Ecoaction has been helping Ukrainian coal mining towns work on a just transition along with the civil society organizations Germanwatch and Alternative for over 5 years. We assist the leaders of these communities in planning a future without coal, by organizing exchanges of experiences with other parties, engaging in dialogue with stakeholders and government bodies, supporting their work on joint projects, and more.
Representatives of 17 Ukrainian coal mining communities have formed a working group to prepare for the restoration and just transition of coal mining communities. During the first meeting, which took place on 7-8 April in Kyiv, representatives of the communities talked to representatives of the Ministry of Reconstruction and Development: they shared their challenges and needs and discussed further joint work. It is planned that the working group will develop a common concept of just transition for the mining communities of the 5 regions. The Ministry of Reconstruction said it was ready to support the transformation of communities. We will tell you what was discussed at the meeting below.
Communities’ needs and challenges
The situation in different mining communities is different. They are in five regions of Ukraine: Luhansk, Donetsk, Dnipro, Lviv and Volyn. In the western regions, the situation is more or less calm, and they can plan their future development. The communities in Luhansk Oblast are currently occupied and the Russian offensive in Donetsk Oblast is ongoing, so their leaders have to focus on ensuring the livelihoods of the communities or wait for liberation and further reconstruction. Yet some of the challenges facing mining towns are common across Ukraine.
All of these communities need their own development programs that will determine their future after the coal industry, which used to be the backbone of their economy, is phased out. Residents of these communities need retraining, and industrial sites (former mines, coal enterprises and coal infrastructure) need revitalisation. The communities themselves see these sites as having the potential to develop industrial parks, tourism and even military bases.
Coal communities are particularly interested in the enterprises that will be involved in the restoration, as well as in decentralised energy – this sector has proved to be particularly valuable during the period of massive Russian attacks on our energy infrastructure and blackouts. Community representatives aim to develop economic clusters – groups of related businesses concentrated in one area.
The full-scale war has made its own adjustments, and the issue of people leaving, especially skilled workers, has become an acute one for frontline communities. In Toretsk, for example, only 15,000 out of 70,000 people remain, most of whom are retired. The town is close to the front line, so they are still trying to evacuate people. At the same time, the town’s leadership has managed to provide medical workers with housing and higher salaries, so there is no outflow of the healthcare workers they need. Other towns still need to provide such conditions for their medical staff.
The outflow also affects representatives of civil society – they also leave and see no point in returning if they are not involved in the recovery process. So, there is a demand for public involvement in reconstruction at the planning stage. However, with regard to the communities that have been occupied since 2014-2015 and will be de-occupied in the future, it is not clear how such communities will be restored: who will manage these territories, how the public will be involved in these processes, etc.
Frontline towns also face significant infrastructure destruction: russians are destroying homes, schools, hospitals, and critical businesses. Many of them have problems with access to water, electricity and heating. Communities in Dnipropetrovska oblast also pointed to high water prices for consumers. Most of this amount is spent on electricity, so they would like to switch the water supply to renewable energy.
For communities further from the frontline, the war has also created new challenges. It is also important for them to be able to support veterans, internally displaced persons and relocated businesses: to create special spaces for them, adaptation, support and rehabilitation programs.
How communities are already overcoming these challenges
Although the work on just transition is also affected by the Russian-Ukrainian war, the work continues. Chervonohrad, located in Lviv Oblast and far from the front line, is able to continue its transformation. The town has been working on its own just transition plan and has even become one of the cities tincluded in the list of cities of integrity. Many more stakeholders than expected joined the consultations, and now Chervonohrad is ready to share its positive experience. In addition to plans, practical measures are already being implemented there. For example, the Chervonohrad Professional Mining and Construction Lyceum has opened a new educational program – an electrician for the repair and maintenance of solar power installations – which is in great demand.
In the towns of Donetsk region, work on transformation plans has slowed down but not stopped. Pokrovsk, for example, has already started working on a recovery strategy and plans to consult with the public, academics and other stakeholders.
These communities are also working to address the problems caused by Russia’s attack. During the heating season, firewood, stoves and heaters were distributed to people, and some houses are being switched to individual heating. The Pokrovsk community is drilling wells to be prepared for water supply interruptions, as was the case after Russia’s attack in 2014.
Myrnohrad and Pokrovsk have gone further in terms of access to water and are planning a joint project to purify mine water. This will allow the towns to stop supplying water from the Karlivka Reservoir and provide their citizens with purified water that would otherwise flood the mines and lead to an environmental disaster.
In general, despite all the obstacles, mining towns are already aware of the inevitability of the coal industry’s decline and are preparing for further development. In particular, they are interested in developing small and medium-sized enterprises, energy efficiency and human capital, as well as attracting investment. Civil society would also be interested in adopting innovative experiences in closing down mines and using their infrastructure for other purposes.
However, towns also face a significant obstacle: a lack of communication with central authorities. Despite decentralisation and more local powers gained, transformation is impossible without decisions at the national level. It is important for towns to see action plans for closing mines, managing waste heaps, and further using industrial sites. Most communities do not even know the date of closure of their coal mines, therefore do not know the timeframe for preparing for this. Therefore, cooperation with the Ministry of Energy is particularly important to them, but unfortunately, the meeting has not yet taken place. Communities are also concerned about decarbonisation, i.e., reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. And they are ready to include such measures in their programs. However, the government’s decarbonisation targets are not communicated to coal towns, so it is unclear what to focus on and how to integrate these unknown targets into their recovery plans.
What the government says
Deputy Minister Oleksandra Azarkhina and Dmytro Turchak, Director of the Directorate for Strategic Planning and European Integration at the Ministry of Reconstruction of Ukraine, and Olena Shulyak, Head of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on State Building, Local Government, Regional Development and Urban Planning, met with representatives of coal communities. All agreed that they are ready to work directly with the coal towns to plan their joint recovery.
In particular, the Ministry of Regional Development is already developing a Recovery Platform for communities. It will allow recovery projects to be included in a single system, where a special working group will prioritise them and help them with funding from various sources. First of all, projects will be selected to meet basic needs, such as housing and critical infrastructure. Next in priority are transport, social services, community and business development. The Ministry of Regional Development also notes that it will provide funds only for those projects that the community cannot finance on its own.
The State Fund for Regional Development, for its part, is expected to also provide funds for recovery projects – they are planned to be selected by voting in Diia for each region separately. In order for communities with a small population to have a better chance of receiving funding, it is expected that large communities (over 200,000 people) will have to have co-financing as an additional condition. Proximity to the border with Russia should not be an obstacle, but for security reasons, support is expected to be provided only to those communities that are not too close to the combat zone. As the frontline shifts, communities close to the frontline will be prioritised.
The Ministry of Reconstruction is also ready to help communities attract investment for their reconstruction. To do this, it plans to launch reform support offices in communities and encourages them to develop comprehensive development programs, create their own projects, and prepare project documentation for them to submit to potential donors. Projects with developed project design and estimate documentation (PDD) will be given priority by the Ministry of Regional Development, but this is not a prerequisite for submission. Therefore, if critical facilities are completely destroyed in a community, they will be helped to restore them even without a project design and estimate. Projects for the development of distributed generation were also named as a priority.
Overall, the meeting once again showed that despite the different context, coal communities have much in common. Cooperation and exchange of experience are essential for communities on their way to transformation, and a working group of representatives from different communities should facilitate this. In addition, the united voice of coal communities sounds louder and together it is easier for them to reach out to government officials and convey their needs.
The meetings were held within the framework of the project “New Energy – Facilitating Dialogue for Sustainable Development of Ukrainian Coal Regions”, implemented by partner organisations Germanwatch, the Centre for Environmental Initiatives “Ecoaction”, and the Luhansk Regional Human Rights Centre “Alternative” with the support of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection in cooperation with the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ).