About 18 million people that need humanitarian assistance in Ukraine today, the humanitarian situation is expected to worsen - UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Exclusive interview with spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Ukraine Saviano Abreu to the Interfax-Ukraine agency
Author: Valerie Proshchenko
What kind of aid and support has been provided by the UN to people affected by the Russian aggression in Ukraine since 24 February 2022?
From food, water, health services to cash, all essentials to maintain human dignity during this horrible time for the Ukrainian people. We had projects to support people in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts before the full-scale invasion. After 24.02.22 we had to expand this assistance to ensure that we could meet the growing needs. The full-scale invasion led to a grave humanitarian crisis here. There was a humanitarian situation in the country, but it was not as catastrophic as it is now. We’re talking about 18 million people that need humanitarian assistance. It’s almost half of the people that are in Ukraine now.
Last year, in 2022, we managed to dramatically increase humanitarian assistance. I'm talking about water, food, assistance with repairs, preparing the displacement centers where people are fleeing to, health services, education and cash assistance as well. We reached 16 million people in Ukraine last year. That is a remarkable number, taking into consideration that we had a really small operation in the country before . This continues now in 2023. We have already provided the same kind of support to almost 8 million people in 2023.
Do you expect that the number of people who need help will increase in the next months in Ukraine?
Unfortunately, what we could see in the first six months of the year is that the situation is getting worse. Especially in the frontline the situation is getting worse and worse.
We do see an increased number of Russian attacks impacting civilians, destroying, once again, vital infrastructure. If the war continues, and it appears to be the case, the needs of the population will either continue, because they cannot recover and go back to the situation that they were before, or it increases. So, we can expect a deterioration of the humanitarian situation, if the pattern that we observed in the first six months of the year will continue.
And also the winter will begin very soon. And it does bring a new layer of risks and needs for people. Some live in damaged houses, or have no access to water, heating, or gas. Even paying for the heating during the winter could be a problem for many people in Ukraine particularly those displaced that have already exhausted their savings or coping mechanisms. So, it's a new layer of complexity to a situation that is already alarming.
We are expecting to increase humanitarian assistance and provide it to up to 11 million by the end of the year. Our assistance is complementary to what the government is doing, to the impressive work that the volunteers are doing, so, out of the 18 million that I mentioned that need assistance, our objective is to assist 11 million.
Does your support include any specific preparation for the upcoming winter?
It does and since the beginning of the year we already had in our plan specific support for people during the winter. Now we are revising these plans to see how feasible they are, according to the funding that we have. We are planning from October to March to support around 1.3 million people with specific winter assistance. Paying for the rent for people that are displaced, for example, is one of the activities, or even paying for the utilities, heating. This is what we are planning for areas that are not close to the frontline.
For citizens near the frontline our support is going to be mainly with emergency repair. We will do repairs that are going to keep people safe and warm during the winter.
Also, many communities near the frontline have difficulties with access to supplies and markets are disrupted. So we go with assistance, with items to this area of the country. During the winter, this assistance would include winter clothes, blankets, heating appliances.
Another important part is supporting the districts and municipalities to ensure heating, electricity and water systems are functioning during the winter. As a part of our work we support the government, local administrations, to repair these services that have been damaged during the war. Moreover, we have prepared aid in case there is a new attack. That means we can rapidly mobilize resources to support the government to conduct the repairs.
Another part of our assistance is ensuring that the livestock's not going to die during the winter. We have to ensure that people have the proper inputs to feed the animals, to protect the animals. So, this is another package that goes beyond winter. But during the winter it is particularly important because access to food in areas close to the frontline can be a challenge and for some people their livestock is the only source of nutritious food.
Maybe you can tell a little bit more about the humanitarian situation near the frontline? Where is the worst situation?
I don't want to differentiate. It might be slightly different in some parts of the frontline, but there is an unimaginable level of suffering wherever you go, and the basic needs are more or less the same. In some areas people cannot go to the doctor or have medicines, because half of the health facilities are not functional, they are damaged or destroyed. Access to health is extremely challenging for people in these areas. As well as access to food and hygiene supplies. But also, so many communities have difficulties with water. And it became much worse after the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam. It is a growing issue, mainly now in Dnipropetrovsk oblast, but not only.
So the needs are diverse somehow, but the main urgent, immediate needs are quite similar across the whole frontline. The level of destruction is immense. When I visited some small villages between Kherson and Mykolaiv oblast, I didn't see even one house that wouldn't have at least one hole in the wall. Some are flattened to the ground.
And the same situation is in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Luhansk is extremely concerning for us because we have limited access there since Russian forces took control over some territories. And it's very disturbing because we don't even know the whole reality of the situation in Luhansk oblast. Before Russian forces entered Lysychansk, Severodonetsk, we were there and saw the level of destruction. And it was unimaginable, with health services and water systems completely decimated.
About the Donbas region, where did you go last time?
We go very frequently to areas close to the frontline in the Donbas region. We go usually all together with many different UN agencies, NGOs as well, they join our convoys, organized by our office. We have between two-three of these humanitarian convoys every week, not only to Donbas. But we go regularly bringing a comprehensive package of assistance.
We all know that the Kakhovka disaster is devastating. Tell us about the UN's response to the catastrophe.
The problem that we have with the disaster caused by the Kakhovka Dam destruction is that it affected an area already ravaged by the war, where people had already been suffering from the consequences of Russia’s invasion, constant shelling and attacks, for way too long. So the level of needs there was high, and has become worse.
On the other side of the river our access is almost impossible. During the first days after the destruction we did have contact on the other side, we contacted communities and we got a bit of sense of the levels of needs. But we cannot go and verify, we cannot see the situation. And worse, we could not cross and help them.
And the level of attacks in Kherson city only increased after November, it's getting worse and worse. We don't think that on the other side of the river the situation would be any different.
But do you still continue to ask for the access?
Well, our negotiations have never stopped since the 24th of February. We do send notifications to the Russian Federation regularly, we have had negotiations in many different levels, in the highest levels, but the breakthroughs of these negotiations, as we all know, are not at the level that we would have expected.
After the Kakhovka dam destruction, we started our support to people impacted from day one. On the second day of the disaster, we sent a team with 11 UN staff to Kherson. On the 8th of June we had a meeting with the Kherson governor to see what else would be needed. On the 9th I went myself with the humanitarian coordinator, Denise Brown, with a group of around 20 staff from the UN to ensure that we could scale up the assistance that was taking place. Around 200,000 people were supported during June in the areas that were impacted by flooding (Khersons'ka, Mykolaivs’ka, Zaporizhzha oblast and Dnipropetrovska).
The assistance was not only because of the disaster. These areas were already suffering with other needs because of the war. Cash assistance, for example, was one of the priorities at the request of the government. And we reached 5,000 people with cash assistance in the first three days after the disaster. And just a few days later it increased to around 20,000 people who received cash assistance. And one of the examples of our help is that in June alone more than five million liters of water were supplied, over 240,000 food parcels, and this support continues.
But do you have maybe some numbers of people who are suffering, who are in need of drinking water?
The overall access to water in Ukraine has been impacted since February last year. It's not something new. The number of people that were served by the Kakhovka reservoir is 700,000 people. These people are at risk. Some already don't have water.
But overall, 11 million people more or less in the whole country now have challenges to access water, sanitation and hygiene services. It is a huge figure, a huge problem. And it is really concerning, because it directly impacts our well-being, health and our safety and our capacity to survive.
Food security is one of the main topics now. Is there any progress in the negotiations about functioning of the Black Sea Grain Initiative?
The negotiations on the Black Sea Grain Initiative have not been easy from the very beginning. And now we all saw what happened in mid-July, when Russia decided to terminate the initiative. It was a really difficult moment for all of us, but particularly for the poorest people of the world, and the Ukrainian farmers that depend on this agreement. The UN is committed to keep the negotiations, to keep the talks. Many countries of the world denounced the Russian termination of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, so we are committed to make sure that in the meantime we find alternatives to keep the grains going to the global market for the sake of the Ukrainians and for the sake of the world population. Negotiations will continue.
What is really alarming is the level of attacks that followed this decision. The level of destruction is shocking. It's inhumane that in addition to terminating the agreement, Russia now has been attacking ports in the Danube. That was the alternative for the exports.
In addition to the Black Sea Initiative, we have our regular programs on supporting the farmers of Ukraine to sustain their activities. For example, we have started a new program recently with the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to support demining of mainly small scale farmlands. It is for farmers that have a maximum 300 hectares of land that are facing this challenge with mine contamination. We are supporting them to clear their lands so they can resume the activities. We have other supports on mine action, but this specific one is quite interesting, in my opinion.
In the project, we support the farmers with inputs to resume their activities and we also committed to buying part of their produce. The World Food Programme is going to buy this food for their humanitarian assistance. In summary, I demine your land, I give you inputs to resume your activities and then buy at least part of what you produce to ensure food assistance either here or outside of the country. So it guarantees that farmers are going to have an income and people are going to have affordable food.
We have already started in Kharkiv oblast, and we are expanding activities in the coming months to Khersons'ka and Mykolaiv oblast. As you know, all these areas are greatly dependent on agriculture, and that's why the focus is on these three areas. The program started last month. It's really new. And there we are working closely with the regional authorities. We do it together, even the applications from the farmers to receive the grants go through the administration, the local government.
According to the experts, Ukraine is one of the most mined countries in the world now. But president Zelensky last week said that we have only 26 vehicles for demining. How do you help us with this huge problem?
There is something very specific in Ukraine about demining. The demining is always done by the government. It is a decision of your government. So the demining vehicles that are authorized to proceed are only the government ones with the State Emergency Service of Ukraine (SESU). This is how we are working, but we do provide the technical support. For example, we provided 11 pyrotechnic teams with equipment, training, transport vehicles, survey vehicles, survey equipment. So, 11 teams of SESU received this equipment directly from our colleagues from the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). There is clearly a need for more. There is also an important part of the work we do that is directly with the communities on mine awareness. For example, to ensure that people are aware of the risks, know how to proceed if they find an explosive. We have a program on that. Last year, it was more than 3 million people that we reached with campaigns.
But what I would tell you to complement what we discussed already is our increased efforts in the coming months that have already started, but we're going to increase even more.
If we don't manage to get more support from the international community, it's going to have an impact on our capacity to support people that are still having their lives devastated by the war every day. We are now just above 30% of what we requested for the response, unfortunately. We do have some pledges, we know that more funding will arrive, but we need it now. As I mentioned before, it’s preparation for the winter, for soaring needs due to increased attacks by Russia. And certain kinds of support that we have to provide, like the repair work, doesn't happen in two days.
So, we need to have the resources to ensure that we can start the work now.