, and flooded the land south of it — including the nearby villages and fields — they'd be able to stop the Russian forces from advancing to the capital.

It worked. The water flowed and flowed, and the troops couldn't continue moving south.

Volodymyr Artemchuk shovels a path through debris for water to drain out of the village toward where hoses are pumping it into a field.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Volodymyr Artemchuk shovels a path through debris for water to drain out of the village toward where hoses are pumping it into a field.

For about a month, the village of Demydiv, which lies on the western bank of the river about an hour north of Kyiv, was under Russian control. It was also completely flooded. The villagers' homes were full of water, and some residents think that during the occupation, that kept the Russian soldiers at bay. At the end of March, when Russia was forced to retreat from the capital, the locals were proud of what their village had endured.

They are the village that saved Kyiv, they said.

Seven months later, they're still proud. But they're also still dealing with the water, and there's still a lot of it.

Backyards in Demydiv remain filled with water after the village's dam was destroyed to stop the Russian army's advance into the capital, Kyiv.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Backyards in Demydiv remain filled with water after the village's dam was destroyed to stop the Russian army's advance into the capital, Kyiv.

Andriy Scherbakov, the assistant to the mayor, drives to the top of a levy separating houses from what is now essentially a lake. Trees and bushes poke out from the water, nearly halfway submerged. "Everything that you can see now," says Scherbakov, "there was never water here."

This land used to be a field; there were vegetable patches and a place where cows could graze. Now there are beavers and water birds. Reeds and grasses that thrive near the water grow tall, establishing a whole new ecosystem.

Beyond the lake, down a dirt and sand embankment, Volodymyr Artemchuk is standing in about a foot of water, shoveling soaked and floating garbage and debris.

Hoses are pumping water out of people's backyards.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Hoses are pumping water out of people's backyards.

"I'm still fighting the water," he says, as he moves objects aside, carving a path for the water to flow toward the newly installed pumps.

"It's better than fighting the Russians. The water you can pump out."

And they've been desperately trying to pump it out, rigging up firehouses and pumps to move the water to the other side of the embankment. Local officials estimate up to 100 houses were flooded. Though the water level has sunk far below a stained line on the fence showing where it had risen, it is still causing Artemchuk and his neighbors trouble, especially the groundwater seeping into basements and ruining harvests.

Damaging their own infrastructure may have been key to the country's survival, but restoring it will be costly. According to the Infrastructure Ministry, more than 300 bridges and overpasses have been damaged or destroyed — many of them by Ukrainian forces. Earlier this month, the World Bank said Ukraine's recovery and rebuilding would cost about $350 billion. About a third of that is related to direct damage to infrastructure, according to the Kyiv School of Economics.

Despite the challenging year so far, Artemchuk says the flooding is a sacrifice he doesn't regret.

He is proud of his village, which dates back to the 11th century. He explains that the Irpin River has a history of protecting the people of Kyiv from enemies — like in the 13th century, during the Kyivan Rus empire, and again during World War II, when it stopped the Germans from advancing to Kyiv.

Walking along the top of the dirt dam, past where Artemchuk is shoveling, you can see all the houses beyond have huge ponds in what used to be their backyards.

Halyna Kostiuchenko gardens in her backyard, where excess water has caused reeds and tall grasses to grow where her cabbage plants and berry bushes usually are. She's pulling out vegetables like beets and carrots so they don't rot.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Halyna Kostiuchenko gardens in her backyard, where excess water has caused reeds and tall grasses to grow where her cabbage plants and berry bushes usually are. She's pulling out vegetables like beets and carrots so they don't rot.

"Everything is water back here," says Halyna Kostiuchenko, who is out in her backyard garden, salvaging what she can from this year's harvest. She walks through her garden pointing out her plants: tomatoes, peppers and carrots. Then she stops about halfway back and points to a boggy, algae and moss-covered area. "And then there is water," she says, laughing.

In the back of the yard, reeds and tall grasses grow where her cabbages and berry bushes usually are. The beets and potatoes did OK, she says, but she's got to dig them up quickly, so they don't rot with all the soggy soil.

Across the dirt dam from Kostiuchenko's backyard there is a group of people fishing.

Vasyl Rybakov (left) fishes in the new lake that has been created by the flooding.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Vasyl Rybakov (left) fishes in the new lake that has been created by the flooding.

"I've caught carp and perch," says Vasyl Rybakov. His last name translates to "fisherman," though he doesn't usually fish — and certainly not here. "It would have been better if there was just dry land here instead of water," he says. "Fish you can buy at the market."

Out in his backyard, dressed in rubber shoes and swim trunks, Serhii Starunskyi is checking the water level. His yard is still soaked; the water level is at the base of his house.

"The biggest issue is the water underneath the ground," he explains. "I keep raising the alarm to the authorities that this water is still a problem. We're not getting rid of it fast enough."

Flooded backyards mean flooded basements, and while efforts to pump out the water are ongoing, the encroaching winter worries people like Serhii Starunskyi, who fears the water will freeze and the foundation of his home will crack.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Flooded backyards mean flooded basements, and while efforts to pump out the water are ongoing, the encroaching winter worries people like Serhii Starunskyi, who fears the water will freeze and the foundation of his home will crack.

He's not alone in his frustrations. At the end of June, Demydiv residents staged a protest, blocking the road to Kyiv, to draw attention to lingering flooding issues. They uploaded the video to Facebook.

Russian shelling damaged the nearby spillway, a passage for surplus water from a dam, which has hampered the region's ability to remove the water. But after the protest, the head of Kyiv's regional administration, Oleksiy Kuleba, promised that they would hasten efforts to repair it. The Ukrainian government has also promised to give out cash payments to the residents whose homes flooded.

But, Starunskyi says, just pumping out the water isn't enough. He's worried about when winter comes, and whether the soaked concrete foundations of his house and his neighbors will freeze and crack. He doesn't want Kyiv, and the world, to forget about what happened here, and the lingering problems it set in motion.

Hanna Palamorenko and Polina Lytvynova contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Water is pumped into a newly created lake, just on the other side of a dirt dam from people's homes.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Water is pumped into a newly created lake, just on the other side of a dirt dam from people's homes.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.