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Ukraine: UN experts warn of chemical disaster and water safety risk as conflict escalates in East

GENEVA (10 November 2017) – Ukraine is facing new risks of chemical disaster and water safety after an escalation of conflict near water supply facilities in the east of the country, two UN Special Rapporteurs have warned.

“We are alarmed by recent reports of shelling around water installations containing chlorine gas and other extremely dangerous chemicals in Donetsk region,” said Baskut Tuncak, an expert on human rights and hazardous substances, and Léo Heller, whose mandate covers safe drinking water and sanitation.

“Damaging installations containing substances such as chlorine gas and the destruction of water treatment facilities could have devastating consequences for the population and the environment of large areas in Eastern Ukraine,” they added.   

Chlorine gas, which can cause severe health impacts and death by asphyxiation, has been used as a chemical weapon, but is not specifically listed as controlled under the Convention on Chemical Weapons. However, the use of any toxic chemical as a weapon, including chlorine, is forbidden under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The Donetsk water filtration station was reportedly shelled repeatedly between 3 and 4 November, causing damage to a back-up chlorine pipeline.

It is reported that if the main pipeline currently in use or any single 900kg bottle containing chlorine, stored in these facilities was hit, it could have killed anyone within a 200 metre radius, including the staff of the facility, and would have disrupted the water supply to almost 350,000 people on both sides of the contact line.

On 5 November, a second water filtration station, Verkhnokalmiuska, which supplies clean water to 800,000 people and stores 100 tons of chlorine gas, was hit by multiple shells.  “Again, releasing toxic gas and destroying water supply facilities would have had devastating consequences for populated areas of Donetsk city, Makiivka and Avdiivka,” the experts said.

Mr. Tuncak, who has previously warned of the risks of chemical disasters in eastern Ukraine, added: “All parties involved in conflict must respect international humanitarian law, notably by taking into account the potential consequences of unleashing highly toxic chemicals on the civilian population.” 

Mr. Heller noted: “Interference with water and sanitation supplies even in the context of conflict is entirely unacceptable. The rights of almost 1.1 million people’s access to safe drinking water and sanitation on both sides of the contact line are at risk of being affected if hostilities continue to hit water treatment facilities.”

Both experts called on the parties to hostilities to create and respect demilitarized zones around critical water sites in Donetsk region, as was agreed by the Trilateral Group on 19 July this year.

The experts also called for attention to structures at risk of collapse due to poor maintenance. A sludge collector at the phenol plant in Novhorodske has not been repaired after shell damage. Maintenance due every two weeks has not been carried out for a year. Reportedly, the dam around the collector is eroding, risking the release of liquid toxic waste into the Kryvyi Torets and Siverskyi Donets rivers.

“Ensuring access to, and adequate maintenance of, damaged sites containing hazardous substances is vital. We call on all parties to agree on and respect adequate security arrangements which would allow regular maintenance as well as repairs to be conducted safely,” concluded the human rights experts.

ENDS

Mr. Baskut Tuncak (Turkey) is Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes by the UN Human Rights Council in 2014. Mr. Léo Heller (Brazil) is the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

As Special Rapporteurs they are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For inquiries and media requests, please contact: Marcelo Daher (+4122917 9431 / mdaher@ohchr.org
For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact:
Bryan Wilson – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9826 / mediaconsultant2@ohchr.org

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