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Surviving another winter in Ukraine’s coldest regions
As temperatures begin to drop, the people of Ukraine face a second harsh winter of survival in below-freezing conditions. Rural communities in the eastern regions – on the border with Russia – are particularly badly hit.
In the winter months, towns and villages across the east are often left in darkness at night and many people struggle to keep warm because of damaged homes and a lack of electricity and gas.
No power or heat for more than a month
19-year-old Pasha* knows what it is like to live in such tough conditions. When Russian troops occupied his village in the eastern region of Sumy, he and his family escaped to his aunt’s house. It was a place of relative safety - but a far from ideal living environment.
He recalls how he and 17 other family members and friends, including eight children, were crammed into his aunt’s house and had to survive without power or heating for more than a month.
Those were challenging times that Pasha does not want to endure again this coming winter.
The ‘coldest’ humanitarian crisis
No other humanitarian crisis in the world is taking place in such a freezing environment. Cold weather conditions in Ukraine typically last for half the year – in the six months from October to March. During the winter months from December to February, the average temperature ranges from 2°C to -4.8°C accompanied by heavy snowfall. But temperatures can quickly drop to -20°C or below.
Eastern regions like Sumy and Kharkiv are among the coldest in the whole of the country.
These regions are also home to large numbers of displaced Ukrainian people who have fled the frontlines or have had to move after their homes were destroyed. The Kharkiv region alone hosts 689,000 displaced people – the largest number of any region in Ukraine. While Sumy is home to 100,000 people who are displaced.
Having fled their home to seek safety, they are particularly vulnerable and face the challenge of surviving another winter in buildings that have been damaged by missiles and airstrikes and which are unsuitable in freezing temperatures. Many did not bring cold-weather clothing or blankets with them. On top of that, over a million displaced people are living communally in 5,600 collective centres across the country.
As temperatures begin to plunge, conditions are made worse by a lack of access to power and gas services. Essential gas supplies piped from Russia to the border regions have been cut off. The conflict has also severely disrupted the Ukrainian power grid, making blackouts a common occurrence for whole communities.
A lot of the energy infrastructure in Ukraine was targeted last year in the winter months and at one point upwards of 50% of the country...would have been without electricity
Concern’s Head of Emergency Operations Ros O’Sullivan fears that the electricity infrastructure will be targeted again this winter and that families will struggle to heat their homes.
"People are not thinking beyond winter,” he said. “A lot of the energy infrastructure in Ukraine was targeted last year in the winter months and at one point upwards of 50% of the country - which is over 20 million people - would have been without electricity.
"There's a huge amount of work going on to be better prepared this year for winter,” he said.
A roof over their heads
As part of the current humanitarian response, Concern is working with its Joint Emergency Response in Ukraine (JERU) partners to ensure that thousands of families are better protected in the coming months.
33-year-old Lesya* and her three children are living in a relative’s house in the Sumy region after they fled their home village, located just a kilometre from the border with Russia. But living conditions in the old property are not without their problems. One night, after a heavy rainstorm, part of the ceiling in the children's bedroom collapsed, leaving the family exposed to the elements. They later discovered that a shell fragment had pierced the roof during intense hostilities.
This money has been a tremendous help...to repair the roof...for firewood and purchased fuel
A financial assistance package from Concern and its partners is now helping Lesya to secure the roof and ensure her home is warm in the months ahead. It is something for which she is hugely appreciative.
"This money has been a tremendous help,” said Lesya. “Not only are we using it to repair the roof, but we've also set aside a certain amount for firewood and purchased fuel."
Providing stoves and fuel
With mains utility supplies disrupted, people like Lesya have had to buy firewood- and alternative-fuel stoves for cooking and warmth in place of gas boilers and electric heaters. But for many people, it can be difficult to afford the switch.
In the eastern region of Kharkiv, one of Concern’s local partners We are Brothers has stepped in to meet that need and is providing stoves and firewood to assist vulnerable families. They are also working round the clock to replace windows and roofs and insulate homes. Additionally, people receive cash to buy winter items or materials to fix their homes themselves.
They do an incredible range of activities, motivated by the needs of people and choosing ways to support them that will have the most impact
It is life-saving work, according to Concern (UK) Executive Director Danny Harvey, who recently visited the We are Brothers team in Kharkiv. “They do an incredible range of activities,” she said, “motivated by the needs of people and choosing ways to support them that will have the most impact.”
Last year's conditions not far from mind
Having returned to his home village in the Sumy region without his parents, 19-year-old Pasha’s circumstances have changed dramatically. He is now single-handedly caring for his two younger sisters and brother. It is a huge responsibility for any young man and a struggle at the best of times. His part-time job as a farm labourer, while studying a construction course at college, is not enough to meet all their needs.
But cash assistance from Concern and local JERU partners to purchase winter firewood and repair a water pump in the family home means that Pasha can now spend more of his earnings on essential food. It is one less pressing concern for the four of them.
Thanks to such support, Pasha is now better prepared to face this coming winter. But the months ahead will be difficult for all of them, and the memories of struggling to survive in last year’s bleak conditions are never far from mind.
Another winter in such circumstances is one too many, not just for Pasha, but for all the people of Ukraine.
(* Names have been changed to protect identities.)
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