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A Russian missile stops a Ukrainian city from returning drinkable water to residents

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Ukraine's utility workers are braving landmines and shelling as they race to repair energy and water infrastructure near the frontline. But as NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports from the southern city of Mykolaiv, the workers face a Sisyphean battle to restore service before the next Russian strike.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: When Ukrainian forces liberated territory in the south last month, they also freed a key source of drinking water. Tymofii Prokopenko, a water utilities manager in the southern city of Mykolaiv, remembers driving to a pumping station that had been under Russian control. He reunited with his colleagues who had been trapped there during the occupation.

TYMOFII PROKOPENKO: (Through interpreter) When we saw our colleagues there safe and sound, it was the happiest moment.

KAKISSIS: They embraced, and they wept. Then Prokopenko saw how badly Russian soldiers had damaged the pumping station.

PROKOPENKO: (Through interpreter) There were broken pipelines. They also stole a lot of equipment. We realized it would take a lot of time to repair in order to provide Mykolaiv with water.

KAKISSIS: This pumping station had transported water from the Dnipro River to Mykolaiv until Russian forces took over the area in April. Since then, residents have filled jugs with filtered water from tanks trucked in by the Red Cross. Retired shipbuilding accountant Iryna Suvorova drives to a Red Cross site twice a day to fill 20 jugs with this imported water. She drinks it and also uses it for cooking, showering and brushing her teeth.

IRYNA SUVOROVA: (Through interpreter) The water from the tap is way too salty. It's too much. We only use this water for rinsing.

KAKISSIS: The tap water is salty because Mykolaiv's water utilities department has been forced to pull water from an estuary of the Black Sea. Suvorova says she was thrilled a few weeks ago when she heard the pumping station near the river was finally liberated.

SUVOROVA: (Through interpreter) We were waiting for our drinking water to finally come back. But the Russians won't leave us alone.

KAKISSIS: Russian missiles hit this pumping station just as workers were repairing it to bring it back online.

OLEKSANDR HYRCHA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Welder Oleksandr Hyrcha says the Ukrainian military escorted him and other workers to the site. They warned him that landmines were everywhere.

Were you worried that a mine could explode the whole time you were walking there?

HYRCHA: (Through interpreter) At first I wasn't that scared. I was told that a lot of people had been here before me. But I was more careful after the truck exploded.

KAKISSIS: A colleague about 25 yards away had driven over a mine. The colleague survived. Hyrcha says he was rattled, but he continued working. He noticed that the Russian missiles had destroyed parts of the pipeline connected to the pumping station.

HYRCHA: (Through interpreter) The pipe joints were ripped off. The pipe segments were pierced and scattered around.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY BUZZING)

KAKISSIS: Russian forces continue to target water and energy infrastructure throughout Ukraine, including Mykolaiv. A utility worker is digging a pipe to a common site in the city. Oleksandr Vovk is fixing a pipe outside an apartment building.

OLEKSANDR VOVK: (Through interpreter) We already have problems with salty water corroding the metal pipes. And whenever there is an explosion, the impact cracks the pipes, even if it's not a direct hit.

KAKISSIS: It's fallen to Deputy Mayor Vitaly Lukov to communicate to residents that water service will not be restored anytime soon.

VITALY LUKOV: (Through interpreter) Someone has to be the optimist here. The national government plays that role, but someone also has to be the realist, and that's the local government.

KAKISSIS: Back at the Red Cross site providing filtered water, Iryna Suvorova says she will keep lugging jugs and jerry cans here until Russian forces finally leave Ukraine.

SUVOROVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "We will survive," she says. "And all we want is for the Russians to get lost."

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Mykolaiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS SONG, "UNDER THE BRIDGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.