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Water Filtration Plants and Risks of a Chlorine Mass-Casualty Event in Donetsk

March 10, 2017

By Wim Zwijnenburg

Translations: Русский

Over the last two months, increased shelling in and around industrial sites north of Donetsk have, apart from the direct civilian casualties costs, posed huge public health and environmental risks.  Apart from the wider environmental impacts caused by targeting industrial sites, on several occasions, Russia-backed forces have hit various water treatment stations. These facilities host a substantial amount of liquefied chlorine gas stockpiles used for water purification, a much-needed supply in cities lacking sufficient drinking water for the civilian population (including in Donetsk, which they control). Any direct hit on these stockpiles could possibly lead to a mass casualty incident with clouds of chlorine gas spreading over nearby populated areas. As fighting around sensitive sites in Donetsk are frequently erupting, it seems more a matter of time before this goes awfully wrong. This article will explore what these risks are, where it could occur, and what other water related problems could follow from targeting critical infrastructure

Background

Chlorine is one of the most widely produced chemicals, and used for many industrial and household applications. At room temperature chlorine gas is yellow-green and due to its density will usually settle along the surface. Health risks associated with exposure to chlorine is mainly pulmonary damage of various degrees. Depending on the dose and time of exposure, this could lead to different impacts: the higher the parts per million (PPM), the more severe the impact, ranging from irritation of the mucus membranes at 1-3 PPM to pulmonary symptoms at 15 PPM, and fatal injuries at 430 PPM. Though exposure depends both time and dose, it is less realistic that people receive the lethal dose over a long period of time, unless trapped inside a location. A more comprehensive overview over health effects, decontamination and treatment to chlorine gas can be found in the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s profile of Chlorine

Weaponized chlorine has gained more popularity among State and non-State actors in the last decade.  In 2006-2007, Al-Qaida in Iraq equipped chlorine trucks and suicide bombers with explosives and set them off, hoping to cause mass casualties. At least 13 attacks involving chlorine were reported in this period, though the chemical impact seemed to have been limited. During the recent conflicts in Syria and Iraq, there have been numerous reports of chlorine gas weapons used by both the Syrian government against civilians and the Islamic State in Iraq using chlorine in roadside bombs. In October 2016, the UN noted another incident where a water purification plant south of Mosul was hit, leading to cloud of chlorine gas that resulted in exposure of at least 150 civilians that sought treatment.  And more recently, an accident with an exploding chlorine gas cylinder at a steel factory in Sulimaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan resulted in at 100 workers being poisoned to the toxic chlorine gas and needed medical care.

No water under the bridge

Mass casualty incidents, as a results of targeting critical infrastructure, have been an persistent threat since the outbreak of fighting in Ukraine, as there are several locations in and around Donetsk that are storing thousands of liters of chlorine gas. For example, the Verknyokalniuske Filtering Plant is reportedly storing 300 tons of liquefied chlorine for water treatment. Though these type of locations are usually located fairly remotely from populated areas, this plant is located in the vicinity, the closest is 1 km away, of residential neighbourhoods.

Verhkniokalmisuk Filtration Station

Apart from the direct impact due to the chemical hazards associated with the release of chlorine gas that could affect hundreds, there are also wider risks, such as lack of access to clean drinking water.  In November 2014, shelling of power supplies to a water purification plant cut off access to drinking water to thousands of civilians. Continued targeting of critical water infrastructure sites, as well as power stations providing electricity to water pumping stations, resulted in severe risks for civilians, as was noted in the 2015 Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Access to water in conflictaffected areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions report. This report noted that water was becoming a ‘potential source of conflict’ which should be prevented. It further describes numerous attacks on these infrastructures in 2014 and 2015, demonstrating how vital, and fragile, this type of infrastructures is.

One example in 2015 was a direct hit on the Pivdennodonbbasky water pipeline and power cuts disabling pumping station in two other major filtering stations that supplied water to various neighbourhoods in, and villages near, Donetsk. This resulted in the cut-off to clean water to 830.000 civilians in this area.

A similar incident whereby the a water filtration station in Donetsk was reported in May 2015 on Twitter, where a user upload an image of what was claimed to be an impact of some type of munition.  But further information was lacking, so we were unable to verify at which location this occured.

One other major filtration plant that is on the frontline is the Gorlovka Filter Station Nr. 2, which has been shelled numerous times in 2016, leading to a plea from the ICRC to stop targeting these facilities, as over 2 million people depend on them.

Gorlovska Filtering Station Nr. 2

Shelling of all these water filtration facilities continued throughout 2016 and into 2017, despite warnings by the OSCE, UNICEF ,and other humanitarian organisations over both the humanitarian consequences of destruction of key water infrastructure and the looming environmental disaster if stockpiles were hit.

WASH Cluster Map of Donetsk water systems. December 2016

Early March 2016, the Donetsk Filtration Station (DFS) at Yasinuvata was shelled and on-site operations had to be halted. On the 19th of December, another missile hit the building with water filters, and two other missiles ended up in fields nearby. Though the shelling did not halt the operation, it highlighted the risks of shelling of these facilities, and a warning [PDF] was send out by the UN WASH cluster and the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in a separate press release [PDF]. In the whole of 2016,  there were 14 reported cases of shelling near/at the DFS.

Late January 2017, reports were coming in that the DFS was hit by another round, though the images could not be verified though other means. The OSCE monitored a couple of hundreds explosions in that area on the 29th of January 2017.

On February 24, 2017, the DFS was targeted again , this time more seriously. Several 82mm mortar rounds targeted the water purification plant, which halted on-site operations. At that moment, the facility stored 8 cylinders of 900 litres of liquefied chlorine gas. The OSCE Monitoring Mission’s spokesperson stated that “An environmental disaster cannot be excluded either, with chlorine tanks at the plant potentially exposing the wider area to the release of poisonous gas”.  In the overview of humanitarian bulletin released by OCHA early March 2017, the direct human health and environmental risks are stressed again, noting that:

“The nearly-miss hit of the chlorine gas depot at DFS on 24 February serves as a stark reminder of the risk for associated to presence of pollutant and chemicals for all those present in the area. Shelling hit the building where over 7,000 kg of chlorine gas is stored in bottles, and, fortunately, none of these were damaged. Should just one of the 900 kg-containers be damaged, any person present within 200-metre distance would be killed and those living within 2.4 km would suffer health problems. In case of extensive damage, people living within 7.4 km downwind from the facility would need to be evacuated within 24 hours, across the ‘contact line’


Early March 2017, the facility again received incoming fire, this time halting operations again for a short period, forcing the ICRC to step up the supply of water delivery by tanker trucks, and sending out a warning how this could affect the local population

These incidents starkly underline that indeed, mass casualty events could happen in case of direct hit. However, caution to not overstating the risks is warranted.  As estimated by Dan Kaszeta, a chemical weapons expert consulted for this article, “it takes a lot of force to breach each cylinder to the point that it catastrophically dumps all of its inventory at one time”. He stated that is exceedingly unlikely in a shelling situation that all of chlorine inventory is going to get vented because of compartmentalisation of the chlorine in cylinders, and it is far more likely that damage to a pip of valve will result in a chlorine leak.  As the nearest populated area is 2 kilometres away from the site, it’s less likely that there will be mass casualty risks as a result from targeting these locations, as the dose and exposure time would be fairly limited.  Weather and wind conditions should also be taken into account in making a risk assessment of the fall-out area.  Despite Kaszeta’s assessment, it is understandable that a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach has to be taken by the UN, as it’s unclear how extensive the shelling and subsequent damage to the chlorine storage can be,  and threats to human health should be taken seriously.

Water conflicts and wider environmental concerns

These incidents over targeting critical infrastructure and huge human health risks also highlight, again, the grave concerns of chemical incidents that could occur in conflicts. As one expert coined the term ‘chemical warfare by proxy’, sites storing and utilising industrial chemicals could face both intentional targeting and subsequent acute and or long-term health risks. Unlike Iraq and Syria, it seems less likely that armed groups would use chlorine in weaponised forms against targets. However, it is deeply worrying that warring parties engage in shelling in and around industrial areas where critical infrastructure may be damaged or destroyed, leading to the halting of essential services like water purification and distribution, or acute health risks as industrial chemicals can be released, leaving civilians and risk of exposure. In Donetsk, damage to water purification plants, filtering stations and filtration plants has cut off clean drinking water to a population in need, which seems to have the biggest public health impact. Lack of clean water can put civilians in an very vulnerable situation. Disruption of water supplies and sewage systems deteriorate the public health situation, in particular for vulnerable groups with special needs, such as women and children who deal with menstrual hygiene or are more susceptible to water-related diseases. Current estimates by the ICRC and OCHA are that if there is a continued disruption of water supplies, either by targeting the pumping station, powerlines or water filtering stations, over 1.3 million people risk being affected.

In 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 64/292, which explicitly recognizes the human rights to water and sanitation, and how this is essential to the realisation of all human rights. Furthermore, it called upon States to support countries in need with diverse means to provide safe, clean and affordable drinking water for all.

In August 2016, the UN Environmental Assembly adopted by consensus a resolution on Protection of the Environment in Areas Affected by Armed Conflict, which emphasises the strong nexus between conflict, environmental damage and how environmental degradation can affect vulnerable groups. Targeting industrial sites could directly and indirectly result in the creation of such a scenario. The resolution therefore called upon Member states to ‘cooperate close on preventing, minimizing and mitigating the negative impacts of armed conflict on the environment.´ Referring to this resolution, the Ukrainian Ambassador to the UNEA, released a statement on March 6, 2017, that referred to the dire situation the country’s population is currently in and stressed the need for international support in identifying and monitoring these environmental impacts of conflicts.

In a same concerned statement to the UN Security Council in 2016, the ICRC noted that “Armed conflict has direct and indirect impacts on people’s access to water – and both have a degrading cumulative impact on water supply over the many years of a protracted conflict. (…) Parties to conflict have an obligation to ensure that the basic needs of the civilian population are met and that their dignity is protected. Water is essential for a life with dignity and parties to conflict, government donors and humanitarian organizations must work together to support resilient urban services during armed conflict.”

This blog aims to provide information on how open-source methods could help monitoring such events, and inform a wider audience on the broader risks associated with targeting water facilities. We hope that identifying, mapping and and highlighting these risk will lead to improved awareness of these direct and long-term environmental health risks associated with conflicts,  and the need tot incorporate these risks in post-conflict reconstruction and peace-building programs.

Thanks to Dan Kaszeta for his input and comments, and Foeke Postma for additional research and mapping.

Wim Zwijnenburg

Wim Zwijnenburg is a Humanitarian Disarmament Project Leader for PAX.  He works on conflict and environment related issues in the Middle East, the use and proliferation of emerging military technologies and arms trade @wammezz

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36 Comments

  1. Feanor

    And after briefly mentioning Russian-backed forces for the rest of the article you conveniently ignore the fact that the recent shellings of the water treatment facility near Donetsk and Gorlovka were almost exclusively the work of pro-Kiev forces. Curious.

    Reply
    • Marek Wojtek

      There are no Pro-Kiev forces, there is the Ukrainian Forces versus the enemy, the occupant, Russian Forces. Russian Forces are responsible for the mess, the killing and destruction of the city of Donetsk. Donetsk is fully occupied by RU….

      Reply
      • stranger

        Most of the rebels are locals. Russia just limitedly help them. That cannon be called an occupation from any prospective. In the same way Ukraine is dependent of the united state, it is almost under external management and American and Canadian limited instructors and troops are staying in the western Ukraine, teaching Ukrainian army how to better fight own citizens in the east. But strictly speaking that doesn’t make Ukraine occupied by the states.
        Moreover the rebels now doesn’t advance. Ukrainian army and self subordinated nationalistic batallions are besieging and firing on the major cities. Everywhere on the globe, taking a city by a military force, always is difficult and always causes a lot of civilian casualties. The responsibility for that is on Ukraine.

        Reply
        • Mad Dog

          This really made my day. “Russia just limitedly help them.” Wow, talk about alt-facts, this is a real whopper.

          Reply
          • Germann Arlington

            Do you happen to have any statistics to support the “real facts” of Russian military invasion?

      • Germann Arlington

        “Donetsk is fully occupied by RU….”
        Maybe you will be kind enough to provide some sources of your information.
        It seems that no credible news sources tried to make such claims yet.

        Reply
  2. stranger

    Cannot get used to bcat. You have written a good reasonable article, you found and provided related pictures, you did a condiderable work. And anyway regardless of what you are writing you HAVE to add at least a phrase of anti Russian propaganda, you anyway HAVE to LIE. Why do you sell out your reputation so cheap?! Ukraine was not supposed to have heavy weapon there according to Minsk. Ukraine is doing crawling offence to the city of Donetsk. The war are going already around filtration stations. Ukraine took at least one filtration station which was on nobodies land. Why are you not talking about that, and just turn in the standard phrase “Russian backed separatists fired in filtration plants”? It is not rebels who advance, they defend their city, it is Ukraine who makes offenses, fires on the city of Donetsk and conduct the war activity right in the city’s upskirts.

    Reply
    • Mad Dog

      If you can’t get used to B’cat, why do you come here and spend so much time spouting foolishness. Oh, I know, you are one of those ghosts paid by the FSB to be disruptive wherever possible (while you sit snugly in some foreign country enjoying the fruits of freedom).

      Reply
      • stranger

        Mad Dog, there are so many ins@nes here, don’t join their numbers. I said why I’m here, many times. I’m from Russia and I hate when you lie about my country without any knowleage or logic behind your empty slandering. Your “fruits of freedom” is ridiculous. Look at what is going on in your country. Sometimes it seems your country sank in so dense Makkartism against Russia and around your Democrats struggling for the power and loosing.. even in Russia that spymania and flows of dirt would seem ins@ne. What was going on in America during recent elections and still is just the top of ins@nity.

        Reply
        • Samirr

          Mad Dog

          How different people are writing UN the stranger account?

          Each post has varying levels of English language skills.

          I think the original stranger is posting on websites for Le Pen and Trump, and the amateur backup guys are using the same account here.

          Reply
          • Dr. Da

            But they all love to write “ins@ne”. Probably a good summary of their instructions

          • stranger

            Yes I use this precise epithet exclusively for such morons as you with Sam, who have changed his nick several times already. Because you can only lie about the commenters, when you have no brains enough to tell anything according to the question. Cannot get used to you, most likely Ukrainian trolls.

      • Cody Johnson Jr

        that would be absoilutely pointless since they themselves would be blamed for it by the media, or if it was clear that ukraine did it, it just wouldnt be reported

        Reply
        • stranger

          Exactly. That’s what is going on all three years of the war. Ukrainian usual: “they fire on their cities themselves in order to blame Ukraine”.

          Reply
    • Marek Wojtek

      Rebels = Russian Forces, they do not care, is not their home country, their people or their town, so, who cares, this Ukraine, this is an open war of RU against UA.

      Reply
      • stranger

        If it were the open war of Ru against Ua it would completed in a couple of weeks, and thouthands civilians wouldn’t have died, not 3 years as of now…

        Reply
        • Samirr

          If there were an open war, the EU would cut off all Russian trade and oil/gas imports.

          Then the Russian economy would implode.

          Putin knows that,

          Putin invasion would kill hundreds of thousands or millions.

          Give up fake stranger, the brotherhood is over.

          Reply
        • Yuri

          True, by now new Mathias Rusts would be landing in Red Square 🙂 Remember that one? I bet Russian air defense is about as competent.

          Reply
  3. Sergio Beer

    Well, actually, the recent shellings of the Donetsk Water Filtration Plant were almost exclusively the work of the combined Russian-separatist forces. The Ukrainian side has no reason to shell it when we consider the fact that the station gives running water to the town of Avdiyivka, critically important for Kyiv. On the other side, there are many well documented cases when the combined Russian-separatist forces shelled territories they have currently captured. Their reason is simple: to put the blame on Kyiv side while shelling peaceful residents or objects serving those residents which are, in fact, Ukrainian not “theirs.” They understand perfectly well the temporary nature of their occupation of the parts of the Ukrainian territory and want to make the maximum damage to that territory, its infrastructure, including water treatment plants, and its residents.

    And, the “advances” made by the Kyiv side are directly prescribed by the Minsk agreements — which have strictly established the contact line that had been later violated by the combined Russian-separatist forces, so now the Ukrainian troops just have to make up for that violation.

    Reply
    • Cody Johnson Jr

      The Ukrainians have every reason to disrupt the water supply for the major rebel city of Donetsk.

      They don’t give a damn about the locals in Avdeevka as shown by they way they use them as human shields.

      Reply
    • stranger

      Kiev wouldn’t give a damn to the people Avdeevka. That’s why they keep heavy weapon in Avdeevka and fire from Avdeevka to the city of Donetsk. For Kiev those are trouble separatists areas where the new Ukrainian “values” are not honered. Kiev just wants to get the control over thouse areas and use the war as a leverage to beg for endless financial help to Ukraine, otherwise Ukraine would just sink in debts and default.

      The rebels of course don’t intentionally fire on own territories – you are just repeating Ukrainian official lie, in order to remove the responsibility for shelling densely populated areas. There could have been some provocations might be. But just imagine, how Ukraine would advance and how Ukraine would capture new cities using the heavy weapon like mirrors, tanks, artillery, used to be aviation and didn’t even touch any civilian? That is not possible. Most of casualties are caused by the Ukraine who try to return those areas under own control by any price calculated in the rebellion civilians who are bad Ukrainians from their prospective.

      Good try, but.. Minsk doesn’t prescribe the certain line of contact and especially doesn’t call Ukraine to fight for a certain border line using heave weapon. Where did you get it, that is simply not true? The only item where a contact line is mentioned is for the withdrawal of only heave weapon from a certain line by rebels, while Ukraine should withdraw the heave weapon from the factual contact line. Minsk is about searching of a political compromise, starting a dialog and granting more autonomy to the rebellion regions in order to stop the blood shed. Ukraine has stuck at item 4 – and doesn’t allow conducting elections, in whatever form, even including the international observers, in the rebellion regions, as Minsk prescribes to. Moreover Ukraine pulls heavy weapon back to the contact line and try to capture new territories in the violation to Minsk.

      Reply
      • Yuri

        Dimon wouldn’t give a damn “to the people” of Russia, either. Remember his “there is no money but you hold on” statements? What a joke.

        Reply
  4. stranger

    Today Ukraine closed the water supply from the captured water filtration stations under Luhansk. Ukraine continue the course on blockade of the uncontrolled regions by all means, road and railway blockade, no trading, no pensions and cut off utilities. By doing so Ukraine creates a humanitarian risks and pushes the uncontrolled regions to Russia’s side.
    But you at b/cats are not even allowed to tell that. How do you feel under strict censorship here and the necessity to constantly lie if you want to be printed here?

    Reply
      • Samirr

        Cody Johnson Jr is a paid troll in St. Petersburg troll factory reported by the New York Times NYT

        Your alias is burned, now get a new fake name.

        Reply
      • Samirr

        Russia is a failed state.

        And failing more bigly everyday because you worship Putin.

        See, I can do that too :p

        Reply
    • Yuri

      I guess little vovochka should extend his “limited help”, sell some violins and pay them some pensions. I am thinking that would be popular within Russia.

      Reply
  5. Mad Dog

    Where does it say anything about Kiev forces doing the shelling. More info needed, but there is no info give about Kiev forces being the culprit. So, which is it?

    Reply
    • Feanor

      The reason for the comments all being in one tone is that it’s well known by people following the conflict who is behind the attacks on the DFS and it’s very unpleasant to see this article carefully avoiding blaming the Ukrainian military for what is rather disgusting behavior.

      Reply
      • Yuri

        Yes, everyone understands that the whole Donbas thing is because of the criminals in Kremlin.

        Reply
  6. Mad Dog

    Kind of like it was just the rebels who targeted health care facilities and personnel in Syria….yeah, right. The Rebels bombed certain hospitals from the air 19 times in one case, much more in many other cases. Russia makes sure their little puppets do all they can to disrupt any fledgling attempt to of a people to free themselves from tyranny!

    Reply
    • Cody Johnson Jr

      Nobody intentionally targeted any hospitals. The rebels in Syria are terrorists.

      Reply
    • Germann Arlington

      If the rebels were hiding and storing ammunitions in the hospital buildings (which were frequently unmarked “in fear of targeting”) and firing from these locations it is not too surprising that hospitals were bombed.
      In fact the “rebels” firing positions were bombed but they were misrepresented as attacks on hospitals.
      Disclaimer: That is my theory of how it could happen, I don’t have any proof

      Reply
      • Cody Johnson Jr

        The rebels did use the eye hospital in east Aleppo, a previously existing hospital, as a military base and ammunition store.

        There’s film of that one being liberated and all the stuff they found in it.

        Reply

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