In a sad irony, graffiti artist Banksy’s lukewarm bath in a bombed-out building in Horenka, a village in northwestern Kyiv, contrasts with the shivering and reddened faces of its neighbors, who are cleaning the streets from the cold. white layer covering part of Ukraine. “Winter has started and we don’t know what will happen next. The firefighters brought us undrinkable water… but it will freeze unless we bring it into the house,” Tetiana Reznychenko, 43, told Reuters. What will happen next? Well, living will be a matter of survival, warns the World Health Organization (WHO).
“Winter endangers the lives of millions of people. Half of the energy infrastructure is damaged or destroyed and 10 million people do not have electricity”, warns the WHO regional director for Europe, Hans Henri P Kluge from Kyiv. The first snow and subzero temperatures reached Ukraine last week as Russia ripped into the country’s energy supply in one of the worst bombing raids of the war entering its ninth month.
We anticipate that between two and three million people will have to leave their homes in search of warmth and security
As the consequences could be dire in the regions most affected by the Russian attacks, the Kyiv government is preparing the evacuation of civilians from the regions recently liberated by the Ukrainian forces from Kherson and Mikolaiv, in the south of the country. There the Russians were in charge of destroying the infrastructure of heating, electricity and water before withdrawing at the beginning of the month, targets that they continue to bombard from the other bank of the Dnieper river.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk announced on Monday that she will provide accommodation and medical care, with priority for women with children, the sick and the elderly, who want to go to safer areas in the center and west of the country. Other regional and municipal officials have suggested to residents of the capital Kyiv and other areas who can afford to leave Ukraine for a few months to do so. In this way they will help save energy for hospitals and other key facilities. “We anticipate that between two and three million people will have to leave their homes in search of warmth and safety,” calculates the WHO.
The situation in hospitals is expected to be critical. “Attacks on health and energy infrastructure mean that hundreds of hospitals and health care facilities are no longer fully operational and without fuel, water and electricity,” says Kluge, who has recorded more than 700 attacks on medical centers since the start of the invasion on February 24. “Maternity wards need incubators; blood banks need refrigerators; intensive care beds need fans; and they all require energy”, recalls the WHO representative.
The population will face respiratory infections such as those caused by the coronavirus. Due to a low vaccination rate, “millions of Ukrainians have waning or no immunity against covid,” he says. He also warned of the respiratory and cardiovascular problems that people who try to heat themselves by burning coal or wood or using diesel generators may suffer from the lack of heating.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on citizens to save energy, particularly in hard-hit areas such as Kyiv, Vinnytsia in the southwest, Sumi in the north and Odessa on the Black Sea. “The systematic damage to our energy system from the attacks by Russian terrorists is such that our people and companies must become aware and redistribute their consumption throughout the day,” the president said on Monday. For his part, the director of Yasno, which provides energy to the capital, predicted that the daily blackouts of these days throughout the country will continue at least until the end of March, while technicians try to repair the damage before the frost arrives.
Ukraine is known for its winter weather. Between December and February, average temperatures are below freezing in inland areas and around zero degrees on the coast, softened by the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. In the province of Crimea, the minimum temperature is 0.57 ºC, the only one in the country that exceeds the freezing point; while the thermometer in the Sumi region, in the northeast, drops to figures of up to -5 ºC.
This is the average winter temperature recorded in the last 30 years, according to the Climate Change Knowledge Portal that works for the World Bank, but when the Siberian Anticyclone settles over Ukraine, temperatures can drop to minus twenty degrees as warned by the WHO or even more (-35ºC), in inland areas. On these occasions the sea has frozen over, sometimes in the Odessa Bay and more often in the shallow Azov Sea. Although climate change has warmed Ukrainian winters in recent decades, periods of intense cold are still possible, albeit less frequently and shorter. An icy winter that has the capacity to kill, says the WHO.