Water Under Fire

In armed conflicts damage of critical water infrastructure endangers the lives of millions of people every day.

UNICEF
image
UNICEF

19 September 2019

In armed conflicts damage of critical water infrastructure endangers the lives of millions of people every day.

Water supplies, sanitation, and heating systems are bound tightly together. In a protracted crisis, more children die from water-related diseases than from direct violence.

When the water stops in conflict-affected eastern Ukraine, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) helps provide bottles and truck-loads of clean water for people in need. With support from the Government of Germany, UNICEF worked with “Voda Donbasu” and partners to provide emergency assistance, carrying out critical repairs and upgrades to keep water running for more than 1.8 million people in 2018. In 2019, UNICEF and partners helped nearly a million people access clean water on both sides of the ‘contact line’.

Photos selected for this story feature the everyday challenges of water access in conflict-torn eastern Ukraine. They tell the stories of children who endure to get by. They also portray “water heroes” who work tirelessly to keep the water running.  

Key figures

 

  • Over 4.2 million people affected by damaged water systems
  • 500,000 children are in need of clean drinking water

Attacks on water in eastern Ukraine:

  •  89 in 2018
  •  58 first half-year 2019
  • One in four near the “contact line” suffer from water shortages
  • 35 water workers have been killed or injured since the conflict began

 

Children

image
UNICEF

Water is vital. Half a million children in the conflict-affected eastern Ukraine cannot rely on running water at home, as a result of the hostilities. Some are forced to queue for hours at wells, while others travel kilometers to fill containers from springs.

They carry heavy water containers in their hands. Without water for heating, radiators go cold, and freezing winter temperatures make life even more unbearable.

 

image
UNICEF

Oleksiy is 14-years-old. He lost the fingers on his right hand when a grenade exploded in his hand. Simple things, such as carrying water, are challenging tasks for this young boy.

For the past four years, there has been no running water, electricity or gas at Oleksiy’s home in the village of Vozdvyzhenka in Donetsk region. The family heats their home using firewood they chop outside and carry water in jerrycans, even when the temperatures drop to -20C. 

 

image
UNICEF

Ivan, 23, carries empty containers to fetch water for his family of nine siblings in the city of Toretsk in the Donetsk region. The family has frequently experienced prolonged periods when the water supply is stopped due to damaged water pipes. Even when water is running normally, for limited periods during the day, the family often runs short and has to fetch drinking water from a local spring. During the months when water is completely shut off, queueing at the spring takes hours.

 

image
UNICEF

Edik is 13 years old. He used to play ball after school in his home town located in Bakhmutsky rayon in the Donetsk region. Since the conflict started, the teenager spends time helping his family by collecting and carrying water from the pump.

Edik has a younger sister, who is just 1 year old. Having a baby in the house adds to everyday chores: washing clothes and dishes. As the water supply is damaged, there is no running water in their apartment.

“Dad and I bring most of the water for my family. I feel tired but I have to go to the well and get the water. It’s hard for my Mom. When she does clothes washing, me and Dad have to bring 20 buckets of water for her.”

image
UNICEF

Dima, 15, transports water on the handlebars of his bicycle just outside his village in Bakhmutsky rayon in the Donetsk region. As there is no water at home, Dima’s family pumps it from a well at the bottom of the valley. But the pipes freeze during the winter time.

“We can’t pump the water in winter because the pipes freeze so we have to bring buckets. If there’s a lot of snow we collect melt-water from the roof in buckets,” he said. If shelling damages power lines, the pump does not work, so again Dima needs to collect water with buckets. 

 

image
UNICEF

Sasha is 9 and lives in a village near the “contact line” in the Donetsk region. Her family does not have a reliable water source. Due to the ongoing hostilities clean water disappeared from community wells. Now Sasha and her family have to carry buckets of water with their own hands to meet their basic needs.

“We’ve never had running water but we always had a well. Now the well is dirty so we can’t use it. We go to the neighbors’ to get drinking water and bring water from the river for cleaning,” says Sasha’s mother.

image
UNICEF

Оleksandr and his wife Marina collect drinking water from a well during active shelling and gunfire, in Avdiivka, Donetsk region. Avdiivka sits right on the “contact line,” which divides government and non-government controlled areas in eastern Ukraine and where fighting is still intense.

The couple has a 14-year-old boy. Tap water in the area has a strong chemical smell, leaves a white residue when boiled, and is unsafe to drink. Because of shelling, piped water to homes is cut sometimes, leaving residents with no choice but to queue for hours at the well.

 

image
UNICEF

Sofia, who is 6 years old, stands behind the baby bath serving as a tank to collect technical water for her family residing in Volnovasky rayon in the Donetsk region. When it rains, the family rushes their yard with buckets and bowls to get as much water as they can. Water scarcity is a result of ongoing hostilities.

Since the conflict started, the water in family’s well has been having a bitter taste. Before cooking with it or drinking it, they need to boil water and let it sit for some time.

 

image
UNICEF

Nina (left) and her granddaughters, Diana (right), 14, and Sasha (center), 6, leave their home to collect water from the well located on the outskirts of the village. Nina explains, “There is a water pipe at the end of the street, but people who use it often suffer water shortages. We also used to take water from that pipe, but the pressure was weak, and we had to stop using it. We also have a borehole and a well in the village. But the borehole pump has broken, and now we can only use the well.”

Their house is located some 15 kilometers from the “contact line” in Toretsk in the Donetsk region. Diana and her sister, Sasha, have been living with their grandmother in this house since the beginning of the conflict in 2014 while their parents live and work in Donetsk city.

 

Water Heroes

image
UNICEF

Since 2014, there were over 300 incidents when water pipelines and sanitation facilities were damaged or stopped due to the conflict. In many cases, water facilities were directly shelled, and in others, they were inadvertently damaged.

Shelling incidents risk the physical safety of water workers, who perform their duties under extreme circumstances. They risk their lives to repair damaged water systems and provide water to millions of civilians. Since the beginning of the conflict, 35 water workers have been shot or injured, working near the “contact line.”

 

image
UNICEF

Voda Donbasu worker welds pieces of steel reusing an old water pipe to repair a damaged section. Workers at the facility say the building and area around it had been hit at least twenty times in fighting since the conflict started. During one shelling, three people died. Everyday work became a life-threatening challenge for these superheroes of water.

 

image
UNICEF

Workers repair underground water pipes in Toretsk. Water in this area only runs in the mornings and evenings; and some civilians rely on spring water for drinking. The lives of children and their families, especially those living along the “contact line,” continue to be at risk. The disruption of critical infrastructure in settlements close to the fighting has become the daily ‘normal’ for millions of people. 

 

image
UNICEF

Workers at Voda Donbasu facility say the building and area around had been hit at least 20 times since the conflict started. What seemed to be an everyday job has become a life-threatening, yet life-saving duty.

35 water workers have been killed or injured since 2014. Despite danger and losses, workers come back to work day after day to ensure that water is not a privilege, but a fundamental human right.

 

image
UNICEF

An employee of Voda Donbasu walks by a pile of old pipes in Avdiivka, Donetsk region. The already worn out water system is now in danger every day, since hostilities erupted in the eastern regions. Disruption of critical infrastructure and stoppages of water, in areas along the “contact line” has become the daily ‘normal’ for millions of people.

 

image
UNICEF

“When there is no water, there is no heating,” says Yuri. This man maintains pipes and pumps at the main water pumping station in Toretsk, Donetsk region. Even when there is shelling, Yuri is undeterred from doing his job, which he knows provides a vital service for the people of the region.