Cross-frontline water supply in Donbas four years after the Minsk II ceasefire agreement: an outline of experiences and actors of cooperation

On September 17 CivivlM+ member DRA organised discussion “Pipelines and frontlines – cooperation and conflict in Eastern Ukraine” with Dr. Sophie Lambroschini, researcher in contemporary history of East-Central Europe at the Marc Bloch Centre in Berlin, Camilla Corradin, People in Need (PIN), Mark Buttle, UNICEF, WASH cluster coordinator, Andrey Klochko, Voda Donbasu and Galina Pavlovskaya, teacher living in a village on the frontline.

Introducing her report Sophia Lambroschini mentioned that the research marks the fifth anniversary of the Minsk Protocol, a first attempt to implement a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, made by involved parties under the auspices of the international community in September 2014.

Its goal is to outline and analyze, through the example of the cross-frontline management of critical water infrastructure in Donbas, how international and domestic actors adapt to the realities of a war-torn water supply system and attempts to map some possible pathways for cooperation in the context of war. In eastern Ukraine, the battlefields span intensely industrialized and urbanized areas, disrupting transport, work, and utilities networks that straddle the frontline, affecting several million peoples’ livelihoods – including their drinking water supply. The report can be downloaded here.

Camilla Corradin, People in Need, mentioned that in five years since conflict started, there are people, in the conflict-affected area, who do not have access to safe and sufficient water. In this area 4,6M people rely on a centralized water system: everything is interconnected, including across the frontline; if a pipeline, a pump, a filtration station is damaged or breaks, the impact easily spreads. Along this very frontline, nearly 300 fighting-related incidents (shelling, shooting) hit water infrastructure, often damaging it.

“The result of those issues: those who need assistance with water supply are still many. Not hundreds, nor thousands, or tens of thousands. Millions: 3,2M people. Imagine that almost one person out of three, here, had last year daily or weekly water shortages.

What does this concretely mean? The scale can vary from being cut off water few hours per day – so you need to make sure you have extra water at home always available, in case you haven’t planned well your shower, need to flush the toilet, or want to wash the dishes – to settlements which have been cut off water for years. This means, having to get water of unclear quality from a well, in a highly industrialized area; having to reuse water to water your plants, or wash your dishes; not being able to run a washing machine. It also means that those people need to rely on humanitarian assistance”.

PIN is one of several organizations which work to provide water to those who would be otherwise left without, on both sides of the frontline.

"We are active in both regions in GCA and are the only INGO with a registered office also on the NGCA Luhansk region. We ensure that over 10,000 people have their right to water met, and we do so in the Popasna district LGCA, Yasinuvata/ Bahmutka/Mariinka districts in DGCA, in Toretsk and Avdiivka cities, and in LNGCA, mainly along the frontline, where needs are the highest.

However, as you can imagine, the scale of the problem is so large that much of what we do is putting band-aids on a hemorrhage. Humanitarian assistance saves lives, allows people to cope, it is absolutely needed. Yet how would you feel if this was the fifth year in a row, in Europe, at the doorstep of the European Union, that you live on 7.5L to 15L of water per day, per person? That you need to walk up to 500 meters to get the water a truck is bringing to your village through an unpaved road? That you have to wait by the truck for up to 15 minutes as others fill their containers – it gets as cold as minus 25 and as hot as plus 35 in the region? And that you don’t know if your heating system, relying on water, will work?”

Galina Pavlovskaya, teacher from Verkhniotoretsk said that her village used to get water from the Yasinuvata filtration station. Caught in fighting and damaged, the FS could not be repaired for 2.5 years, until parties to conflict finally agreed to allow for its repair, and it became functioning once again. For 2.5 years, people in Verkhnitoretsk were left with no water. There are no wells in town. They would get drinking water from humanitarian organizations, which is enough to drink, cook, make tea, but not enough for everything else. She will tell about how they coped: going to family and friends in other villages to get a shower or wash clothes, and to take water to bring back home. Etc. Until now, there are water shortages from time to time, linked to shelling and electricity issues, in which cases humanitarian organizations step in once more to provide water. Remaining without water is difficult because it means that there is no heating, not even mentioning the difficulty of the daily needs like cooking, or showering. People of Galina’s village started repairing water supply by themselves, not waiting the professional brigades who’s arrival often takes long in the condition of the conflict.

Mark Buttle, UNICEF Wash Cluster underlined that the connection between the water and other critical infrastructure is huge. Ukraine has very severe winters with the temperatures dropping to -30. Without heating it is impossible to survive. Most of the settlements in Eastern Ukraine have centralized heating systems. Mostly they are very outdating and loose big proportion of water through leaks. This means that constant supply of fresh water is needed to keep the system going. If the supply stops the system can freeze and restarting it will become a serious challenge. Ukraine had emergencies like this before the conflict. And even for functioning government with substantial resources it took 8 days to restore heating in Alchevsk after it broke down in the end of January 2006. Since then infrastructure in Alchevsk and other cities around the frontline aged even more and it needs continuous maintenance to ensure no emergencies happen. Failure of the water supply in summer but especially in winter will mean the new wave of displacement.

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