We have heard a lot about the North Crimea Canal (NCC) — the one that conducts water from the Dnipro River to the Russian-occupied peninsula — but there are other canals in Ukraine, and one (I believe) that is equal to the NCC in strategic importance.
The Geography of Eastern Ukraine
The vertical relief on this map is exaggerated. It looks mountainous, but what it really depicts is watersheds in rolling countryside.
The Siverskyi-Donets River (typically just called “The Donets”) collects water from a large drainage basin in Russia before it enters Ukraine. Four additional tributaries make it a reliable source of water. The total basin (including that which lies in Russia) measures 38,200 square miles — just a bit less than the watershed of the Red River in Texas.
On this map, you can also make out a serpentine “ridge line” that stretches from Kharkiv to Mariupol. That indicates the divide between the Donets watershed and that of the Dnipro River
The Climate of Eastern Ukraine
Donbas is relatively thirsty region. Past precipitation has averaged 20”-23” per year — about the same as South Dakota.
Luhansk Oblast is pretty well supplied with water from the Donets and local reservoirs. But Donetsk Oblast needs imported water to sustain mining, industry and urban populations. For that reason, the Soviets built canals and pipelines from the Donets River to communities that lie to the south.
The longest of these are the Karbonit Water System and the Siverskyi Donets-Donbas Canal (SDDC) which connects to the South Donbas Water Pipeline. (SDWP). The SDDC and the SDWP function as a single system. Most sources refer to the pair as the Donets-Donbas Canal (DDC). The Karbonit is sometimes called the “Popasna” System.
Eastern Ukraine has suffered the same drought that has afflicted Crimea in recent years. More than a century of mining has left much of the groundwater in a precarious condition. That problem only got worse after 2014, when some mines were abandoned and left to flood. The pipes and canals from the Donets are vital infrastructure.
UPDATE: I just found a better map (PDF) of Donbas regional water systems compiled the U.N. (link courtesy of Bellingcat).
The Karbonit Water System
The Karbonit is entirely in Russian hands now. Skip to the next section if you’re in a hurry, but Karbonit is worth some attention because it was at ground zero of the eight-year Donbas conflict.
Constructed in the 1930’s, Karbonit draws water from The Donets River just west of Lysychansk and continues on to Karbonit, Zolote, Klynove, Alchevsk and Khrustalnyi — some sixty miles distant. Karbonit’s features do not show up in satellite photos. The system appears to be all buried pipe with small and/or underground reservroirs. The intake station, however, is clearly visible on the river just north of Bilohorivka
After the Russian intervention in 2014, the Karbonit continued to deliver water to communities on both sides of the line between government forces and Russian-controlled separatists. The 80-year old system was a leaky headache before the conflict started. Afterward it became a maintenance nightmare. Repairs stopped, deliveries of chemicals for water treatment were disrupted, and payment for service stopped. Rather than allow financial ties with the separatist “republics”, Kyiv chose to subsidize delivery of water to rebel-held towns, asserting that they were still occupied by Ukranian citizens.
There are some pretty heroic stories about how employees of Voda Donbasu (the regional water utility) struggled on both sides of the trenches to keep water flowing to consumers.
Despite those efforts, reliable access to domestic water was a constant challenge for nearly 350,000 civilians who remained in the area.
Throughout Donbas, 4.6 million people experienced some degree of water insecurity, which has brought much scrutiny and assistance from international aid organizations. The United Nations monitors the state of Ukraine’s water systems, and combat damage is formally reported as a violation of international humanitarian law.
Despite the fact that Karbonit serves communities in occupied territory, the Russians bombed or shelled the intake facility in May, and even boasted of it. Sat-photos of the aftermath show extensive damage to both structures.
This facility, btw, is about a mile southwest of the bend where Russia attempted a river crossing that ended in disaster on May 13.
The Donets-Donbas Canal
...is the real strategic prize because it conveys water to the major cities of Donetsk and Mariupol.
The northern half of the DDC is represented here by the blue line. The dashed line is Russia’s position as of August 23, 2022.
The intake facility for this system sits on the Donets River just NE of Slovyanask. The route crosses into Russian-occupied territory about 40 miles to the south, on the outskirts of Horlivka.
The DDC then runs another 15 miles behind Russian lines to the main reservoir for the city of Donetsk, (where two million people lived prior to 2014). From that reservoir, the Kalimus River carries water downhill for another 80 miles to Mariupol.
The DDC is actually a chain of canals and pipelines, with over a dozen lift stations that pump the water a total of 814 vertical feet. On satellite maps, you can see features like this:
The DDC was constructed in 1958. An overhaul in 1979 brought its capacity up to 3.7 million cubic meters per day. There are five municipal reservoirs along the route, with a total capacity of 64 million cubic meters. Before the war, the system served 300 communities.
Prior to 2014, the DDC was in need of another overhaul. There are still sections of weathered concrete pipes on the DDC that look like they’ve been there since 1958.
Even before February, artillery fire had damaged pipelines, pumping stations, filtration plants (that feed water to municipal distribution systems), and wastewater treatment plants.
Even if undamaged, facilities are shut down by loss of electrical power. Water treatment chemicals are scarce and equipment has been looted. The DDC pipeline sections are all above ground. Freezing will be a concern if water does not move during the winter months.
As far as I can tell, the DDC has been completely shut down since the invasion. Water remains in downstream reservoirs, but is not being replenished.
With EU investment, Ukraine would have replaced those 65-year-old concrete pipes with new steel or plastic conduits Here’s hoping that day will yet come.
Russian military engineers are currently constructing a 21-kilometer water pipeline (video) from the Khanzehnkivske reservoir to the city of Donetsk. A four kilometer extension to the adjacent Vilkhivske reservoir will add additional supply.
These are local reservoirs, served by a pretty small watershed. The four blue pipes are reported to have a capacity of only 70,000 to 100,000 cubic meters per day. That will help alleviate critical shortages in Donetsk, but it’s a stopgap measure that diverts water from agriculture and will not solve the long term shortage in the Donetsk.
Is the Donets-Donbas Canal a Russian Military Objective?
Most certainly. It would have been an afterthought in Putin’s Plan-A (the total conquest of Ukraine). But I suspect that control of the DDC remains a top priority in Putin’s Plan-B — which is to poach enough assets from Ukaine to make Russia’s stolen territory in Donbas economically viable (rather than reliant on subsidies from Moscow).
That will require water from the Donets River. Even in a prolonged stalemate, possession of the DDC will be a valuable bargaining chip for whoever controls the route.
Damaged pumps and broken pipes can be replaced. The greatest value of the DDC is its geography. The Soviet engineers who built the system selected the optimal route — the one that minimizes distance, elevation, and pumping costs. Russia could construct a whole new system to draw water from the Donets somewhere further downriver, but the terrain east of the DDC does not look favorable.
Putin’s Plan-B isn’t looking very promising at the moment. But if another Russian offensive somehow materializes on the central front, the DDC will be the reason.
- There is another important water system that lies west of the DDC in Ukrainian-controlled territory. The Kryviyi and Kazenyi Rivers flow south to north from Toretsk to Kramatosk, and serve a string of communities that lie between. The war has disrupted wastewater treatment and control of industrial runoff, resulting in elevated pollution in this waterway. Attacks on municipal infrastructure prevent water from getting from river to household taps.
- UNICEF monitors the security of essential civilian infrastructure in conflict zones around the world, using an approach that employs a “cluster” of independent agencies. You may see the term “WASH Cluster” in reports of combat damage to water systems in Ukraine. WASH stands for “Water, Sanitation, Hygiene”.
- The Oskil river is a major tributary of the Donets, and features a large reservoir. Ukraine opened the spillway during the invasion to flood the wide marshy sections of the Donets. That reduced the number of places that Russia could throw pontoon bridges across… and improved the natural riparian habitat above and below the dam. Some hopeful ecologists are now advocating that dam be fully dismantled after the war, and that the Oskil be allow to to flow unimpeded. You have to admire that kind of optimism.