Lyudmila, an 82 year-old pensioner, sighs, “Before World War II, I used to water mine garden with it. But now it’s impossible to use.” She is pointing toward the Komyshuvakha river, which flows an unsettling orange.
Tarasova resides in a tiny wooden house near Zolote, eastern Ukraine. The Komyshuvakha runs near by and is a tributary for the Severskiy Donets. It is also the main freshwater source in the war-torn Donbas region. Recent weeks have seen the easternmost region of Ukraine come back into the spotlight due to rising fears of a Russian invasion. This is despite an unprecedented build-up in troops at its border.
Lyudmila Ivanovna Tarasova, a retired woman, lives by the Komyshuvakha River polluted with mine water. She no longer uses it for watering her garden.
Donbas is home to approximately 6.5 million people. It has been Ukraine’s largest industrial hub for over 200 years and a major coal producer. Over 200 years, it has been home to an estimated 15 billion tonsThe region has been contaminated with fossil fuels.
Many of Donbas’ mines were closed down after the fall of Soviet Union. Many more have fallen into disuse since the conflict between the Ukrainian state, and Russian-backed separatists seven year ago.
Although it may sound like a win for environment, it is now a testament to the ecological disasters that can result from mine closures that are not well managed.
Contaminated waters could pose a threat to hundreds of thousands
To prevent mines from flooding, water must be continuously pumped out of underground shafts and chambers. Groundwater that does not enter can become contaminated by heavy metals. They may then permeate underground soils and contaminate the aquifers.
The Ukrainian National Institute for Strategic Studies in 2019 called chemical contamination from flooded miners an “urgent danger” to at most 300,000 people in separatist-held-areas, while every fourth resident near the contact line a stretch of land that separates government and non-government-controlled territories already lacks a reliable source of drinking water.
The Komyshuvakha River, orange colored by highly mineralized water mined. Residents claim they can no longer use the contaminated waters.
Evgeny Yakovlev is a Senior Research Fellow at Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences. He says that the incidence of acute gastrointestinal infections, particularly in children under 4, is already dozens of folds higher than the average in Ukraine.
Yakovlev was the lead in the 2017 comprehensive survey of coal mine flooding, and its effects on water quality in Donbas. Yakovlev says the findings were devastating. He said that 98% of the water taken outside the centralized supply network was unfit for drinking.
Most of the water in the Donbas region comes from the Siverskyi DonetsDonbas channel, which is 300 km (186 miles) long and is maintained by Voda Donbasu. The waterway is however located in the frontline zone, and is therefore frequently damaged by fighting. People have had to rely on contaminated water sources.
Yakovlev’s study was last to be done on both sides of the frontline. Since 2017, no data has been available on environmental degradation in territories beyond Ukraine’s control.
Over the years, however, the Ukrainian government has repeatedly accused Luhansk and Donetsk authorities of closing down mines without taking the necessary precautions.
The Yunkom coal-mining complex in Yenakiieve is of particular concern. Here, Soviet authorities in 1979 detonated a 0.3 kiloton nuke underground to extract methane.
Separatist authorities made the decision to stop the mine’s costly maintenance in 2018. Ukrainian officials declareThis has caused water to flow into the lower levels of the complex, with groundwater already contaminated by radionuclides and possibly carrying active radionuclides. The bomb formed groundwater into the Kalmius, Seversky Donets and beyond to the Black Sea.
The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) Ministry of Energy, however, denies that there is any problem. According to it, “Environmental degradation in DPR is not occurring, unlike the difficult environment situation in modern Ukraine.”
Dumping polluted waters into the Komyshuvakha
Some people believe it is easier to blame the separatists in Ukraine than to address the problems on their side. Benoit Gerfault is the coordinator of French NGO ACTED. He says that sometimes representatives from the government are more concerned with fiery rhetoric rather than cross-border collaboration to solve these issues.
With so many mines interconnected, damage or neglect on one side of the conflict can quickly become an issue for the entire country.
May 2018: Water from the flooded Rodina & Holubovska mines of coal, which are behind separatist lines, was used to flood the area. Rushed into the Zolote Minein government-held territory at an average speed of 2,000 cubic meters/hour
Incapable of coping with the deluge the treatment facilities at Zolote began pumping out contaminated minewater around-the clock and then dumping it untreated into the Komyshuvakha, according to reports. Local media reports.
Truth Hounds, an investigative non-profit, recently found that the Komyshuvakha exceeded Ukrainian legal safety standards regarding manganese, sulfates, chlorides.
“Even for technical reasons, for livestock, it’s not enough water,” Oleksii Babchenko (head of the civil-military administration in Zolote), “no way to water crops either.”
The river’s contamination is becoming more visible and locals are looking for water elsewhere.
Tarasova, a retired pensioner, said that rainwater is now used for my garden. She boils water from a stream nearby for cooking but, for drinking, she uses bottled water at the Zolote store, a significant distance away for a woman aged 82.
“It’s hard, but I have no choice. She says.
Subsidence and explosions
Flooding of Donbas’ coal mines also caused the build-up and displacement of methane gas, increasing earthquakes and the risk of explosions. Seismic activity is caused by groundwater levels rising. Submerged soils lose their density and shift when they are flooded.
Babchenko says, “When you go down into the mines here at Zolote it smells like gas.”
Then there is subsidence.
Flooding can cause the ground to shift and sink, causing shafts in heavily mined areas to collapse. Subsidence is possible on a total of 12,000 hectares in Donbas, according to some estimates.
The OSCE warnsThis could cause landslides or sinkholes, aswell as failure of engineering and communication infrastructure gas lines and sewage supply systems. Yakovlev claims that entire cities could become uninhabitable.
Babchenko explains that Zolote is experiencing “ground sinking” and has noticed cracks on its buildings. “One local school is in constant repair.”
Just transition in a war zone
Last month, Ukraine pledged to give up coal by 2035 at the UN climate conference in Glasgow. But Officials sayThe Donbas industry, which has been in operation for two centuries, must be closed down. This will allow for a “just transition” away form fossil fuels. This would ensure workers’ rights and livelihoods. It is a challenge that is not faced by other coal-producing nations.
A mural painting in honor of the miners from Zolote. The military conflict in Donbas makes it more difficult for workers to make the transition from fossil fuels to ‘just’.
Babchenko claims that, despite regular shellings, Zolote’s remaining mines still employ approximately 3,500 people. According to Babchenko, shuttering them would be a socioeconomic disaster if they were not subject to massive investment.
He said, “We need both to invest in an environmentally safe manner to close down the mines, as well as in social and employment programs to support the workers.”
Babchenko states, “Many people talk with us about the experience in France and Germany,” “But let us not forget that there was never an active military conflict in any of these regions.”
Edited By: Ruby Russell and Holly Young