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Lone Shell Blast Cuts Key Water Supply in East Ukraine

Essential pumping equipment for major canal will be hard to replace amid battles.
By Dmitry Durnev

An artillery shell that smashed into a pumping station near Slavyansk last week killed two waterworks employees and put a major canal out of action.

Sergei Savelyev, head of the regional canal department responsible for the pumping station, arrived on the scene later that day, June 11.

He met both Ukrainian military and separatist leaders to brief them on the situation and warn of impending water shortages, and then gained access to the building where the bodies of his staff members still lay – they could not be extracted until the following day.

Savelyev attempted to fix the pumps but soon had to spend several hours hiding in the basement as gunbattles broke out close to the pumping station.

“Only the gates to the pump station were left undamaged. The roof is lying nearby, and the main transformer is smashed and can’t be repaired,” Yulia Vasilenkova, commercial director of the Voda Donbassa water company, said later. “It’s impossible to conceive of repairing the building in the midst of ongoing battles.”

The 130-kilometre North Donetsk-Donetsk canal is the source of much of the water consumed in this part of eastern Ukraine, but it needs pumps to raise it to a higher level at several points along the way.

As the canal flow came to a halt, the ensuing shut-off of mains supplies left several parts of Donetsk region running short of water including the towns of Volnovakha, Dokuchaevsk and Selidovo, and parts of Konstantinovka. Some supplies are being drawn from wells, but these are limited to two buckets per person a day.

Reservoirs are supplying water to the metals plants in Mariupol and to industrial-scale farms in Krasnoarmeysk district. The city of Donetsk is better off than most, as it has supplies that could last 18 days, assuming it is used sparingly. 

Leaders of the separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” have generally kept out of the complex business of delivering basic services across this large region, and most Ukrainian state institutions continue to perform their functions.

The day after the pumping station was blown up, however, armed men turned up at Voda Donbassa’s head office in Donetsk issuing threats and demanding that the water come back on immediately. They came in two separate groups, each unaware of the other, each sent by a different “minister” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

The following day, separatist fighters accompanied technical experts who were able to reach the site and assess the damage. Managers from the DITEK power company, owned by oligarch Rinat Ahmetov, also tried to visit the pumping station, but had to turn back because they ran into fighting.

At the moment, the way forward is unclear. The damage to the pump station is being put at over 400,000 US dollars million, and even if it is possible to source and manufacture a new generator, it would have to be transported to the site, and the building would need to be repaired and unexploded ordnance cleared around it. None of that seems possible as long as battles rage around Slavyansk, only a kilometre or so away.

There are reserve power units at the pumping station, but they are old and long disused, and will require waterworks staff to be on hand permanently to maintain them. Amid continuing clashes, volunteers for that job will be hard to find.

Dmitry Durnev is editor-in-chief of the MK-Donbass newspaper in Donetsk.

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