Beyond ongoing shelling and the presence of mines, urban disconnect keeps humanitarian concerns high in eastern Ukraine

June 18, 2019

April 2019 marked the 5th anniversary of the conflict’s onset in eastern Ukraine. The situation has reached that of a protracted conflict, characterised by the 450 kilometre Line of Contact, a de facto border that splits the Donbas area in two. Whilst typical humanitarian concerns relating to protection and safety are still rife for the affected populations, a new set of needs are emerging for those living along the Line of Contact. 

REACH was initially deployed to Ukraine in the aftermath of the escalation of the conflict in 2015 to support in the implementation of an assessment covering the needs of internally displaced persons in eastern Ukraine. Now, years later, focus has gradually shifted from urgent response to elaborating area-based approaches to tackle the challenges of populations living in-between the competing geopolitical dynamics playing out in Donbas.

Division of Donbas has had significant implications on humanitarian needs

Before the conflict first escalated, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as Donbas, were highly integrated. Densely populated and heavily industrialised, they harboured 15 percent of Ukraine’s total population and generated 16 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The region was historically referred to as the economic powerhouse of eastern Ukraine.

Now the situation is drastically different. Years of conflict and the subsequent creation of the 450 kilometre Line of Contact (LoC), have shattered the socio-economic fabric of the region. Violence is a daily occurrence and needs are visible across multiple humanitarian sectors including education, health and livelihoods. Jeremy Wetterwald, country coordinator for REACH Ukraine, has been following the developments in the region since September 2016. According to him, the physical disconnect and ensuing rupture of urban networks set in motion by the conflict and the LoC has now become a defining factor for the humanitarian response.

Findings from UNOCHA Humanitarian Needs Overview (2018) show that a total of 3.4 million people are affected by the ongoing conflict. A REACH population density map (bottom right) shows how the periphery of the Line of Contact is inhabited.

“Large swathes of human populations traditionally orbit major cities for the provision of basic services and to meet their needs. For those living in the government-controlled areas of the Donbas, access to the major urban centres on the other side of the Line of Contact has become extremely problematic. Many now need to travel long distances to meet their basic needs. For example, people that used to be within five kilometres of the nearest hospital in a city in the non-government controlled areas now have to go to a facility more than 40 kilometres away,” explains Wetterwald. “There are only five official and secure checkpoints sparsely located along the LoC to connect the region inhabited by 3.4 million people. These checkpoints are extremely slow to cross. Sometimes it can take approximately eight hours back and forth. Realistically, people can no longer commute to work or receive urgent healthcare from the other side when required.”

Such restrictions of movement across the LoC have had major repercussions on employment, markets, basic service provision and humanitarian needs. Until healthcare and employment networks are re-established, populations living close to the contact line will continue requiring emergency healthcare, and financial support to meet basic needs such as those related to food, education and heating. From both a humanitarian and development perspective, the urban disconnect has become an issue of central concern.

“The urban disconnect is the reality where populations on one side of the Line of Contact no longer have access to major cities on which they depend for employment, healthcare and education.”

Healthcare and livelihoods particularly affected

The situation along the LoC is worsened by the general protracted nature of the conflict which continues to take a toll on the population’s ability to cope financially. Indeed, higher levels of unemployment, sharp economic deterioration and lack of access to basic healthcare, has forced many households to, for example, make impossible choices on whether to buy food or medicine.

The dire situation regarding economic security and the healthcare sector in Donbas has also been highlighted by REACH’s work in the country. Findings show that 54 per cent of the population living close to the LoC in government-controlled areas report having insufficient access to basic healthcare. This is paired with the fact that more than one million people in the Donbas, including those who are internally displaced, do not have regular access to food and require urgent livelihood support.

Left: Access to healthcare severely declines between the years 2013 and 2018. Right: Employment networks completely disappears between government-controlled areas and the non-government controlled areas between 2013-2018. (Source: Marinka Raion, Government Controlled Area Capacity & Vulnerability Assessment)

Furthermore, crossing the Line of Contact is not only slow, it can also be perilous, particularly affecting vulnerable populations such as the elderly. According to reports, these vulnerable groups are also the ones making the most crossings; in 2018 alone, 57 percent of people that crossed were above the age of 60. Human Rights Watch has, for example, reported that the queues at checkpoints, often crossed by foot, force people to wait hours and sometimes days. This exposes the ones crossing the line to intense heat in the summer and freezing cold in the winter.

No perspective for change necessity to plan around LoC

“Unfortunately, there are no immediate perspectives for the conflict to come to a resolution. Due to this, humanitarian and recovery actors are forced to accommodate for the Line of Contact, and all the difficulties it brings,” Wetterwald illustrates.

As it is, shelling and mine contamination will continue to threaten the lives of individuals residing within the vicinity of the Line of Contact. Yet long-term humanitarian threats will continue to stem from the physical barrier imposed by the de facto border.

“All in all, ensuring people’s access to life-saving healthcare and providing them with employment and education perspectives is of utmost importance and must be made a priority,” Wetterwald concludes.

Jeremy Wetterwald presents at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction 2019, in Geneva.