The heroes keeping the water flowing for families in eastern Ukraine

Amid violence and conflict, water workers help bring safe water to both sides of the contact line

By Yana Panchenko
A woman stands in front of green trees, Ukraine
UNICEF Ukraine/ 2017/ Tolmachov
21 November 2017

Inna Krasnyakova is one of a cadre of Ukrainian water workers who help bring safe water and sanitation to families on both sides of the ‘contact line’ in Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine.

LUHANSK, Ukraine, 21 November 2017 – Inna Krasnyakova was born, raised and married in the small village of Artema, in Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine. In June 2014, she was at work, operating a water pumping unit at the Petrovskaya pumping station, when conflict broke out.

“When it started,” she recalls, “my colleagues and I did not understand what was happening. I remember I was on the day shift; there was a rumble, and it was very scary. I realized that there was shooting and attacks nearby. I immediately ran to the chlorine warehouse to cover the cylinders so that there would not be a leak.”

“I knew that we were next.”

A pumping station in eastern Ukraine
UNICEF Ukraine/ 2017/ Tolmachov
The Petrovskaya pumping station provides water to over 300,000 people in Luhansk city.
Quick thinking to save lives

Inna’s instinct not to take cover, but to secure the cylinders, was well founded. Chlorine gas is used to disinfect water and to treat sewage and industrial waste. However, exposure to chlorine gas in larger quantities can harm the respiratory system or even be fatal. Inna knew she had to do her best to prevent any leakage.

That time the pumping station was spared.

But in recent attacks a backup chlorine pipeline feeding Donetsk Filter Station was damaged by shrapnel and shelling also hit the Verkhniokalmiuska Filter Station.

Pumping water across lines

Water pumping stations such as these provide clean water to some 1.1 million people on both sides of the 459 km 'contact line' dividing eastern Ukraine between government and non-government controlled areas.

These stations are also essential to keep heating systems functioning, which is lifesaving when temperatures regularly drop below -10 Celsius during the winter months. 

The pumping station where Inna works provides water to the around 300,000 people.

A man and a woman stand in front of a water pumping station, Ukraine
UNICEF Ukraine/ 2017/ Tolmachov
Inna Krasnyakova with UNICEF WASH Monitoring Officer Andrill Solonenko. UNICEF supplies the chlorine for the water purification process.
Conflict displaces Inna’s family

Artema escaped the violence in June 2014, but the relative quiet would not hold for the small village.

“It was on November 10, 2014,” says Inna. “I was at home with my son, and my husband was away on a business trip. Our house stands on the street, closest to the contact line. All day long there was shelling. My son and I hid in the basement. There was a huge explosion; then it all went dark. When I woke up, I realized that I had been hit.”

Inna’s leg had been broken in the attack, and it would be 24 long hours before she could access medical care; Artema had no communication with emergency services. While she and her son waited to go to the nearest health facility in Schastya, the boy helped his mother carefully bandage her wounded leg.

In the aftermath, the family left their damaged home and moved to a safer area 20 km away from Artema. They are among at least 1.5 million people, including more than 200,000 children, who have been displaced in Ukraine since the conflict started.

“If I do not do it, who will?”

Some months after they had relocated, the family returned to their home. The violence continues. Inna has a permanent knee injury and walks with a limp.

And the woman who thought to secure chlorine cylinders when the shelling started has returned to her old job.

“Many have left, but this is home,” she explains. “I worked in this station for eight years, and I have a lot of experience. If I do not do it, who will?”

Inna is among those Ukrainians working in the water works who put their lives at risk every day to keep the water flowing across the lines in eastern Ukraine. UNICEF, with support from the Government of Germany, supplies chlorine to ensure water is purified and supports the rehabilitation and improvement of the wider water network.