As the world witnesses in disbelief the horrors of war in Ukraine, members of the Chamber of Commerce Polish Waterworks (IGWP) are mobilizing to support their Ukrainian neighbours with all forms of support for victims of the war, both those in Ukraine and refugees that have fled to Poland.
The IGWP, together with the Ukrainian Association of Water and Sewerage UKRVODOKANALEKOLOGIA, has recently issued a call for support to the Ukrainian water sector. Financial support will be used for humanitarian and technical needs. In addition, support to meet specific needs of material assistance for Ukrainian water utilities is being coordinated.
Smart Water Magazine had the opportunity to talk with Jurij Zerlitsyn, representative of the Ukrainian Association of Water and Sewerage UKRVODOKANALEKOLOGIA and Klara Ramm, an expert with the Chamber of Commerce Polish Waterworks (IGWP), about the situation in Ukraine.
Question: Could you tell us about the current situation of water and sanitation services in the different regions of Ukraine, and how you expect it to evolve?
Answer: Jurij Zerlitsyn: For Ukrainian water utilities, the war was not a surprise for two reasons. First of all, we already had the experience of the tragic events in Crimea and Donbas, which have been under Russian occupation since 2014. As a result of the Russian aggression, we lost our colleagues from the water supply companies. Employees of water utilities were then killed and injured. The water industry has learned from this experience. Recognition and research on water safety in wartime conditions were carried out. Thanks to this, a handbook in Ukrainian was developed by Volodymyr Kobylansky.
Foreign intelligence sent us signals about preparations for the Russian invasion
Second, foreign intelligence sent us signals about preparations for the Russian invasion. The waterworks have been prepared for this through technical, material, and organizational security.
Jurij Zerlitsyn, representative of the Ukrainian Association of Water and Sewerage UKROVODOKANALEKOLOGIA
The current situation in Ukraine depends on the city's location and the losses caused by the Russian aggression.
Fortunately, the country's water systems are under control and most of them are operational. There are places where infrastructure has been destroyed, such as Mariupol and Chernihiv. In Chernihiv, the system is broken, there is no water in the apartments. However, it is distributed from cisterns and at water points for people to function somehow.
Q: What are the major threats to the continuity of water services?
J.Z.: Obviously, the damage to infrastructure as a result of shelling and bombing is the worst. The lack of electricity also causes a lack of water and sewage services. That is why we already need power generators in many places. We need equipment to remove water network failures, such as clamps, fittings, tools. I try to check who needs what. I am in touch with employees of waterworks in Ukraine. Whenever someone comes to me with a willingness to help, I try to direct it to the right place.
Fortunately, the country's water systems are under control and most of them are operational - Jurij Zerlitsyn
Klara Ramm: My association is trying to help colleagues from Ukraine. Of course, we collect money that we can donate at any time to specific humanitarian and technical needs. We are also preparing for long-term assistance. We will not leave the Ukrainian waterworks alone; we will help with the reconstruction of the infrastructure. So far, there is an amazing social aid movement, but building long-term institutional solutions is just as important. That is why I am asking water utilities from Poland and abroad to coordinate their activities so that the help reaches where it is most needed.
Q: Last year the U.N. Security Council banned the destruction of critical civilian structures during war, including water infrastructure. Can you tell us about damages to water infrastructure and risks to the safety of workers as the conflict progresses?
J.Z.: This principle may be recognized by democracies, but has nothing to do with how the Russian aggressor behaves. Barbarians have no rules.
K.R.: Yes, it is proving once again that agreements and rules can work in peacetime. Unfortunately, in a war caused only by greed, all the rules are broken. As a result of military operations in Europe, people are killed every day, they are left without a home, without water.
Klara Ramm, an expert with the Chamber of Commerce Polish Waterworks (IGWP)
Q: To what extent is access to information and misinformation an issue? What about cyber-attacks?
J.Z: A blessing in disguise, there are still many devices in Ukraine that have to be set manually by an employee. IT and SCADA systems don't work everywhere. This makes it difficult for cyber-attacks. It is impossible to completely block the work of a water intake or water treatment plant because only local employees are able to control them and ensure their proper operation.
The disinformation mainly concerns Russian society, which is informed that the Ukrainian civilian population is protected and that Russian troops do not destroy critical infrastructure. Of course, the world does not believe it, because the facts speak for themselves. The Russians are bombing hospitals, homes, and waterworks. These are cruel and ruthless actions aimed at terrorizing the civilian population.
It is impossible to completely block the work of a water intake or water treatment plant because only local employees are able to control them - Jurij Zerlitsyn
K.R.: Indeed, the benefit of digitization has its negative dimension related to the need to properly protect information systems. In the current situation, manual control of water supply and sewage systems turns out to be the most effective. Once again, it turns out that people with appropriate knowledge and experience as well as a vocation to serve others are of great value in our sector.
Q: Can you comment on the situation concerning access to water and sanitation by displaced people within Ukraine and into neighbouring countries?
K.R.: Poland helps refugees mainly thanks to the incredible commitment of society. As of February 24, over 1.5 million people have crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border. Everyone helps by making financial donations, buying food, or giving a piece of a flat to guests from Ukraine.
Access to drinking water is provided at border crossing points. At some border crossings, water and sewage systems had to be strengthened to serve hundreds of thousands of people.
Unfortunately, it happens that local, rather small-town infrastructure is not prepared for such a huge migration, which makes access to a shower or toilet difficult. Fortunately, these are minority cases. Refugees are transported and placed in various regions. Conditions are not the same everywhere. The point, however, is that they initially have clean and safe water for drinking and washing. So that they have sanitary services available. Preventing disease transmission is one of the daily challenges, as many migrants are not vaccinated against COVID, and children do not have vaccinations, which are mandatory in Poland. In such a situation, it is difficult to overestimate the value of water and sanitation services.
Europe simply has a moral obligation to help Ukraine - Klara Ramm
Q: How can the international water community support the most pressing needs of water services in areas affected by hostilities?
K.R.: In my opinion, Europe simply has a moral obligation to help Ukraine. Maybe we had too little interest in her in the past? What does it mean to give up one trip to a restaurant, shorten your vacation or take a guest from far away at home? Can it be compared to having to jump off the couch and escape into the unknown?
Nobody wants to leave the home where they feel comfortable. Therefore, it is our moral duty to ensure that Ukrainians are able to return home with joy. They need shelter, occupation, education, protection, and then help rebuild the country. Volunteers from water utilities are ready to help.
J.Z.: We count on the efforts of the world's society to combat this inhuman aggression. We all have to act together. A small financial effort of each company or community will help to secure the future of every Ukrainian baby, like the one in the photo, who only needs a sip of clean water.