During April, UNICEF reported that an estimated 1.4 million people are without access to running water across eastern and southern Ukraine. A further 4.6 million people across the country are estimated to have only limited access to water as a result of the war.
These impacts are the result of the direct bombing of water infrastructure facilities, but also the result of electricity cuts and indirect damage from the conflict. Damage to water supply in the Donbas region has been especially severe.
UNICEF reports that there have been at least 20 separate incidents of damage to water infrastructure in Eastern Ukraine alone, including in Mariupol, a city which has seen the war’s most intense fighting.
Shortly after invading Ukraine, Russian troops laid siege to the city of Mariupol, and according to Medecins Sans Frontières, the city has been effectively without functioning water supplies since the 2nd of March. Efforts to negotiate ceasefires and secure evacuation corridors for the civilian population of Mariupol have met with limited success.
Similarly, officials in Chernihiv reported towards the end of March that the city was running out of water and started rationing water supplies in an effort to cope with limited supplies.
The direct targeting of water infrastructure during the conflict dates to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, when Ukraine blocked the water flows to Crimea through the North Crimean Canal.
The dam blocking the flow of water through the canal was subsequently bombed by Russian forces on the 26th of February. On the same day, Ukrainian forces reportedly shot down a missile heading for the Kyiv dam, a major hydroelectric dam upstream of Kyiv. Had this dam been breached, it would have caused catastrophic levels of casualties, including the flooding of residential suburbs. A second (saddle) dam in Demidov was destroyed a few days later, leading to the widespread flooding of villages and submergence of riparian land.
UNICEF is particularly concerned about the effect of the damage to the infrastructure and the ensuing difficulty in providing and in producing drinking water. Osnat Lubrani, UNICEF’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Ukraine, has commented: “Poor water quality can lead to diseases, including cholera, diarrhoea, skin infections and other deadly infectious diseases. People are having to live in crowded conditions and are unable to follow basic hygiene measures. This has to be solved.”
The agency notes that providing water to the most affected regions has been particularly challenging with intense fighting creating a dangerous situation where water technicians have been injured and killed.
Despite a unanimous approval of a UN resolution urging parties at conflict to not target civilian infrastructures according to International Humanitarian Law, the war in Ukraine has seen many such structures targeted for bombings.
Lubrani said: ““It is imperative that the parties to the conflict respect their IHL [International Humanitarian Law] obligations and take constant care to spare civilian infrastructure. In cases where water facilities suffer damage, water technicians must be afforded urgent and safe passage to repair the network.”
UNICEF has been procuring chlorine to purify water especially in areas which have been receiving large numbers of misplaced people running from the conflict. But the situation, according to Murat Sahin, UNICEF’s Ukraine representative, is dire: ““Their access to water, wherever they are, must not be jeopardized as a result of war – for children, it is a matter of life and death.”