Illegal logging blamed for worsening floods in Ukraine

MOSCOW – Rain-flooded rivers flooded towns, broke dams and stranded towns in western Ukraine on Wednesday, in what officials called the worst flooding in the region in more than a decade, with the response this time complicated by the coronavirus epidemic.

As the water rose, a hospital was partially evacuated, but those with Covid-19 remained, in a rescue that the Ukrainian prime minister said was carried out with great care to prevent the spread of the contagion. In an illustration of the overlapping disasters, people crowded into military trucks, many of them wearing face masks, for evacuation on flooded roads.

Dams, bridges, dykes and roads were carried by the Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv and Chernivtsi regions. More than 200 cities and towns were flooded and roads to 34 settlements were isolated by high tide, authorities said.

At least three people died, including two whose car was swept into a rough river, and one person is missing. Denys Shmyhal, the prime minister, toured the area on Wednesday, calling the damage worse than that due to a major flood in 2008.

An unusual flood caused this week’s flooding in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. About 70 percent of the region’s average monthly rainfall fell on Tuesday and Wednesday, said Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs.

The area was “hit by a force of nature,” said Avakov.

But environmentalists pointed to an unnatural cause: illegal loggers who have taken advantage of political chaos in Ukraine in recent years to cut wood in large areas of forest, increasing runoff from storms and floods.

The spread of the virus posed additional risks in the flood zone. Ukraine has reported 39,852 cases and 1,061 deaths from the coronavirus.

A district hospital in the city of Halych on the Dniester River removed eight patients when water flooded the basement, but 43 suspected and confirmed Covid-19 patients remained, said Volodymyr Krupa, the hospital’s director.

“There are certain complications” with the rescue due to coronavirus cases, Mr. Shmyhal, the prime minister, wrote in a social media post.

The water stopped rising Wednesday, Krupa said in a phone interview, but the hospital was cut off, with the road under water.

President Volodymyr Zelensky isolated himself and canceled all trips, after his wife, Olena Zelenska, tested positive for the virus earlier this month.

The government’s top forestry official said no amount of forest cover could have absorbed this week’s deluge. But environmentalists say years of illegal logging in the Carpathian forests, once dense, have left the area prone to flooding.

“Moisture is not retained on the slopes,” due to deforestation, Natalia Gozak, director of Ekodia, a Ukrainian conservation group, said in an interview. Climate change has also caused more frequent heavy rains, he said.

This week Earthsight, a UK-based environmental group, accused furniture giant Ikea of ​​being a major buyer of Ukrainian illegal wood. Illegally cut down in the Carpathian Mountains enters the company’s Terje folding chair and Ingolf dining chair, among other products, the group said in a report.

Ikea responded by saying that it never uses illegally harvested wood, that it will audit its Ukrainian suppliers and that less than 1 percent of the company’s global demand for wood comes from Ukraine.

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Vinnytsia, Ukraine.