By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — On June 29, a flash flood overwhelmed a large sewage treatment plant near Kharkov, Ukraine's second-largest city. Sewage backed up, choking equipment and putting the plant out of action. Raw waste began pouring into local rivers.
This was not the first time Ukrainian officials had been forced to try to deal with such a catastrophe. Twenty years earlier, a major breakdown had put the sewage treatment system in Ukraine's third-largest city, Dnepropetrovsk, out of operation for three months.
Once again, well-tried bureaucratic ploys were swung into action. Local officials issued vague statements that obscured the gravity of the situation. The public were uneasy, but with abundant problems of their own, preferred to trust the authorities to deal with the mishap. People continued going to work, and factories carried on producing.
But sometimes the danger from an environmental accident is too great even for irresponsible officials to ignore. Several days into the Kharkov disaster, administrators realised that unless extraordinary measures were taken, large areas of heavily populated eastern Ukraine would be without clean water supplies, and the economic losses — not to speak of the environmental ones — would be astronomical.
Since then, the 1.5 million residents of Kharkov have received a lesson in how dependent large, modern cities continue to be on the health of the local environment. Kharkov has had to be virtually shut down. To limit the flow into the sewerage system, the city's water supply was first reduced to a minimum, then shut off entirely; supplies from tanker trucks were substituted. Residents were urged to leave town and stay in dachas in the countryside, with the promise that measures would be taken to deter looters. By July 11, commerce had all but ceased, and only a few industries were still functioning.
Official sources by this time were claiming that no major contamination of local waterways with industrial chemicals had taken place, and that the flow into the rivers consisted of relatively benign household wastes. But this was small comfort considering the volume of these wastes — as much as 200,000 cubic metres a day. In these quantities even household sewage imposed a deadly biological burden on the modest streams of the district, on the margin of the Ukrainian steppe.
Water is now being released from reservoirs to increase stream flow, and compressors are being used to pump air into rivers in an effort to stop the decay of organic matter from lowering oxygen levels. Nevertheless, fish are dying, and levels of bacteria have soared. On July 9 these levels in the Northern Donets River were 20 to 30 times higher than normal.
The Northern Donets is a vital source of drinking water for three of Ukraine's heavily populated eastern provinces, as well as for parts of Rostov province in Russia. For many weeks to come, the dilapidated water treatment plants of the Northern Donets basin will have to process a bacterial soup full of the micro-organisms responsible for hepatitis, salmonellosis and dysentery.
That may not be the whole danger. On July 14 officials revealed that the potentially deadly cholera bacterium had been found in the Lopan River north of Kharkov.
Residents of eastern Ukraine are now being urged to boil their drinking water for many minutes and warned not to eat fish from local rivers. But according to reports, this latter advice is being widely ignored. Large numbers of workers in the region have not been paid for many months, and must rely for much of their food on what they can grow, gather or catch.
Moving at about 20 kilometres a day, the contamination from the Kharkov spill is due to reach the Don River early in August, and soon afterwards, to begin flowing into the Sea of Azov. A report cited in Izvestia on July 11 predicted a "sizeable ecological catastrophe" if the wastes reach the sea.
Unable to cover up the Kharkov disaster, the authorities in the region are now trying to present the image of an energetic, concerned administration working hard to control the damage. Appeals have gone out for international help, and Italian civil defence authorities have provided equipment and technicians. New pumps have been brought in to clear the treatment installations, and navy divers have been repairing equipment. Nevertheless, the stricken plant is not expected to be back in operation before the end of July.
Meanwhile, the Health Ministry on July 14 issued a list of cities and regions said to pose a health hazard for environmental or other reasons. The disaster zone encompasses most of southern and eastern Ukraine.
As well as Kharkov and the Northern Donets basin, the danger areas include Odessa, Simferopol in the Crimea, the coasts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, and the environs of a number of rivers in southern Ukraine where cholera has been detected. The number of confirmed cases of cholera in Ukraine this year is now approaching 250, with three reported deaths.