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Navigating Russia’s Attacks on Water and Energy in Ukraine Missile strike on a civilian oil storage facility in Ukraine, March 26, 2022. Photo courtesy of Sodel Vladyslav/Shutterstock.com editorial use.

Navigating Russia’s Attacks on Water and Energy in Ukraine

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The devastating impact of the war on Ukraine’s water and energy systems is a reminder of the role that infrastructure can play in modern conflicts. Damage to infrastructure inhibits the functioning of Ukrainian society and has intensified the war’s humanitarian crises. As the whole of society is dependent on stable water and energy systems, it is no surprise that Russia has specifically targeted these systems in its attempt to bring about Ukrainian capitulation. Yet, these brutal attacks reveal important lessons about the value of both small-scale solar energy aid and decentralized energy systems for energy security.

Russia’s War on Infrastructure

The Ukrainian water sector had issues before the invasion. More than 10 million people lacked access to clean water, and 40 percent of water supply networks were in critical condition. The war has exacerbated this situation. In the east, where the damage is worst, Russian forces destroyed major pipelines and even shut off water to Mariupol in their efforts to subdue the city, sparking concerns over the weaponization of water. Overall, 12 regions are under acute water stress. Water systems rely on electricity to pump water, which means Russian missile attacks on energy facilities significantly hamper the ability to provide water to the 16 million Ukrainians in need.

Prior to the war, Ukraine’s energy sector was more developed than its water sector. However, close to 50% of the country’s energy capacity is damaged or destroyed, at an estimated cost of at least 9.1 billion dollars. This is a result of a major increase in missile attacks on energy infrastructure in October 2022, which included nuclear facilities. As of 2021, nuclear energy provided about 55% of Ukraine’s power. However, in addition to targeting nuclear facilities, Russia controls the Zaporizhzhia power plant, which constituted nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s total electrical production.

Water shortages, exacerbated by attacks on Ukraine’s water infrastructure, also make it difficult to produce nuclear power. Stable access to water from reservoirs is needed to provide heat sinks that, among other things, cool fuel pools and equipment used in nuclear power generation.

To stem this emerging energy crisis, Ukraine is in desperate need of autotransformers, which are crucial to the functioning of the Ukrainian energy grid.

With about ninety percent of providers unable to pay their debts and in need of foreign assistance, the power and utility sectors have been hardest hit by Russian attacks. This includes hydropower dams, which are crucial for “filling in the night gaps of electricity consumption” and have grown in importance due to the reduction in nuclear energy capacity from Russia’s attacks.

Trial by Fire

Modern societies are more interconnected than ever, and the absence of stable water or energy compounds the war’s disruption of Ukrainian society. Hospitals even outside of combat zones struggle to function without water, children’s education is disrupted, which compounds previous losses from COVID-19, and Ukraine’s brain drain problem only increases. Furthermore, Ukrainian agriculture, considered the breadbasket of Europe, has also been impacted by Russian attacks that have left mostly medium- and small-sized farms wanting of stable access to energy and irrigation from clean water sources.

In good news, USAID recently announced “$270 million in new assistance to help repair, maintain, and strengthen Ukraine’s power sector,” signaling the importance of avoiding a grid meltdown and of the power sector in keeping the Ukrainian economy and defense afloat. Yet this is still insufficient, as closer to a billion dollars in the form of infrastructure and maintenance will be required to sustain Ukraine’s current energy grid.

As devastating as the war has been, Russia’s war on infrastructure contains lessons about the viability of decentralized renewable energy as a form of aid and for energy security. When the war started, there was a major increase in demand for small-scale, decentralized solar energy. Non-profits have filled energy gaps with small-scale solar that is relatively easy to build and allows people to charge appliances and technology as well as access the internet, cushioning the blow from grid knockouts. Scaling up this model could provide a way to reduce the impact of energy grid attacks in the future through localized aid.

These attacks should also raise concern over centralized energy systems vulnerability to physical but also cyber-attacks. While Ukraine’s current recovery plan does call for a shift to renewable energy, it does not propose a decentralized system, which would increase and spread out the number of targets so that any one attack does not affect the entire grid or the water systems that depend on it. A wise approach to rebuilding energy infrastructure would heed the lessons from Russia’s and incorporate decentralized energy systems into its redevelopment.