As Russian shells continue to fall, Mykolaiv’s water-starved residents remain defiant

11 months ago 58

Ludmyla Osadchuk put her foot to the pedal and the rickety red-and-white tram edged forward, exiting the depot with a crunching of wheels and a rattle of the old, loosely fitting doors. On board were three blue canisters, each holding 1,000 litres of water.

With a “Special route” sign attached to the front window, the tram trundled to the first of four stops in different parts of Mykolaiv. The only passenger was former tram driver Serhiy Vytstyna, who hopped out at the stop and connected a set of pumps to the canisters.

For the next hour, the tram remained stationary, as people came to collect water: some had trolleys with a dozen five-litre bottles to fill; one elderly lady shuffled away holding just one bottle in her hand, as much as she could carry.

Then the pumps were disconnected and the tram carried on to its next distribution point. The water tram has been running through Mykolaiv for a year now, and everyone knows the timetable.

The war has affected every city in Ukraine, but in each place the experience has been different. For Mykolaiv, a southern port city of nearly half a million inhabitants, which the Russians bombarded heavily at the start of the invasion but failed to occupy, a large part of the story has been about water.

In April 2022, six weeks after the full-scale invasion, with the Russian army still harassing the outskirts and launching missile strikes at the centre, the city woke up one day with no water in the taps.

Ludmyla Osadchuk drives the tram delivering clean water around Mykolaiv.
Ludmyla Osadchuk drives the tram that delivers drinking water around the city

“For the first two or three days we had no idea what was going on,” said Vasyl Telpis, deputy director of the Mykolaiv water system.

It turned out that the Russians had hit the pipeline bringing water to the city from the Dnipro River, 73km away. With the Russians in possession of the Soviet-era planning maps, the assumption was that the strike was deliberate.

“There was heavy fighting there so we had no opportunity to mend it or to understand what was going on. It was crisis management, a catastrophe,” said Telpis, who has worked for the city’s water grid since 1985 and whose office is filled with maps of Mykolaiv and technical drawings of its water grid. “In all my years of work, I had never experienced any situation even close to this,” he added.

From 12 April until 6 May last year, there was no water in the taps at all. People travelled to surrounding villages to use long-abandoned wells; trucks came from Odesa bringing much-needed supply.

Across the country, Ukrainians were improvising and adapting to life in the face of Russian aggression, but the water situation in Mykolaiv added a new dimension. Aside from drinking water, much of the city’s key infrastructure, including food production and hospitals, required clean water to function.

Dialysis patients being treated in the Mykolaiv regional clinical hospital
Dialysis patients being treated in the Mykolaiv regional clinical hospital. Clean water is necessary for the machines to function.

“Water, electricity and medical personnel are the three key things a hospital needs to run,” said Petro Rymar, the chief doctor of Mykolaiv regional clinical hospital, who had to contend with problems in all three areas, as well as with military strikes on hospital buildings.

In the first days, the hospital had to rely on volunteers bringing water from other regions to keep dialysis machines and other vital infrastructure running. Later, two wells were drilled on the premises, with the water passing through filtration machines before use.

Wells have been drilled at various locations across the city, including at the tram depot, to provide drinking water.

The taps in people’s houses began running again in May 2022, but the water was salty and full of chemical deposits – too dangerous to drink and extremely unpleasant even for washing with.

As the city remained under sustained bombardment, the water situation was one more headache for the people that remained. More than half the population left for safer places.

A key milestone came in November, when the Russians were driven out of most of neighbouring Kherson region, moving Mykolaiv away from the frontline and bringing relative quiet to the city.

Nevertheless, Russia still lobs missiles into Mykolaiv every few weeks; the latest one crashed into a three-storey residential building on the central Admiralska Street on Thursday morning, tearing a chunk out of the block.

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“It was the centre of the city, and there was nothing [military] anywhere nearby,” said regional governor Vitaliy Kim, visibly exhausted after a week of strikes across Ukraine’s south.

The bombed-out remains of a residential building destroyed by a Russian missile strike on Thursday morning.
The bombed-out remains of a residential building destroyed by a Russian missile strike on Thursday morning.

On Friday afternoon, street sweepers and firefighters were still cleaning up the mess from the strike, pulling down the exposed walls inside the carcass and clearing vast mounds of debris from the street. Two people were killed and 15 injured in the strike, said Kim.

Despite the potential for terror at any time, tens of thousands of residents who left the city have now returned, cafes and restaurants have reopened, and Kim said the plan is that 125 of the region’s schools will open for in-person classes in September.

The water in the taps is better, too – it’s still murky and occasionally foul-smelling, but many people say it’s now fine to wash with, even if using it for drinking or cooking is still out of the question, and the water tram keeps running to bring water for people to drink.

Telpis and the city authorities won’t say exactly where the water now pouring out of taps in Mykolaiv comes from – they don’t want to give anything away that could help the Russians target the new infrastructure.

For the water authorities in Mykolaiv, every day is still about crisis management. The city’s pipes were badly corroded by the months when salt water flowed through them, and mobile brigades are called upon daily to fix leaks and breakages, often leaving whole neighbourhoods without water for lengthy periods.

Large factories and medical facilities have used donor money and local volunteers to help set up crisis water systems for the future.

At the regional hospital, Rymar showed off a new well system that will provide enough water for the entire hospital, and a shiny new filtration system.

Unicef and other international donors have helped the hospital to prepare for being self-sufficient if the water supply is again cut off.

People on the street in Mykolaiv wait to fill empty containers with clean water brought by a tram.
People in Mykolaiv – using an array of plastic containers – collect clean water from the tram. Everyone in the city knows the tram’s timetable.

It is more than a remote possibility: the city water supply now relies partly on an above-ground pipe system, said Telpis, meaning that in winter it could freeze, forcing the water authorities to return to salt water, which in turn will damage the underground pipes even further.

There is one solution to this disastrous cycle: if the Ukrainian army can push the Russians far enough back from the River Dnipro that the original pumping station and pipes can be repaired, and Mykolaiv can go back to the using the same supply system as before.

“As soon as we can push them back far enough we have plans to go in and put in place a temporary solution, and then start proper repairs,” said Telpis. “For us, this is absolutely critically important and we hope it happens before the winter.”

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