Mitigating the Impact of Hostilities on Water Resources in Ukraine: The Role of State Regulation

The article discusses the unique characteristics of the impact of hostilities on water resources in Ukraine due to industrialization, highlighting the damage to infrastructure, contamination of water resources, and the need for state regulation and international cooperation to mitigate the consequences.

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The article discusses the unique characteristics of the impact of hostilities on water resources in Ukraine due to industrialization, highlighting the damage to infrastructure, contamination of water resources, and the need for state regulation and international cooperation to mitigate the consequences.

The impact of war on water resources

While the impact of war on water resources has been a well-known issue in recent decades, the situation in Ukraine presents unique characteristics due to the high level of industrialization in the regions where hostilities, starting in 2014 in Donetsk and Luhansk, have subsequently spread throughout the country in 2022 and persist to this day. The water infrastructure in these regions is critically important, featuring extensive multipurpose reservoirs, hydroelectric dams, cooling facilities for nuclear power plants, reservoirs utilized in industry and mining, and a vast network of water distribution channels and pipelines catering to irrigation and household requirements.

The abundance and quality of water resources play a vital role in ensuring security in consumption and enhancing society’s overall quality of life. Before the full-scale invasion, the residents of Ukraine rarely encountered water scarcity for their daily domestic and agricultural requirements, thanks to favourable climatic and geographical conditions. The majority of settlements had access to centralized water supply and sewerage systems, with only a few exceptions.

Prior to the outbreak of a comprehensive conflict in Ukraine in February 2022, the average allocation of river runoff stood at approximately 1 thousand cubic meters per person per year. Ukraine’s total annual river flow resources amounted to an average of 87 billion cubic meters, while the groundwater resources accounted for approximately 21 billion cubic meters annually.

Since the onset of the conflict, the effects on water resources have been substantial. Numerous water treatment facilities and canals, integral to irrigation systems, have suffered damage. The occupiers’ strategic targets included oil depots in urban areas, resulting in the release of petroleum products and the contamination of soil and water resources due to missile strikes. These occurrences were not limited to areas directly affected by the fighting but extended throughout Ukraine as a consequence of missile attacks. Furthermore, the destruction of bridges and military equipment led to pollution as pollutants seeped into rivers, with their decomposition expected to persist for an extended period. Consequently, the impact of hostilities on aquatic ecosystems has been exceptionally severe.

Currently, in Ukraine, the use and protection of water resources is regulated by a number of laws and other legal documents, including the Water Code of Ukraine, Laws “On Drinking Water, Drinking Water Supply and Sewerage”, “On Environmental Protection” and other legislative acts.

Although the NEURC’s jurisdiction does not encompass direct responsibility for environmental protection and the management of water supply sources for licensees, it actively engages in various initiatives. This includes participating in activities, monitoring risk assessments, and contributing to decisions to mitigate the war’s adverse impact on Ukraine’s water resources, which are ultimately approved by relevant authorities.

The examination of this matter serves as a vital means to obtain essential information required for substantiating the existing and potential supplementary requirements of licensees. These needs have emerged due to the ongoing hostilities and may have enduring consequences in the future. It is crucial to assess these needs individually for each licensee, considering factors such as the extent of their involvement in the combat zone and the territories falling under their responsibility. The evaluation should take into account the breadth, priority, urgency, and cost associated with fulfilling these requirements.

The requirements of NEURC’s licensees in the western regions of Ukraine are comparatively less pressing than those of others. Their infrastructure remains intact, and the water quality meets the established standards. As a result, the utilities operating in the active conflict zones possess a distinctive and valuable experience that can benefit other licensees. We make sure that this knowledge is disseminated among all utilities.

Here are some practical recommendations that have been proven feasible and have contributed to ensuring the safety of services and the smooth operation of utilities in situations involving water pollution and direct military threats to life:

  • Establishing equipped laboratories with necessary equipment and reagents to detect toxic substances in drinking water in the event of water source contamination.
  • Ensuring the availability of containers for the transportation and storage of water.
  • Creating long-term food stocks for storage.
  • Providing staff with personal protective equipment to safeguard against bullet damage, along with training on their proper use, as well as imparting primary medical assistance skills.
  • Ensuring reliable means of communication.
  • Establishing stocks of essential materials, particularly reagents and fuel, to sustain production activities for a period of 3-6 months.
  • Establishing a reserve fund for repair materials in the event of damage to water pipes and other infrastructure.
  • Providing autonomous power supply solutions.
  • The utility premises should include civil protection shelters, along with the provision of special shelters at peripheral facilities.

It is important to note that each economic entity in Ukraine with more than 50 employees has developed an Emergency Response Plan based on the civil protection legislation of Ukraine. Furthermore, entities that continue to operate during times of war should also develop and approve a Civil Protection Plan specifically tailored for such circumstances. This plan outlines the necessary measures for personal protection of staff and safeguarding water supply and sewerage facilities.

Licensees providing services in the de-occupied territories where the conditions remain extreme, and the quality of water from natural sources, has deteriorated significantly need urgent and significant assistance. This assists in demining and disinfection of the soils of the coastline of rivers and other areas of water intakes, determining the level of pollution, the possibility or impossibility of recovery in a short-term perspective, and the list of necessary measures and funds needed. Special attention should be drawn to eliminate the consequences of the death of the local fauna caused by the war. It is also necessary to assess the expediency, urgency and cost of infrastructure restoration in the areas where it was destroyed and the population remained no more than 10% of the pre-war amount. Consumer demand for water supply and sewerage services has extremely decreased.

Disastrous are the conditions of utilities working in the area of hostilities continuing for more than a year. The needs of these licensees for the restoration of water resources and production facilities will be considered and assessed after the hostilities or occupation period ends.

According to the State Environmental Inspectorate of Ukraine, as of 29.03.2023, the losses due to technogenic pollution and unauthorized use of water resources are more than 47.5 billion euros.

According to the Interregional Center for Humanitarian Demining of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, to demine, for example, the Kharkiv region in one year, it is necessary to attract 125 thousand sappers. There are no such specialists at the moment, and the number of available specialists is extremely low. However, employees of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine primarily work out electricity networks and water and gas pipes to restore vital services on the territory of settlements. The Government of Ukraine settled as a priority to restore all electricity and water supply lines as quickly as possible.

There is water resources pollution in the de-occupied territories, in particular rivers and lakes, due to the intensive supply of harmful substances into underground aquifers, directly into the basins in these territories, and due to the destruction of the underground facilities and water supply systems. Shelling of the water pump stations, water pipes, and sewage treatment plants leads to accidents and deprives people of access to drinking water and sewage.

The impact of war on water resources influences all sectors of the economy. It has crossed national borders a long time ago. The water intake in Ukraine has decreased, and the discharge of contaminated water has increased. There was a significant imbalance in the development of water and sewage networks, especially in the most vulnerable regions.

Without the cooperation of efforts of all central and local authorities and community assistance, overcoming the consequences of the war will take a long time. 

For its part, the NEURC helps licensees conduct a fair assessment of the negative impact of the war on water resources and infrastructure, the cost and duration of measures to restore them and assess future risks. The evaluation materials form the basis of the development plans and investment programs of licensees, and serve as a justification for revision and adjustment of tariff structures for water supply and sewerage services.

On their basis, the NEURC develops proposals for the restoration of water resources, for example, introducing more effective water purification methods and restoring natural ecosystems. The NEURC carries out, where it is currently possible, constant monitoring of compliance with standards and requirements to the quality of drinking water and services.

The authorities of Ukraine and the NEURC particularly realize that environmental disasters caused by the war have long-term consequences and require comprehensive measures to overcome them with the involvement of international partners.