On the night of June 6, 2023, the Dnieper dam at the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric power station in southern Ukraine was partially destroyed by a powerful explosion. There is little doubt that Russian forces (in control of the area where the dam is located) were behind this deliberate action, as devastating in its consequences as it is rare in an armed conflict.
This partial destruction on June 6 released almost 18 billion tonnes of water into the downstream region, raising the level of the Dnieper by several meters and flooding the town of Kherson, as well as “drowning” almost forty villages. Ukrainian authorities and volunteers had to evacuate and relocate over 16,000 people. Beyond this, the long-term impact of the disaster was exceptional in its scale: the dam supplied drinking water to over 700,000 people; water contamination through flooding of industrial sites and the shutdown of wastewater treatment plants compromised the availability and distribution of drinking water in the region for a long time to come; in rural areas, wells and springs were unusable. Lastly, ecosystems were disrupted, polluted and permanently affected, as was farmland. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres summed up on June 6, this is “a monumental humanitarian, economic and ecological catastrophe”.
France was quick to respond to the needs expressed by Ukrainian President Zelensky, through the crisis and support center of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs (CDCS). After sending an initial emergency shipment of some ten tons of equipment on June 9, two new humanitarian shipments left France on June 14 and 15, including 5 mobile water purification stations (Aquaforce 2000) and 6 flexible 10m3 water storage tanks donated by the Veolia Foundation to the humanitarian association SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL, which received them in Lviv, in western Ukraine.
Because, in parallel with the French government’s initiative, SI, already present in the Oblasts affected by the dam explosion, immediately sought to intervene urgently in one of its areas of expertise: access to water and sanitation. The SI mission and head office contacted various donors to find out about their strategies and whether additional funds were available. This was done while using available budget lines, in order to carry out assessments without delay, gain a better understanding of the Ukrainian government’s responses, and intervene appropriately in areas not covered. As early as June 8, the SI Ukraine mission identified the need for ultrafiltration systems in uncovered rural or semi-urban areas. This would enable SI’s water trucking activities to be strengthened by using water locally, rather than having to bring it in from afar. On the same day, June 8, the Veolia Foundation contacted SI to confirm that the CDCS could finance the logistics and transport of the Aquaforce 2000. On June 12, the CDCS gave the go-ahead, and a technical agreement was reached between SI and the Veolia Foundation, enabling the 5 Aquaforce 2000s to be shipped to Poland, with SI responsible for transporting them to the Ukraine and bearing the cost of training in Lviv (see below).
This responsiveness was made possible by the long-standing partnership between the Veolia Foundation and SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL. It began in 2007 in southern Sudan, in the town of Malakal (now in South Sudan), where Veoliaforce installed a water treatment plant for 15,000 people. Since then, the Veolia Foundation has supported the association’s projects in the DRC (cholera control program in Kalemie, Katanga and Uvira, South Kivu), Côte d’Ivoire, the Philippines, Mali, Mozambique, Cameroon, France, Lebanon… and now Ukraine. As Thierry Vandevelde, Managing Director of the Veolia Foundation, and member and Chairman of the Foundations College of the CNDSI (Conseil national pour le développement et la solidarité internationale), sums up: “The partnership with SI and the operation in Ukraine are a fine illustration of our ability to work together, NGOs and private-sector players. There’s a need and, together, we’re more responsive, more efficient and we gain in expertise. Everyone brings their best to the table“.
For SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL’s operational management, the partnership with the Veolia Foundation represents “an invaluable technical complement, enabling us to carry out emergency or post-emergency interventions (such as the one in Ukraine) at reasonable cost, as well as providing access to equipment, training and technical support that we don’t always have”. It is also, in the field, a “technical” entry point for dialogue with local authorities, such as Ukrainian technical services, enabling us to enter into institutional partnership logics”. Kevin Goldberg, Executive Director of this NGO, emphasizes that “the Veolia Foundation is one of SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL’s key partners. Over and above its financial support and the provision of effective technical equipment in emergency and post-emergency situations, the foundation enables our teams to call on particularly seasoned experts, who are not afraid to confront their know-how with situations that are often exceptionally serious. It’s also a real catalyst for innovation”.
This partnership often involves sending Veoliaforce volunteers into the field to support SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL teams (Veoliaforce volunteers are Veolia Group employees made available during their working hours). This was the case for this operation in Ukraine, with the departure of Marie Gaveriaux, 33, an engineer who graduated from a chemistry school and joined Veolia in 2013. Marie, who was already familiar with SI after completing her first Veoliaforce mission in Mozambique in 2019 with this humanitarian organization, left to join its teams in Lviv, Ukraine, from June 26 to 30. As she recounts: “I was contacted by the Veolia Foundation’s operations manager on Friday June 16, with a departure date of Sunday June 25. It was an unhesitating ‘yes’ for me, as I’ve been committed to access to water for all for many years“. The precise aim of her mission was to “train SI teams in the deployment, operation and maintenance of Aquaforce 2000, the emergency water purification plants developed by the Veolia Foundation, which were then deployed in the area affected by the dam explosion to alleviate the resulting shortage of drinking water“. For Marie, while this training includes a theoretical component, with modules dedicated to needs assessment, production site selection and water chemistry, “it is above all practical, hands-on training, with full deployment of the station and numerous simulation exercises. A successful training course is one in which the trainees drink drinking water they have produced themselves!” What really impressed Marie during this mission, “above all, was the strong and unconditional commitment of the members of SI’s Ukraine mission. Some are French, others Ukrainian, but they are all working towards the same goal: to provide a response to the shortage of drinking water as quickly as possible and relieve the affected populations. You can feel it during our training: motivation and concentration are high, they want to absorb as much information as possible and be as operational as possible. They ask a lot of questions and are already looking ahead to the deployment of the machines in the vicinity of the dam, which enabled us to adapt certain elements of the training to this particular context and to anticipate certain technical difficulties that might be encountered. We feel that the teams are close-knit and that we’re all working towards a common goal. The commitment is there, and it’s a real source of pride for me to be able to take part in this type of mission, which gives real meaning to my job”.
But what exactly is the Aquaforce 2000? A mobile water treatment unit, the Aquaforce 2000 can supply 20 liters of drinking water per person per day to a population of 2,000. Treated water is generally pumped from rivers or lakes. The 5 mobile potabilization plants installed in Ukraine can each treat up to 40,000 liters of drinking water per day, or 20 liters per day for a population of 10,000. Marie Gaveriaux points out that “they are compact, robust and easy to use, enabling them to be deployed in complex contexts such as hard-to-reach areas, refugee camps or zones that have been affected by natural disasters. What’s more, they are capable of treating a wide range of raw water qualities, which means that a usable resource can almost certainly be found in the field”.
SI is gradually deploying these Aquaforce 2000s in the field. SI has signed an agreement with the Ukrainian authorities of the Dnipropetrovska Oblast, for the temporary loan of two Aquaforce (with SI responsible for installation, operation and maintenance). One Aquaforce was installed in the summer, and the second has been operational since September 18. The aim is to treat the water supplied by the local water company, in order to ensure access to drinking water for populations affected by the disruption of public services following the explosion of the Nova Kakhovka dam. SI operates the Aquaforce, while the Ukrainian authorities connect a new water network. The first Aquaforce is installed in the village of Topyla (inside the municipal building of the Cultural Center). The population of the neighboring villages of Topyla and Myrove is 4,031. The number of beneficiaries is 2,500. The second Aquaforce is being implemented in the village of Tomakivka (town hospital complex). The population of the village of Tomakivka is 7,500. The number of beneficiaries is around 2,000. Further south, in the Mykolaiv area, a third Aquaforce 2000 scheduled for deployment was not deployed, as the possible location is close to Ukrainian artillery, and therefore close to a direct strike by Russian aircraft… This Aquaforce 2000 is currently being transferred and deployed in the area of responsibility of SI’s Dnipro office, where there is a need for emergency access to drinking water.
Damien Machuel, Head of Operations at the Veolia Foundation, sums up this exemplary partnership operation in a nutshell: “The flooding caused by the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam obviously represented a new difficulty to overcome for the populations living in these areas already heavily affected by more than a year of conflict. We were well aware of the humanitarian stakes involved, but also of the logistical and security difficulties associated with such an operation in a war zone. I therefore contacted SI to find out whether their teams would be responding to this crisis with an “emergency drinking water production” component in addition to their regular programs in Ukraine. The needs assessment led SI to adopt a multi-site response strategy, working in a mobile and reactive way to keep pace with security needs and developments. The support of the CDCS at the Quai d’Orsay was crucial, both in terms of logistics and in enabling one of our volunteers (part of the Veolia Foundation’s skills sponsorship program) to travel to Lviv. Their support made it easier to reach a decision, to make our experts available and, in practical terms, to send a Veolia employee into a war environment. The operation went very smoothly and responsively, with only a few days elapsing between SI’s “GO” and our volunteer’s training in Lviv. This is the strength of the partnerships we have with SI and the CDCS, and the fruit of a collaboration that began several years ago”.
Trust, responsiveness, fluidity and efficiency… the magic formula between private, public and humanitarian partners?
Writer and humanitarian
Pierre Brunet is a novelist and member of the Board of Directors of the NGO SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL. He became involved in humanitarian work in Rwanda in 1994, then in Bosnia in 1995, and has since returned to the field (Afghanistan in 2003, Calais Jungle in 2016, migrant camps in Greece and Macedonia in 2016, Iraq and North-East Syria in 2019, Ukraine in 2023). Pierre Brunet’s novels are published by Calmann-Lévy: “Barnum” in 2006, “JAB” in 2008, “Fenicia” in 2014 and “Le triangle d’incertitude” in 2017. A former journalist, Pierre Brunet regularly publishes analytical articles, opinion pieces and columns.
Use of a Veolia Aquaforce 2000 near a village to supply the population with drinking water in Ukraine with Solidarités International.
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