[Professor Oleg Rubel sends us more eyewitness reports on conditions in Ukraine, as Russian forces continue attacking civilian and military targets. The interviews below have been edited for length and clarity. —VV editors.]
Today we have a paramount topic. Water and War. Thousands of people in Ukraine are suffering from thirst and lack of safe drinking water. But there were problems with water even before the war. And today’s challenges arose against the background of climate change.
Among the countries of Europe, Ukraine is one of the least endowed with water resources—even in the best years, when approximately 1,000 cubic meters of water are available to the average Ukrainian, it is still almost 500 cubic meters under what the UN European Economic Commission recommends to avoid water insecurity. Additionally, only 25% of settlements are provided with a centralized water supply. About 11 million citizens of Ukraine use water from wells, but, according to official Ukrainian data, 15% of those wells are contaminated.
How did we get here? Below are three interviews concerning the problem of water and the war in Ukraine. —Oleg Rubel
“The scariest thing is that we are losing people. We are losing the best people, they are young, talented, and strong. They sacrifice themselves to protect us. This is pain and horror.”
A VIEW FROM THE STREETS OF MYKOLAIV
First, I interviewed Oleg Derkach, a well-known Ukrainian biologist, ecologist, and director of the Tyligulskyi landscape park. Derkach devoted many years of his life to nature conservation and has created several nature reserves, including the Tyligulsky park, which is located within the Tyligul estuary region, not far from Odesa. An estuary is a place where salt water and fresh water mix, and the Tyligul’s coastal spits, salt lakes, and marshes are an important area for the breeding, feeding, and migration of many species of birds. In 1995, the territory received the status of a wetland of international importance (Ramsar Site). Derkach is a resident of Mykolaiv, which perhaps suffers more than all other Ukrainian cities from the devastation to water resources caused by the Russian invasion.
Where were you on February 24, when the war began?
Early in the morning on February 24, 2022, our city was shelled, like many cities in Ukraine. At the same time, the Russians fired on the military port in Ochakov. A few days later, there was an attempt to land an assault in strategically important places, but the landing was successfully repulsed since the garrison in Mykolaiv is strong. Columns of Russian military equipment stood near Mykolaiv. The main battle and an attempt to capture Mykolaiv was on March 4; about 100 tanks were moving toward the city from three sides.
Although the attack was repelled, from that moment the city of Mykolaiv has been surrounded on three sides. I want to note that the city of Mykolaiv is located on a peninsula. There are water arteries around the city. On the one hand, the Ingul River flows into the Southern Bug, on the other hand is the Southern Bug River, and in the South, it is the Dnieper-Bug Estuary. It was only from the East side that one could enter the city.
The Russians tried to cross the Southern Bug many times—they tried to force their way across the river because then they could go on to Odesa. But all attacks were forced back again. Before the war, the population of Mykolaiv was about half a million people. Now it is much less. And since then there has not been a day that the Russians did not shell the city. They are consistently destroying the infrastructure of Mykolaiv.
I think the fact that the city was left without water only on the 50th day of the war suggests that the Russians had planned to occupy the city and did not want to create problems for themselves. The main water supply system was not blown up. When the hopes of capturing Mykolaiv began to fade, the shelling became more intense. Russian troops began to destroy residential areas and port infrastructure. And then the water supply was destroyed.
The first water supply system began functioning in Mykolaiv in 1906. At that time, the condition of the Ingulets River was satisfactory and Mykolaiv took water from there. We also had the October reservoir. Water was pumped into it from the Ingulets, and the city could exist autonomously for decades thanks to this reservoir. But over time, the ecological situation of the Ingulets deteriorated greatly, and highly mineralized mine waters from the city of Krivoy Rog began to be dumped there. Irrigation was also curtailed because thousands of hectares of fertile land were salted.
Since the Dnieper River’s water is sweet, soft, and very pleasant, Mykolaiv has been consuming its water since 1976. Two large pipelines supply the city. But the October reservoir has now been abandoned because of the high price of electricity. It is not profitable to constantly pump water into reservoirs because of the enormous evaporation, and because of the infiltration of water into the soil. The losses are colossal.
In previous years, Mykolaiv was the capital of shipbuilding, where ships of all types were built, including military ones. When military orders were curtailed, the city had to transform, and it chose a concept: a port city. Mykolaiv became the main trans-shipment point through which Ukrainian grain went abroad. Recently, we have a new tourism brand: Since we are on the water, we have the slogan “City on the Wave.” But now the “City on the Wave” is without drinking water!
Let’s talk about the day the water ran out. Of course, you begin to appreciate a resource only when you lose it.
How to live without electricity, how to live without water? Somehow we were lucky that for almost 50 days of the war we had no power outages, we had a stable connection, the city had a centralized water supply.
First, inconvenience. The city is surrounded on three sides by enemy troops. We get bombed every day at all hours. But during the day it is less because then it is easier to detect the Russian positions and give a quick answer. And the residents of the city began to get used to it. Of course, in the first weeks, the bulk of the city’s residents, who were afraid of being occupied and who were afraid of explosions, left.
Two districts suffered immediately from shelling. These are the Ship District and the Ingulsky District, the Southern and Eastern districts of the city. The most prosperous was the Western district of the city. During the time that all amenities remained—water, electricity, communications—a significant part of the people remained in the city.
“There was one heavy rain day. There was a lot of rainfall and we collected rainwater directly from the gutters. I remember that I then stocked all the containers that were in the apartment. I filled everything with rainwater. It was 200–250 liters.”
Now the water is gone. It was impossible to repair the water supply since it is located in the occupied territory. So the first few days were hard. Somehow, we covered our drinking water needs with bottled water, which was sold in stores. And since the Odesa highway was open—we call it “the road of life” because all the goods, including humanitarian ones, come through this corridor—the city was not completely blocked, water was brought in, and people bought drinking water in stores, although there were shortages. My family and I are in a better position because we live on the banks of the Bug estuary. Our housing estate is called “Alluvium.” We made up for the lack of water by just walking to the estuary, although it is hundreds of meters away. Everyone filled buckets, carried water. But the situation was aggravated by the fact that when martial law was declared, the elevators in the houses were turned off. And I live on the 9th floor. And I had to go to the estuary two times a day and carry water for domestic needs to the ninth floor of a 10-story building. This water is okay for dishwashing, but even boiled this water is not suitable for drinking because it is salty.
After some time, utilities and volunteers arranged the supply of water in containers. These are tanks, barrels, and canisters. It was both technical [non-potable] and drinking water. Basically, it was free shipping. People donated money to compensate for fuel.
Odesa organized very powerful help. Odesa sent water tanks. Infinitely, cars went to Mykolaiv. They were carrying the Dniester River water because we were cut off from the Dnieper water. For the entire period when the city was completely without water, there was one heavy rain day. There was a lot of rainfall and we collected rainwater directly from the gutters. I remember that I then stocked all the containers that were in the apartment. I filled everything with rainwater. It was 200–250 liters. The water was suitable for washing and washing dishes. Rainwater is a big help. But in the south of Ukraine, precipitation rarely falls.
The extraction of water took half of our working time. Because if you didn’t take the time to deliver that water, it would be a huge problem. It became the super-task of the authorities to restore the water supply. Until we liberate the right bank of the Dnieper up to the Kherson region, we will not receive that river water. The authorities began to look for other alternative directions. These are artesian wells. But the water in them is far from drinking water standards.
How did the problem with sewerage arise in Mykolaiv and how did the disruption of the sewerage system affect the ecological state of the Dnieper-Bug estuary? What effect has this had on aquatic life?
In addition to destroying the water supply, the first Russian strikes were on the water treatment system. And wastewater discharge is now not controlled. One of the reasons for the degradation of water bodies in the South of Ukraine has always been their pollution with organic matter. Overfertilization and irrational agriculture methods led to the fact that millions of tons of humus [organic soil material] were washed into our reservoirs. The unfinished sewerage system and, now, due to hostilities, uncontrolled discharges have led to the ingress of a huge amount of pollutants and nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.—into the water. Once in the water, these substances create a “life-giving environment.” As a result, since the end of May, there has been a surge in the blooming of water bodies in the South of Ukraine. And the flowering of water leads to the creation of oxygen-free zones, which can kill huge numbers of fish and aquatic animals.
VICTORY IS THE MAIN THING FOR US!
I next spoke with Valentyna Shults, the financial director of Goncharenko Centres, who is currently engaged in helping to provide food and drinking water to soldiers at the front and to refugees. She is a deputy of the Odesa Regional Council.
What was your position before the war, and now?
I am the financial director of Goncharenko Centres, I am the curator of educational programs. But for now, first of all, I am a volunteer. But a volunteer is not a position, it is a state of mind. Now, volunteering has come to the forefront of my activity. It is necessary to constantly support the front-line soldiers. The future of our country depends on them. I am helping our army. I have been volunteering since 2014 [when Russia invaded Crimea].
How do you remember the first day of the war?
For me, the war in Ukraine began back in 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and began military aggression in Donbas. This year, on February 24, when the full-scale offensive began, I was in Kyiv. On the first day of the full-scale war, the entire team of Goncharenko Centres immediately decided to change the format of work from educational to volunteer. We were aware that the army needed our help. This is a priority.
We also understood that support was needed for displaced persons and local residents who found themselves in frontline zones. On February 24, explosions occurred in Podilsk, Odesa region. Therefore, I immediately went to the Podilsk Goncharenko Centre myself. There occurred the first victims in the military. The situation was shocking, but at the same time, I knew that I should not sit idly by. It was necessary to help because everyone has to fight on their own front. Then I called my friends in Western Ukraine, where it was more or less calm.
“They rape children, torture, execute innocent people, shoot families. These are all broken destinies!”
We quickly established the supply of products and medicines through our Goncharenko Centres. Now, through the Centres, we dress and shoe many soldiers, who then go to the front. We find the necessary equipment, such as thermal imagers, and even help with communication systems. We take tons of water to the city of Mykolaiv every day; there was no drinking water there for more than a month. We deliver food, medicine, and basic necessities to frontline workers and refugees. Currently, 19 of our Centres are operating. Before the war, there were 24 of them, but some ended up under occupation. For example, our Centre in Oleshk. Some were bombed, like the one in Dergachy. We evacuated people from Centres in Donbas. But we continue to do our work. We even opened three more Centres already after the invasion, two in Odesa and one in Mykolaiv.
All of our 19 working Centres are like a big beehive. Everyone is doing something. In some, they weave camouflage nets, in others, they sew balaclavas and collect hygiene products, food, basic necessities, medicines.
What are the biggest losses from the war: human losses, infrastructure losses, environmental losses? Please illustrate.
For me personally, the scariest thing is that we are losing people. We are losing the best people, they are young, talented, and strong. They sacrifice themselves to protect us. This is pain and horror. But we all understand that this is war. That victory is impossible without losses, but it hurts all of us, it is our wound. And when we talk about the occupation, it is not only about the territories, not only about our land, our people, the Ukrainians under occupation there. The whole world saw the inhuman atrocities of Russia in Bucha, in Borodyanka, and in Irpen. The same is happening in Kharkiv Oblast, Kherson Oblast, wherever Russian soldiers come. They rape children, torture, execute innocent people, shoot families. These are all broken destinies! This suffering will remain with us for a long time, we will not be able to get rid of this pain even after the war. If we talk about the destruction of the infrastructure, we will rebuild everything when we win. We are strong, hardworking, we love our country. Victory is the main thing for us!
How did you find out about the shortage of water in Mykolaiv? What feelings did it evoke in you? How did the volunteer community respond to the plight of Mykolaiv residents?
From the first days of the war, I personally took humanitarian aid to Mykolaiv—to the military, to local residents of the region, and to those who remained in the city. These people need help because the city is under constant shelling. Therefore, I immediately found out when the water pipeline was destroyed.
In a few weeks, we transported more than 70 tons of water and dozens of tons of humanitarian aid from Odesa to Mykolaiv. Now that we have opened a volunteer Goncharenko Centre in Mykolaiv, it significantly facilitates our logistics. Mykolaiv is now a Southern outpost, it holds back the Russian onslaught, and prevents Russian troops from breaking through to Odesa.
We immediately started delivering water from Odesa, and we also got large water tanks. Our volunteers work like a conveyor: We load, transport, unload, and distribute to people. We distribute not only water but medicine, food, and hygiene items.
Has the problem been solved for today?
The problem with water in Mykolaiv still remains. Currently, the water flowing from the taps there is mostly unfit for drinking.
VOLUNTEERS IN ACTION
I spoke to Natalya Bogachenko, coordinator of the Gostinaya Khata Humanitarian Center, and deputy of the Odesa Regional Council.
Thanks for the Lend Lease! We are very grateful to our American partners, we already had famous world journalists from BBC and CNN at the Center. We expect that American assistance will not stop. I mean, until we end the war. What to tell America? Help and support.
The quintessence of the experience of volunteering in Mykolaiv—what has been accomplished and what remains to be done? What is this miracle, this synergy, when volunteers, businesses, and the state together can do much more?
When the water supply was interrupted in Mykolaiv, I realized that something had to be done. Carrying water is very beautiful, but it is unjustified because the logistics are difficult. Fuel is expensive, car rentals are expensive. I thought that it would be much cheaper to gather businessmen and buy a water purification plant. We set the condition that any resident of the city of Mykolaiv would have access to these stations. So this station could not be installed somewhere at a secret facility. And we set up the first station at the Hydropathic Center, and there was free access to water. And to date, the company we work with to install the stations has installed 31 treatment stations. This means that a total of 375 tons of water will be cleared each night! [Compared to the municipal system destroyed by the Russians, which purified 20,000 tons of water per day. —O.R.] And in the city of Dnipro, we have also installed nine treatment stations. There are 40 stations in total. And I want to say that in terms of water consumption, 20% of the population remained in Mykolaiv. Therefore, we have to look beyond Mykolaiv at the cities that accept the inhabitants of Mykolaiv. First of all, this is Odesa. We know that the Russians are hitting civilian targets, such as train stations, power plants, and bridges. Knowing that many from Mykolaiv, Kherson, and Mariupol moved to Odesa, they can strike at pumping stations. It will be trouble! And we are looking for options, solutions, how to secure Odesa in case of water supply failure.
How can the Americans at the level of civilian society, at the level of government, help Odesa?
We have projects, if America is ready to help. We need research. Some American [water purification] stations came to Mykolaiv, which had been in Iraq, but they did not work because of the high water pollution with pesticides in our underground water. We need storage tanks to collect the water we purify. The cleaning system should also be indoors because winter is ahead. And we need a system of taps for distribution to the population.
For my final question, we return to Valentyna Shults: What aid from the United States is the most important today?
Right now the centers most need bulletproof vests and helmets—means of personal protection. It is simply vital. Tactical equipment is required, means of observation such as thermal imagers and drones. Both the military and refugees, and the population of the frontline territories, which are in difficult conditions under shelling, constantly need medicines, clothes, hygiene products, basic necessities, and baby food.
In my opinion, the most important thing now is the supply of weapons to our military. This is the most important thing. This is what we need to defeat the Russian invaders, to liberate our land and our people. Technical means, communication means. “Starlink” [Internet access through satellite service] is also important. But informational support—correctly informing the world about what is happening in Ukraine, true information, in particular, about the ecological problem—is also an essential component of our joint victory!
Agreed. The Russian-Ukrainian war has many fronts. One of them is the water front. The Ukrainian people believe in a common victory with all allies on the environmental front. We will return water to our homes, and then clean the rivers, lakes, and seas! ❖
From the first days of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, Oleg Rubel, professor in the Department of Public Administration and Environmental Management of the Odesa State Environmental University, has remained in Odesa and monitored the negative impact Russian troops are having on the environment in the South of Ukraine and the Black Sea.
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