Water heroes: Workers risk lives restoring water supplies in conflict-affected Donbas

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.

UNICEF
excavator is digging out pipe
UNICEF/1649/Getman

22 March 2019

Chasiv Yar, UKRAINE, 22 March 2019. Oleksiy Dukhovy was on his way to restore the water supply to thousands of people in eastern Ukraine when his truck hit 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 regional water supply company Voda Donbasa.

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

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.”
 
The truck was on fire and kept rolling until Oleksiy managed to stop the engine. He was shell-shocked, 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 Toretsk.

The purpose of their journey had been to help repair teams 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 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 spades instead of the damaged excavator. The next day, residents of Toretsk had access to water once again.  

While both Oleksiy and Viktor speak modestly about their work at Voda Donbasa, many call what they do "modern day heroism.”

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.

excavator
UNICEF/1679/Getman
February, 2019. Despite the deadly accidents and danger, water workers daily manage to reach the broken pipes and fix them

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 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.”

Without water, children simply cannot survive. When forced to rely on unsafe water, they are at risk of diseases, and they are vulnerable to violence when walking to collect water.

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UNICEF/1512/Getman
Since the beginning of the conflict, 30 water workers have been shot or injured while working near the “contact line.”

When the water stops in eastern Ukraine, UNICEF works hard to reach people in need. Along with partners, it helped local authorities to keep clean water flowing for more than 2.3 million people in 2018. Support from the Government of Germany has been vital, helping UNICEF to 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, conflict means its heroic employees continue to risk their lives every day.

Oleksiy and Viktor, often see the explosion in their nightmares. Oleksiy has problems with his hearing and headaches, and Viktor suffers from back pain.

Nevertheless, they are determined to return to work, supplying water to millions.