Water under fire
Utility workers risk their lives to restore water supply to eastern Ukraine
For seven years, Anatolii Stepanovych, Vasyl and Anatolii have spent every week driving their clapped-out old repair truck past minefields in order to reach the contact line in eastern Ukraine. The men usually have only a few hours to fix any damaged waterpipes before the first shot is fired.
As part of their work for the state-owned water company Voda Donbasu, they often risk their lives and health to repair damaged water infrastructure in conflict-torn eastern Ukraine. Due to shelling, thousands of adults and children who reside along the contact line have been living without a water supply for weeks. The men’s job is to turn the water back on.
“We serve 200 kilometers of water pipelines and wells,” says 80-year-old Anatolii Stepanovych, who heads the local Kleban-Byk branch of Voda Donbasu. “A quarter of this area is a danger area. It is under shelling and it can be mined.”
The combined professional experience of the three men totals more than one hundred years. Anatolii Stepanovych alone has been working for the utility company for half a century. He says that many youngsters are reluctant to take on the job due to low wages and the constant threat to life.
The dangers are reflected by sad statistics – since the beginning of hostilities in Ukraine, at least 26 water supply workers have been injured, and nine have died.
According to the WASH Cluster in Ukraine, 61 incidents of damage to key water infrastructure as a result of the hostilities were recorded in 2020 alone. In total, at least 380 attacks on water infrastructure have been registered since the beginning of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, and four security incidents have taken place so far this year.
In Anatolii’s locale, the water supply pipelines, which are vital for schools, hospitals and civilians, cut across the contact line that separates Government-controlled areas (GCA) from non-Government-controlled areas (NGCA) in the Donetsk region. This means that the water supply systems are often damaged due to the hostilities and certain areas are forced to reduce water consumption.
“Our motivation for work is that we can’t leave people without water,” says Vasyl, 60, a foreman at the Kleban-Byk branch of Voda Donbasu company. “As simple as that.”
The team say that over the past seven years, they have learned to cope with the anxiety.
“There are places where you know that there is a sniper on the mound 50 meters from you. And weapons are aimed at you,” says Vasyl.
At the ztart of this year, Vasyl and a colleague, 50-year-old Anatolii, came under fire while working on the contact line near the town of Toretsk.
“When the shot was fired, we didn’t even have time to react,” says Anatolii. “When we realized that small arms were being fired at us, of course, we immediately began to hide.”
Every member of the team has experienced several near-death experiences.
“In 2018, our excavator exploded on a mine near Toretsk,” recalls Anatolii. “But it’s good that it exploded between the cab and the wheels, because we survived.”
And it is not just the Kleban-Byk team that face danger every day. Water teams across eastern Ukraine share similar stories.
In 2014, a team that was busy working at Lysychansk Western Filtration Station, which supplies people with water in both GCA and NGCA, came under heavy shelling. Workers took cover in the basement and survived. However, the rocket fins embedded in the ground are a terrifying reminder of the near misses these teams often face.
Counting the cost
The water workers do not earn any extra money for the risks they face. Sometimes they even use their own money to buy new parts for repairs.
For call-outs, the Kleban-Byk team use an old Soviet truck, which is heated with a wood-burning stove. Any profit received by Voda Donbasu is used to cover employee salaries.
“We have poor conditions here, the walls are falling down, the stoves are idle – everything we have here was built in the last century,” says Vasyl. “We have neither good equipment to address the accident, nor transport. Sometimes you have to buy bolts and couplings at your own expense.”
Before his team can reach the water pipeline, Anatoliy Stepanovych and his colleagues must go through the difficult process of obtaining a ceasefire agreement from both sides. Only after inspection and demining can they begin fixing any leaks.
At the beginning of this year, shelling damaged the water pipeline in Toretsk. As a result, 45,000 residents were left without water. Negotiations to obtain approval for the repair work and demining took more than a week. Water trucks organized by UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were a lifeline for local civilians. But the city’s water supply could not be restored until the Kleban-Byk team were able to repair the damage.
“When we go through all the approvals and get to the place, we have very little time to work," says Vasyl. “When the first warning shot is fired, we need to return.”
But, despite the challenges, all three men vow to continue their life-saving work.
“The fear is always there,” says Vasyl. “We just try to think about the work. People need the water back.”
“We never considered ourselves real heroes,” adds Anatolii Stepanovych. “Yes, it is thanks to our work that people have water. But it is our duty.”