Water wars in east Ukraine

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AVDIIVKA, Ukraine — After seven years of war, life in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region has been divided in every way — socially, politically, economically, militarily. The one exception to the rule: The Ukrainian state water company Voda Donbasu, which manages a vast Soviet-era water treatment and delivery system that straddles the front line and serves communities on both sides of the divide.

Workers from the water utility company tread a political and literal minefield every day to provide both sides of the conflict with an essential for life itself: clean water. But the war threatens to cut the company in two and halt the flow altogether.

A long-standing Soviet system

Chief engineer Sergei Dolid, from the Kleban-Byk division of the company, owes his existence to Voda Donbasu. His parents met in the 1950s as young Komsomol members, both sent to east Ukraine to build the channel that carries water 132 kilometers from the Siverskyi-Donets River in the east of the country to Donetsk, and then on to the city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.

Dating from Soviet times, it is a single, unified engineering system. Towns all the way down the 12,000 kilometers of pipeline are directly dependent on it, and the infrastructure that lies upstream.

According to Dolid, who joined the company straight out of college, the system worked without interruption for nearly 70 years, providing water to 3.7 million consumers and numerous large industries.

Then, in 2014, the flow came to a halt. “The war stopped it,” said Dolid.

Workers change out old metal pipes in the Voda Donbasu pipeline for new plastic ones in Avdiivka | Stanislav Krupar for POLITICO

Russian-backed separatist forces took over areas of east Ukraine. During fierce fighting with the Ukrainian army, two of the water company’s workers were killed when infrastructure was damaged. Water was cut off to 17 settlements in the section of the system managed by Dolid.

There was no electricity for lighting or pumping, and no water. “We just sat, on duty, in the dark,” said Dolid.

After six weeks, company engineers managed to repair the damage. But it was only the first of countless assaults on an aging system already in dire need of repair. By early 2015, the front line, or line of contact, had moved to where it is today, cutting the region and its water system in two.

Infrastructure protection and interdependency

The front line crisscrosses Voda Donbasu’s pipelines, stations and reservoirs. The river source sits in government-controlled territory, but the company’s central control station and laboratory are in the city of Donetsk, under separatist control. Several key facilities, including the Donetsk Filter Station, are stranded in the “gray zone” between the two sides.

That makes the two warring sides interdependent when it comes to their clean water supplies. It has also meant that vital infrastructure has been frequently damaged by the fighting. UNICEF has registered more than 450 incidents of military damage to water infrastructure in the Donetsk region since 2016 — not even counting the heaviest first couple years of fighting. Nine Voda Donbasu workers have been killed as a result of military action since 2014, and 26 have been injured.

International humanitarian organizations, like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UNICEF, have been supporting water infrastructure in east Ukraine with equipment and repairs since 2014. They insist that such crucial civilian infrastructure should never be targeted.

“Our clear message is that essential infrastructure and services and those operating them must be protected,” said Daniel Bunnskog, deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Ukraine. And in Ukraine, “there should be an understanding of the interdependencies of systems” on both sides, he said, when it comes to water.

As the tap water isn’t drinkable, citizens of Avdiivka must queue to fill up bottles with clean water | Stanislav Krupar for POLITICO

In late April of this year, for the first time, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution banning the destruction of critical civilian structures during war, including in Ukraine, Syria and South Sudan.

On the ground, however, understanding appears to still be lacking. This year’s most recent incidents of military damage took place on May 5-8 and affected three huge pipelines, which, if left unrepaired, could cut off water for the whole downstream population of 3.1 million people.

“It’s extremely shocking that only ten days since the U.N. resolution was adopted unanimously, we had a flurry of incidents in Ukraine, where water infrastructure was clearly damaged in some of the most sensitive locations,” said UNICEF’s Mark Buttle, who coordinates a group of humanitarian agencies dealing with water and sanitation issues in the country.

The city of Avdiivka and its 20,000 inhabitants, located less than 3 kilometers from the front line on the Ukraine-controlled side, depend directly on the Donetsk Filter Station in the “gray zone” for water.

Between 2014 and 2015, the city’s population had no water for several months. They relied on wells, or even melted snow. Significant damage to water pipes in a front line no-go area that happened in 2017 still has not been repaired, as the company cannot gain access from either side to bring in necessary heavy equipment.

The director of the Avdiivka regional division, Valery Konovalov, estimates that over the last seven years, the periods of interruption due to damage and related electricity cuts amount to a total of two years.

Voda Donbasu workers do what they can to patch up the holes, often risking their lives to do so. The company can call for a “window of silence” for repairs, but that hasn’t always stopped workers being shot at, nor does it protect against landmines.

“We’re just hostages of the situation,” said Konovalov. “You wake up and Donetsk Filter Station is stopped … No one knows how long it’s going to be stopped, or if there’s an accident, a burst pipe, a broken sewage system — but war or no war, we still have to go to work.”

A legal ‘gray zone’

More than half of Voda Donbasu’s 10,500 staff lives in separatist-controlled territory, as do two-thirds of its customers. The Ukrainian company has to somehow pay its workers and collect payments for water, even as the separatist territories only allow operations in Russian rubles, and trade and banking transactions across the line of contact are illegal according to Ukrainian law. Like much of the land it operates on, Voda Donbasu is forced to occupy a “gray zone” in the law too.

The company is a public utility under the regional administration, but the administration council, which should decide how the company is run and financed, has not met since 2014 because of the war. The tariffs the company can charge for water are set by Kyiv on the government-controlled side and are among the lowest in Ukraine. On the separatist side, the de facto authorities set the tariffs, which are equivalent to half those paid in Ukraine-controlled territory.

Sergei Dolid, Voda Donbasu’s chief engineer, at the company’s Keban Lake facility. Dolid started work at Voda Donbasu right out of college and has seen firsthand how conflict in the region has affected the water supply. | Stanislav Krupar for POLITICO

As a result, the company’s income for salaries, equipment and repairs is nothing close to enough — and that’s not even mentioning the electricity needed to power the vast network. In 2013, the company consumed 0.5 percent of Ukraine’s total annual electricity output. Seven years on, Voda Donbasu is Ukraine’s largest debtor, owing about 5 billion hryvnias (€150 million) for electricity.

The separatist territories pay for their water partly in barter, with electricity, which is supplied from the power stations it “nationalized” after 2014, and with chlorine for water treatment, which is now being delivered from Russia. (As chlorine is a potential chemical weapon, it cannot be transported over the line of contact to filter stations on the separatist side).

“An uneasy truce”

Ideas that have been put forth to resolve the water issue in war-affected Donbass include establishing designated “protected zones” around key infrastructure, dividing the utility company and water system in two and (from the Ukraine side) simply cutting off separatist territories from the water source. All have been rejected for being politically undesirable, damaging to both sides or simply impracticable without enormous and lengthy investment.

That leaves Voda Donbasu treading water and its workers keeping their heads down, both literally and metaphorically, hoping for an end to the war so their jobs and lives can go back to normal.

“What’s happening now is an uneasy truce,” said UNICEF’s Buttle. “The water company delivers what it’s supposed to, and from what I’ve seen, the workers are very nonpolitical and by and large simply dedicated to delivering water.”

Indeed, workers do refuse to take sides in this conflict, and while their country may be divided by the war, they are certain the same should not happen to the company and water system many have worked in for their whole lives.

“To divide this system, like our military line of contact has divided and wants to divide us, would be a catastrophe,” said Dolid, the chief engineer. “The system is built and powered as one. It would be like putting the head on one side and the legs on another — and then who does the body belong to?”

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