Water heroes

Workers risk lives restoring water supplies in conflict-affected Donbas

Oksana Grytsenko
Oleksiy Dukhovy, a water worker, stands next to his truck that hit an anti-tank mine in a conflict-affected eastern Ukraine, February 2019.
UNICEF/1085/Getman

21 March 2019

Oleksiy Dukhovy was on his way to restore the water supply to thousands of people in eastern Ukraine when his truck was hit by an anti-tank mine.

The force of the blast threw the 30-year-old to the floor.

“In the first few seconds nothing was clear – there was just noise in my head,” recalls Oleksiy, a driver at the regional water supply company Voda Donbasa.

He and his colleague, Viktor Besedin, 39, only survived thanks to the excavator on top of the truck, which took most of the blow.

“My companion was asking me whether I was okay and I was wondering whether he was safe,” said Oleksiy?

The truck was on fire and kept rolling until Oleksiy managed to stop the engine. He was in shock, his eyes red and blood spilling from his ears. Viktor grabbed a fire extinguisher and crawled to the back of the truck to stop the fire.

Neither man risked stepping on the ground, knowing there could be more mines there. They were in the “grey zone,” a heavily mined, no-man's land between the cities of Toretsk and Horlivka, controlled by different sides of the armed conflict.

“We were one step from death,” says Viktor.

Demining teams came a few minutes after the explosion and helped both men out of the truck. An ambulance then drove them to the hospital in Kramatorsk

The purpose of their journey had been to join repair teams and restore water to the 60,000 residents of Toretsk and nearby towns, after an artillery shell once again damaged the pipeline. One in four people in conflict-affected areas near the “contact line” in eastern Ukraine experience daily or weekly water shortages. 

Despite the accident, the rest of their team managed to reach the broken pipe and fix it. They dug out the pipe with shovels instead of the damaged excavator. The next day, residents of Toretsk had access to water once again.   

A brigade of water workers fixes damaged pipes near Toretsk just a few kilometers from the “contact line”, February, 2019.
UNICEF/1649/Getman
A brigade of water workers fixes damaged pipes near Toretsk just a few kilometers from the “contact line”, February, 2019.

While both Oleksiy and Viktor speak modestly about their work at Voda Donbasa, many say they are "modern day heroes.”

The conflict in eastern Ukraine, now dragging into its sixth year, has repeatedly damaged one of the largest water systems in eastern Europe. The system supplies more than 3.6 million people living on both sides of the contact line.

Approximately 500,000 children in eastern Ukraine are in urgent need of protection and humanitarian assistance, this includes access to clean drinking water.

Many children and their families in conflict-affected areas cannot rely on running water at home, as a result of the hostilities. Some are forced to queue for hours at wells, while others fill containers from springs and having to carry the heavy  water containers in their hands for kilometres. Without water for heating, radiators go cold and freezing winter temperatures make life even more unbearable.

Children like Sasha Shapovalenko, 9, living in Bakhmutka, eastern Ukraine are forced to rely on unsafe water sources during water supply disruptions. There is also the risk of violence for children who have to walk to collect water.
UNICEF/UN0243129/Morris VII Photo
For children living near the contact line in eastern Ukraine are forced to rely on unsafe water sources during water supply disruptions. There is also the risk of violence for children who have to walk to collect water.

Artillery shells have regularly damaged the pipes and power lines necessary for pumping the water, leaving thousands without access.

Nine workers of "Voda Donbasa" have been killed and dozens wounded while trying to repair the system since the conflict started in 2014.  

In 2018 alone, the water supply in eastern Ukraine was disrupted 89 times, affecting millions of civilians. A total of 19 incidents were reported during the first three months of 2019 alone. The physical safety of water workers is also at risk – since the beginning of the conflict, 30 have been shot or injured while working near the “contact line.”

Children living in the conflict-affected areas of eastern Ukraine become particularly vulnerable when such disruptions happen.  Forced to rely on unsafe water sources, children are at risk of diseases. There is the risk of violence for children who have to walk to collect water.

When the water stops in eastern Ukraine, UNICEF works hard to reach people in need. Along with partners, UNICEF helped local authorities provide 2.3 million people with water in 2018.

Support from the Government of Germany has been vital, helping UNICEF provide equipment and water treatment chemicals. This support has also enabled UNICEF to provide emergency assistance to “Voda Donbasu” and partners, carrying out critical repairs and upgrades.

However, ongoing conflict means heroic water workers continue to risk their lives every day.

Oleksiy and Viktor say they often have nightmares about the incident. Oleksiy still has issues with his hearing and headaches; Viktor, with back pain.

And yet, they are determined to return to work, to go back out there and help supply clean water to millions.