In eastern Ukraine, a thirst for safe water – and for peace
Years of conflict have devastated the region’s infrastructure and left many families struggling to access necessities like clean water.
PAVLOPIL, Ukraine – “Mum! The water is here!” eight-year-old David exclaims excitedly as he clutches an empty plastic container. He has spotted a truck pulling up to the council building in Pavlopil, a village along the so-called line of contact in eastern Ukraine, which divides the government and non-government areas, and where fighting has been the most severe.
Dozens of people are scattered around the spacious lobby, the floor of which is now lined with plastic bottles, buckets and jerrycans belonging to local families. They come here every Tuesday, waiting patiently for a truck bearing a large tank containing fresh water.
“This is clean water. You can drink it,” David says.
The deliveries are a familiar ritual for the around 450 residents of Pavlopil. Almost seven years of fighting had already disrupted water supplies in the area. Now, the combination of a dry summer and the COVID-19 pandemic – which requires more regular handwashing – has further aggravated already-dire shortages.
“Lack of water is probably our main problem right now,” says Svitlana, David’s mother. “It hurts us almost as much as the shelling.”
UNICEF has been sending water supplies to Pavlopil since June 2019 as part of a joint project with ADRA Ukraine to supply those living along the line of contact. The project, which also includes plans to install pumps and water filtration equipment, provides Pavlopil with around 12 cubic metres of water a month. Roman, one of the drivers who delivers the water, admits that it’s still not enough to meet all the villagers’ needs. “It’s always scarce here,” he says.
Life in no-man’s-land
As soon as they arrive home, David and his mother head for their basement with the water they have collected from the council building. Svitlana says they always keep some water in the basement, ever since the early weeks of the conflict when their area came under heavy fire and they were forced to take shelter there.
David is too young to remember those days, but reminders of the ongoing fighting are ever-present for him. There’s no school and no consistent supply of tap water. He often hears gunfire and shelling at night.
The water supply to the area has been unreliable since 2014, when the company maintaining the pumping station was forced to shut due to the conflict. Serhii, the village leader, says locals have tried to maintain the pumps themselves, but with mixed success.
“At the start of the conflict we were basically in no-man’s-land, so we could only rely on ourselves,” Serhii says. “We formed a team of volunteers who have been looking after the pumping station and the water supply.”
Residents have also raised money for spare parts for repairs to the pumping station. But they haven’t been able to raise the funds necessary to purchase much-needed new equipment. As a result, water pressure is low in some households – and non-existent in others.
Residents of the village complain about the quality of the tap water, which they say is contaminated by chemicals from nearby farms. Svitlana says that even when running water is available it’s not suitable for drinking.
“The pressure is low, and the water is often red,” she says. She points out some blue barrels outside her home that she uses to collect water from the taps when it’s available, and rainwater when it isn’t.
“The war has taught us to treat water differently than most people,” Svitlana adds. “If it was peacetime, the pumping station could probably be repaired.”
David has grown up with a stronger appreciation for the value of water than many children.
“I like the summers because you can take an outdoor shower. In the winter you have to heat the water and bathe in a bucket. But now that I’m too big for it I’ll have to bathe in a cauldron,” he says, laughing.
“I’m always afraid when I’m standing out here”
David's friends – siblings Dasha, 8, and Katia, 6 – live a couple of streets away. A water pipe passes through their garden, so they have good water pressure. But even something simple like accessing water in the garden can mean putting your life on the line.
“I’m always afraid when I’m standing out here. They sometimes shoot here,” the children’s grandmother, Valentyna, says. “Shrapnel has hit our windows several times.”
The two sisters moved to their grandmother’s home in March, when COVID-19-related quarantine measures were introduced in their home city of Mariupol. Their parents brought them to Pavlopil so that the girls would have access to a garden and wouldn’t have to be cooped up in a small apartment in the city.
“We get to feed the goats here and ride our bicycles,” Dasha says. “We bathe in the yard. We soak ourselves using a bucket!”
Still, Valentyna worries about her grandchildren – and the constantly looming threat posed by COVID-19. “I was so afraid in the spring, I didn't let them go anywhere,” she says. “I understand that you need to wash your hands often. But how can we wash them here, when not everyone in the village has water, and some people are watching every litre they use?”
The right to safe drinking water and sanitation is enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, United Nations resolutions and the Geneva Conventions. UNICEF therefore calls for an end to attacks on water infrastructure and public utilities to ensure families can access clean drinking water even during conflicts.
But for families like Svitlana’s, easy access to essentials like clean water is a distant memory. “Sometimes it feels like peace and running water were from another life,” she says. “We’ve already forgotten what it feels like to not live in a conflict. Our children have never known anything different.”
This story was prepared in part as a contribution to the Geneva Peace Week 2020, which for the first time includes a series of more than 50 podcasts, videos, and other digital media to build the library about peace. Find the full digital series here.