Ukraine’s water heroes

After nearly four years of conflict in eastern Ukraine, homes have been destroyed, schools ruined and families torn apart. Now, over half a million children live with the constant threat of being cut off from safe drinking water as a result of volatile fighting, including indiscriminate shelling of vital water infrastructure.

The 11,000 workers of Voda Donbassa (VD) – the regional water company – work tirelessly and fearlessly to keep people living in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine connected to water. Mortars and rocket artillery have hit powerlines, pipelines and filter stations.

A group of men hoist a large stretch of piping.
UNICEF/UN0150319/Gilbertson VII PhotoA repair crew move pipes used for water at the Voda Donbasa water utility in Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.

Amid shelling and often freezing temperatures, these workers risk their lives to provide water to more than 3 million people. Not only is the water system in eastern Ukraine one of the largest in the world, delivering 1.3 million cubic meters per day through 11,950 kilometers of pipeline, it is also located in one of the most mine-contaminated places on the planet. Every day, landmines, explosive remnants of war and unexploded ordnances threaten workers’ lives as they restore damaged infrastructure that children and their families depend on.

Serhii Kashchenko, 49, is among those who have paid a heavy price.

He worked as a guard at Makiivka Water and Sewer Utilities Department, in Krynka. One evening in August 2014, he arrived to begin his night shift as usual. Nothing much frightened him, not even the deep thuds of outgoing and incoming shells. Then a shell hit, puncturing his abdomen.

Although he will forever bear the physical and mental scars, Serhii is lucky to be alive. As we continue to advocate for strict adherence to international humanitarian law, to prevent the targeting of civilian infrastructure, we remember the many guards, pump operators, electricians and others have died as a result of shelling at water plants.

  • Oleksandr Yukhymenko, a security guard in the Horlivka department
  • Serhiy Galkin, a welder in the Horlivka department
  • Valeriy Panasenko, a security guard in the Debaltsevo segment of the system
  • Volodymyr Kopyl, an operator of the pumping station in Yenakievo
  • Kostyantyn Silchenko, an electrician operating the Semenovka segment of the system
  • Maksym Semichev, a pumping station operator and his mother Galyna Semicheva, an electrician in the Semenovka segment of the system
  • Volodymyr Fedichak, a machinist and security guard in the Telmanova segment
  • Ivan Spodenyuk, an electrician operating the Pavlopil segment

All these people gave their lives while serving VD.

On a recent visit to the kindergartens and schools bordering the line of conflict, I spoke to children who regarded VD workers as superheroes. Having heard stories like Serhii’s, it is not hard to see why.

A close up of a boy, with his hands on his face.
Aleksey: A14-year-old who was injured when a grenade plug he found exploded in his hand.

Many children and their families residing on the line of contact have either sporadic or no running water at home, as a result of the conflict. Some are forced to queue for hours at wells, while others travel miles to fill containers from local springs. Without water for heating, freezing winter temperatures make life even more unbearable.

Two years have passed since the water at Aleksey’s home in Vozdvyzhenka was cut off. There is no gas or electricity, and the 14-year-old still suffers from an injury he sustained after a grenade exploded in his hand.

In nearby Toretsk, running water is intermittent and damaged pipes mean that Ivan, the eldest of nine children, often drives with containers to a nearby village just to secure water for his family.

UNICEF/UN0150332/Gilbertson VII Ivan Morhun, 23, who is one of nine children, carries empty containers to fetch water in the city of Toretsk, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.

As water cuts make life in the conflict zone even more difficult, UNICEF is working with water companies to provide emergency assistance and carry out critical repairs and upgrades to what is an already fragile system.

But all of this would be impossible without the workers of VD.

Today, even as I write, they are risking their lives to keep thousands of kilometers of pipelines and hundreds of sites. Their work ensures that children and families have access to safe drinking water, a fundamental human right for all.

I hope they are never forgotten – and always remembered as heroes.

Gaspar Bergman, Head of UNICEF offices in Donetsk and Luhansk.

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