IIn a mud-soaked nightgown, the Ukrainian grandmother scrapes the stinking water that has swallowed the steps to her home in the city of Kherson.
Frail and shocked Antonia Shevchenko, 84, seems unaware of the futility of her attempts to drain the swamp that is flooding her home.
Her daughter Svetlana, 64, lies in the blistering hot mud trying to persuade her to stop and calm down. Shells rumble in the background.
It’s the first time they’ve returned since they were evacuated after this month’s Novaya Kakhokva Dam explosion that released the contents of one of Europe’s largest reservoirs over southern Ukraine.
The blast – for which Ukraine blames Russia – sparked the worst environmental disaster on the continent in recent history and is likely to impact global food security, according to the United Nations.
In Kherson, the capital of the region, dozens of people were killed, entire cities were flooded, all wildlife was drowned and this street was turned into a canal.
“We didn’t even have time to get her clothes, we had to carry her in the slippers and nightie she’s wearing now,” Svetlana says tearfully, while her confused mother repeats in the background, “It’s all just mud.” . .
“It’s impossible to fix. I don’t feel anything now Everything is just empty inside. Now everything is gone, we have nothing left,” adds Svetlana.
A few blocks away, Oksana Kuzminko, 70, also returning for the first time, is making her way through the devastation.
“Welcome to Zombieland,” she adds with a desperate shrug.
Until recently, the only way to navigate these streets was to steer a boat between the rooftops of the flooded houses. After the waters receded, the horrifying extent of the damage and the work that still needs to be done was revealed.
In the backyards of the partially collapsed houses, sewage, mud, rubbish, dead animals, pieces of masonry and possibly landmines swirl together. The area is still being bombed by Russian forces stationed across the swelling bank of the Dnipro River.
Anna Gatchecnko, 73, another elderly resident of this district, says the combination of flooding and war is “her worst nightmare”.
“We survived the Russian occupation, the shelling and now this has happened,” she says, carrying plastic bags tied to her feet in the toxic mud.
“They took everything with them. My house, my belongings were the last things in this world I had.
The Kakhovka Dam — important for freshwater and irrigation in southern Ukraine — lies in part of the Kherson region, which Moscow illegally annexed in September and has occupied for a year.
The damage is so great that Ukraine has accused Russia of “ecocide” – believing Moscow’s forces blew it up to prevent Kiev’s troops from advancing to the south as they launched a counteroffensive.
Moscow has vehemently denied the allegations and blamed Kiev.
Experts say the dam was built so sturdily that only an internal explosion could have caused such a catastrophic rupture.
According to the United Nations, the severe flooding wiped out hundreds of towns and villages. The United Nations has warned that almost a quarter of a million people depend on drinking water.
Below the dam, towns and villages have turned into polluted swamps where cholera has been found. Upstream, the reservoir that once held agricultural land has turned into a salty desert. Residents in these areas are lining up to get water from fire trucks that are under fire.
And the effects will be felt far beyond Ukraine’s borders, possibly even triggering global hunger.
Ukraine — a major exporter of grains, oils and vegetables — was already struggling to export its crops because of the war.
The devastating effects of flooding in one of the world’s most important breadbaskets will almost inevitably result in lower grain exports, higher food prices around the world, and less food for millions in need.
“The truth is, this is just the beginning of seeing the consequences of this act,” warned Martin Griffiths, a United Nations auxiliary official, recently.
It also raised concerns about the stability of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, which relied on water from the now-drained Kakhovka reservoir for operation.
Rafael Grossi, head of the United Nations nuclear agency, which has tried unsuccessfully to establish a safe zone around the plant, was so concerned that he traveled to the Russian-occupied nuclear plant. There, he admitted that “we were grappling with…water-related challenges.”
In the regional capital, Zaporizhia, Taras Tyshchenko, head of the Health Ministry’s Center for Disease Prevention and Control, said if the Russians were able to release the water over Kherson, they would have no qualms about shutting down nuclear power.
After the dam blew up, his health facility is testing the air and water throughout the region for radiation and contamination several times a day.
So far they have detected cholera and remain on high alert for radiation. They completed three rounds of nuclear power plant disaster training and distributed potassium iodide tablets to residents in the danger zone.
The damage caused by the destroyed dam is unbelievable, he says in front of the city’s main port, which has since dried up.
The sprawling concrete jetty that once carried commercial water traffic crouches abandoned over muddy puddles where his teams collect water samples.
“It could take well over a decade to repair the dam, refill the reservoirs and restore this region to normal,” he adds grimly.
“And that work can only really begin after the win.”
Meanwhile, towns and villages along the Kachowka Reservoir will turn into wastelands if no solution is found.
Deep fissures cut through the cracked riverbeds, where dead fish and mollusks slowly crunch in the sun. In a village, an abandoned fisherman rides a scooter through the desert landscape in search of a pool of water.
“After the dam blew up, we tried to build our own mini dams to hold back some water,” explains Vitaly Marozov, 29, who works on a 400-hectare farm that grows vegetables and fruit just outside the southern town of Nikopol .
He plays us a video of local volunteers building a makeshift barrier out of sacks and dirt.
“Now we’re trying to dig wells, but the water is salty,” he adds.
This is already destroying crops.
Standing next to a ruined cabbage patch dusted white with salt, he says they’ll be lucky if they can salvage a fifth of their total annual yield. He reckons the damage will cost their farm 22 million hryvnia, or around £500,000, and it will only get worse as the season progresses.
“We’re just a farm, it’s like that everywhere in the area. This will have implications for global food security unless someone does something drastic,” he continues.
Back in the flooded regions, volunteers use boats to bring relief supplies to communities now cut off from aid.
Others are bringing pumps to try to drain the stagnant puddles of water from the hardest-hit areas. But it only reveals the irreparable damage done to the entire southern part of Ukraine.
We find Olha Mosyk, 70, who was forced to swim to safety with a litter of newborn kittens who were living on an island after the destruction at their home in the Mykolayiv region. Soggy, muddy mounds of dirt mark the remains of the walls of their home.
“It takes steel teeth to break the Ukrainians. It won’t work for me,” she says, retrieving the remains of rotten potatoes from her ruined field, which depicts the same tyranny of blackened mud.
“We can only try to pull ourselves together,” she adds with a pause.
Back in the city of Kherson, Svetlana tries to comfort her mother Antonia, who is about to have a panic attack.
“How am I doing? Crying all the time. “My whole body is shaking,” says the 84-year-old quietly, her red floral nightgown is a flash of color in the gray water.
“It’s all flooded. My whole life is underwater.”