ZOiS Spotlight 35/2018

War and water in the Donbas

by Sophie Lambroschini 17/10/2018
Pumping station in Toretsk, Donbas. Sophie Lambroschini

The four-year conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and the under Russian influence self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk (LPR/DPR) shattered many economic and infrastructure networks. But the local water company continues to provide drinking water and heating. Its operations reveal both the importance and the limitations of technical cooperation across enemy lines.

Last spring, a large water pipe that crosses the front line in eastern Ukraine was once again cracked by shelling, shutting down the local water supply. Valery Konovalov, a water engineer and director of the water utility company in Kyiv-controlled Avdiivka, as "responsible boss", took the lead to oversee repairs. As soon as the demining team had cleared the road, he put on a flak jacket and headed out to assess the damage to the pipe. Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had organised so-called mirror patrols to secure the area, with Ukrainian officers and representatives of the separatist territories standing watch during a brief truce.

Konovalov knew he had little time to carry out the dangerous repairs before shooting started again. Each window of silence between the warring parties can take weeks to negotiate and can hold for just a few hours, as shelling can resume while repairs are still under way. In April, a bus taking technicians home from the Donetsk Filtration Station was hit by small-arms fire. Five employees were injured and the facility was shut down for several days. Some 350,000 people were left dependent on reservoirs and water trucks until the OSCE’s monitoring mission could set up secure transport.

From January to September 2018, supply infrastructure was shelled on average almost twice a week, according to the United Nation's UNICEF that monitors the situation. Ad hoc crisis management at the political and technical levels has so far averted a major humanitarian crisis, but water management on the front line shows the workings and limitations of cooperation across enemy lines

A legacy of Soviet industrialisation

Operating at the centre of this hydro-political nexus, Voda Donbasu (VD), or Water of the Donbas, is a municipal public company that is based in separatist-held Donetsk but abides by Ukrainian legislation. It manages and controls the water-distribution facilities straddling the front line. Local water stems from the river Siverskyi Donets, in the north of Kyiv-controlled Donetsk, and flows through a system of channels, filtration stations, and pumps to homes, fields, and factories through Donetsk down to Mariupol on the Azov Sea.

This aging system was last developed in the late 1950s to serve the Soviet metallurgical and energy plants and their company towns. It was passed up for capital investment and modernisation in the post-Soviet decades, when profit-oriented business groups controlled the region. Four years of war have also taken their toll on infrastructure, quality maintenance, and financing.

Maintaining normality as an adaptive strategy

The 12,000 employees of VD’s 30 local subdivisions, who live and work in both Kyiv-controlled and non-government controlled areas, are trying to adapt to the volatile day-to-day conditions in the region. VD captures the complexity of this arrangement: one company operating on both sides of the war as a guarantor of drinking water for 3.8 million people.

Local subdivisions like Konovalov’s run the local water distribution for municipal water and heating systems. They maintain quality, carry out maintenance, check household water meters, and collect payment. In Avdiivka, there is a pumping station with a reservoir and, since 2015, a bomb shelter. In the office building, staff have covered the glass panes with foil to protect them against splinters from shelling.

Operating on both sides of the front line demands mobility. In interviews, VD managers described how they negotiate long lines at checkpoints to visit the Pokrovsk office, which serves as a second headquarters on the government-controlled side. It can take up to eleven hours to travel from Yasynuvata, on the separatist-held side, to Avdiivka, just 22 kilometres away. Sometimes the managers carry small spare parts across the line—nuts and bolts tailor made in a Donetsk workshop to fit the aging machinery. Monthly board meetings are held between Pokrovsk and Donetsk via an unstable video link.

VD employees explain their reluctance to leave the company—despite the security situation and problems with salary payments—by the obligations they have to their community. This attachment appears particularly strong for those born and bred in the Donbas, who are sometimes sons or daughters in water-management ‘dynasties’. Continuing one’s daily life as it used to be is a documented behaviour by people in war—an attempt to create a sense of normality out of chaos.

VD’s managers claimed in interviews that the interaction between staff on different sides had been little affected by official propaganda or the socio-political alienation caused by the war: ‘Being professionals means that we don’t let politics [the war] disrupt our work.’ The line of contact between government-controlled and non-government controlled areas is perceived more as a complication to be managed than as an actual obstruction for company communication.

The limits of water politics

From the broader perspective of conflict studies, technocratic cooperation, with its emphasis on standardised solutions and professionalism, is considered to have some peace-building capabilities. However, at another level, VD’s operations have become more, rather than less, political. The conflict has overturned VD’s economic and management model in particular by broadening its scope of interaction to new actors as a condition for its survival. Whereas the company originally functioned strictly on a local level, its managers now communicate with the Minsk contact group, international donors (Western governments and international organisations that provide chemicals and spare parts), authorities in Kyiv and Donetsk, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, and armed forces.

Water management in the Donbas shows how the on-the-ground experience of war is more complex than its political narrative. This nuanced picture coincides with the social environment in the Donbas, where communication across the separation line remains intense, counterbalancing the general trend towards political polarisation. However, the efficiency of this micro-level cooperation is often subordinated to military, political, and geopolitical interests.

Sophie Lambroschini is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin, where she works on a project on cross-front-line economic interactions and networks in the Donbas. She holds a PhD in Slavic studies on Soviet capitalist banking during the Cold War. She is the author of Les Ukrainiens : Lignes de vie d’un peuple (Ateliers Henry Dougier, 2014/2016).