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After Russia destroyed water supply, Mykolaiv is struggling to get clean water

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The war in Ukraine has caused billions of dollars in damages. Ukrainian officials complain that Russian missile strikes are specifically targeting civilian infrastructure. Rail lines, power plants and dams have been destroyed. Back in April, Russia cut off the water supply for the southern city of Mykolaiv. Missile strikes blew up two pipelines that carried water from a nearby river to the city. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports the city has been struggling to get clean water ever since.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: At a series of taps set up on a sidewalk in downtown Mykolaiv, 58-year-old Natalie Rosenthal is strapping two large plastic jugs of water onto the rack of her 10-speed bicycle.

It doesn't fall off?

NATALIE ROSENTHAL: No, no, it's OK.

BEAUBIEN: The Red Cross hauls water to this site in tanker trucks and stores it in a pair of galvanized tanks. Residents of all ages bring plastic jugs of all sizes to fill at the taps. There are young boys, old women. Men load jerry cans of water into cars. Rosenthal says she rides just over a mile each day to fetch water for her family.

There are now more than 70 clean water points set up in the streets in Mykolaiv. The Red Cross station has 10 spigots. Others are just a single hose dangling from the back of a tanker truck.

BORYS DUDENKO: (Through interpreter) Unfortunately, now in October, there's no drinking water in Mykolaiv from the central water supply pipes.

BEAUBIEN: Borys Dudenko is the general director of the water supply company of Mykolaiv. He says the city has had this problem since mid-April, when Russian forces blew up two separate pipelines from the Dnipro River. The pipelines were the primary source of water for this city of a half a million people. Their problem - the damage was in an area occupied by Russian forces. Dudenko says repairs to the pipes would be relatively easy, but his workers can't cross the front lines.

DUDENKO: (Through interpreter) We tried to reach an agreement to allow us to repair the water supply lines. We asked the Red Cross, the United Nations to participate in negotiations with both sides, but unfortunately, there were no negotiations. Everything failed.

BEAUBIEN: Concerned about the public health risk of there not even being water for toilets, city officials were desperate for a solution. Dudenko says building a new water pipeline from a river on the opposite side of the city was appealing, but it would be expensive and take months, and they didn't have the money or the time. They decided their best option was to tap into an existing industrial pipeline that was pulling water out of an estuary on the Black Sea.

DUDENKO: (Through interpreter) The amount of salt in this water is almost like the real sea. That's why we have so many problems with this water. We call it aggressive water, and it damages steel pipes, pumps and other devices.

BEAUBIEN: The water that flows out of the taps in Mykolaiv now is yellow, salty and smells a bit like a swamp. Residents say they don't even use it to wash their dishes. Dudenko says the water company is in a difficult position. Ukraine's southern military offensive may soon wrest back control of the pipeline. But if the troops don't, Mykolaiv is facing a winter with people fetching and lugging water through the city's frozen streets. And Dudenko says every day the saltwater runs through Mykolaiv's system, it's eating away at the pumps and pipes. He says they're studying building an alternative viaduct while hoping Ukraine's military advance will make that unnecessary.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mykolaiv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.