Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)

Children need safe drinking water, improved sanitation and proper hygiene practices to survive and thrive. Disruption to basic water and sanitation services in eastern Ukraine has affected millions.

Aleksey, 14, lost two fingers and a thumb when a discarded shell exploded in his hand.
UNICEF/UN0150855/Gilbertson VII Photo

The challenge

Access to safe water remains a challenge in conflict-affected areas. Numerous factors contribute to increasingly infrequent supplies of piped water including:

1. Lack of maintenance and obsolete water and sanitation infrastructure

Donetsk oblast in eastern Ukraine is water-scarce. Built in the 1960s, the water supply system there is centralized, much more extensive than required and extremely inefficient. State company Voda Donbassa owns the system – including treatment and transportation – supplying water to 3.9 million people. Most secondary water providers in the region then buy water from Voda Donbassa to supply it to cities and small towns and treat sewage for consumers. Water is also the energy source for electricity and heating in the area. The obsolete supply system is exceedingly power consuming, causing financial challenges to pay the bills, and subject to an excessive corrosion of water pipes, adversely affecting the water quality.

2. On-going hostilities damaging existing infrastructure and impeding access of workers and humanitarian actors

Ongoing hostilities have significantly increased the damage to the system and further hampered utility companies’ capacity to repair the damaged infrastructure. In 2017, ceasefire violations hindered access to safe drinking water for 3.7 million people in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and cut services for 3.0 million people. That year, shelling or other conflict-related problems directly affected water and sanitation systems 135 times. Due to its location right on the ‘contact line’, one of the facilities hardest hit by the conflict is the Donetsk Filter Station; it officially supplies water to 345,000 people in Donetsk Oblast.

3. Instrumentalization of water

All water intakes are located on the government-controlled area, along the Donets River – the main water source in the region, leaving non-government-controlled areas dependent for water. Whilst the water company in the government-controlled area bears the costs of water extraction, the majority of profits are collected in the non-government-controlled areas, where most of the population lives. This has resulted in tensions, including disputes between parties across the ‘contact line’ regarding payments to the main water company, further leading to major utility cuts when the bills are not paid.

The solution:

In this context, UNICEF in Ukraine has formulated its water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) strategy around three main areas:


1. Humanitarian response to meet the critical WASH-related needs of children, men and women in conflict-affected areas

UNICEF is striving to meet the WASH needs of the most vulnerable families and children and to ensure equitable access to WASH for all children, including children living in institutions and those living near the ‘contact line’. Actions include short-term interventions at the community level (in villages, settlements and small towns) such as emergency water supply, and provision of critical hygiene materials and winterization items to the most vulnerable children and families. The provision of water treatment chemicals ensures the provision of safe water.

2. Recovery actions including mid-term and long-term interventions focused on system strengthening and community resilience

UNICEF supports decentralized water systems through the construction, repair, upgrade and rehabilitation of water boreholes and wells, as well as water towers. On the ground, we consult with small towns and villages to determine and agree on shortcomings in water supply systems, and the works required to address these deficiencies.

Recovery activities include also the support to the main water utility companies, suffering from the conflict, to ensure the provision of safe water for the all population of Donbass region. This is done through the replacement of outdated equipment, the procurement of machinery, the rehabilitation of systems and water networks.

3. Sustainability interventions focused on promoting national ownership, especially of environmental policy

In order to support policies that take the environment into consideration, UNICEF is engaging with the Ministry of Ecology, the State Water Resource Agency and the Ministry of Regional Development for ongoing reform of the water sector. Our goal at a national level is to ensure that by 2022 the Ministry of Ecology and oblast administrations take environmental issues and risks in conflict-affected areas into further consideration for the sustainable management of water resources and solid waste.

UNICEF in Ukraine is working closely with three line Ministries: the Ministry of Regional Development, the Ministry of Temporary Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons and the Ministry of Ecology, in addition to civil society and utility companies.

Looking ahead, UNICEF will focus on:

- improving fair access to safe drinking water and safe sanitation in conflict areas;

- reducing exposure to environmental risks; and

- improving hygiene practices in communities, schools and health facilities.