Ukraine wants its population to return, but first it needs to repair its windows

The town of Shevchenkove wants to get its inhabitants back. However, there is a major obstacle: many of its buildings no longer have glass in the windows. From the first days of the war until November last year, when Ukrainian forces managed to push Russian soldiers back across the Dnieper River, Shevchenkove and its surrounding villages, located in the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson, were on the front lines. of the clashes.

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They took the mayor prisoner and its terrified inhabitants were bombarded every hour. Many fled. Then the Russians withdrew. Although the danger of missile attacks persisted, many wanted to return to their homes.

Now the area has 11,000 inhabitants, 5,000 fewer than in peacetime. In Shevchenkove, which before the war had 3,200 inhabitants, now 2,200 people live. For Oleg Pylypenko, the 37-year-old mayor, who was freed in a prisoner exchange, this figure is not enough. He wants everyone to come back. However, to do so it would have to overcome a clear obstacle: glass, or rather the lack of it.

The locals want to rebuild their lives and their homes, but it will take time, and to do that you need to have returned to the village. The largest buildings in Shevchenkove, including a former orphanage with two residences, could accommodate returnees in the medium term, but they no longer have windows and, even if they did, they would probably soon be destroyed again.

A repetitive process

Although the sun is warm these days, the Ukrainian winter is usually harsh and cold, and Russia is likely to attack the electricity supply again.

The problem spreads throughout the country. If you drive through almost any city, town or village in the east or south, the abundance of windows without glass is striking. They break even if the explosion occurs at a considerable distance. An untold number of windows have been broken. If they are repaired, in many cases they will break again.

In Shevchenkove, one in three buildings has been destroyed and half have sustained some type of damage. That’s a lot of broken glass.

Poorly equipped

A set of factors, both globally and specific to Ukraine, have made the country’s reconstruction difficult, especially because everything seems to indicate that it will be a repetitive process.

The price of construction materials around the world has skyrocketed as a result of rising energy costs caused by the war. In addition, the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria has consumed glass supplies in recent months. The truth is that Ukraine was especially ill-prepared to deal with a sudden and repeated breaking of its windows.

Upon the country’s independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had 10 glass factories. Since then – and conspiracy theories abound – they have been closing one after another. Ukraine had become almost completely dependent on producers in Belarus and Russia, despite having abundant raw materials. Control over the country’s last glassworks, in Lugansk to the east, was lost when Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February last year and occupied the region.

Kostyantyn Saliy, 48, president of the Ukrainian Union of Building Materials Manufacturers, explains that before the war, window manufacturers bought glass for 1.8 euros per square meter and sold it for 2.75 euros , but today they buy it for almost four euros abroad and sell it for between six and seven euros. “Much of the glass that comes to Ukraine, especially from the countries of the former Soviet Union, is of poorer quality, in fact not up to the quality standards of the Soviet Union,” he says.

There are those who smuggle better quality glass from Belarus through Poland, in order to avoid breaching sanctions. However, Sally stresses: “We don’t want to help Belarus, which is supporting the Russians.” According to her calculations, Ukraine needs 750 million square meters of glass for glazing.

Recyclable windows

There is some hope. The foundation stone of a new glass factory has been laid in Berezan, kyiv region. Saliy’s union plans to apply to the European Union for a grant to create two more facilities, one to make sodium oxide, a key ingredient, and the second to make the sheets.

The big question is what to do while these factories are not operating, when replacing glass in all the windows can be a frustrating and useless task if the threat of new artillery and rocket attacks remains.

Harry Blakiston Houston, 27, who has interrupted a PhD in biotechnology at the University of Cambridge to tackle this puzzle, believes he has the answer: a window that can be built in 15 minutes and costs only 14 euros per square meter using polyethylene, pipes of PVC, pipe insulation and electrical tape, to create four layers of insulation that will not break down.

The windows, although temporary, are durable, but when they are no longer needed all the pieces can be recycled and used for another purpose.

Blakiston Houston charity Insulate Ukraine installed its first such window in Shevchenkove after meeting an elderly woman who slept in the bathtub because the bathroom was the only warm place in her home. Since then, the organization has worked throughout the country, thanks to some sponsoring companies and, more recently, the British association World Jewish Relief. A total of 6,000 windows have been installed, and Shevchenkove and her orphanage will be among the beneficiaries of a 2,000-window repair campaign that will soon begin in Kherson.

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Blakiston Houston wants to expand the project. But there is another problem: the largest financier of reconstruction efforts in Ukraine is the UN. Under the “build back better” protocol, the UN will only finance windows equal to or better quality than those existing before the war.

“That makes sense if you’re in an earthquake-like situation,” says Blakiston Houston. “But the difficulty with this is that it is not a two-stage process – emergency and normality. It is a three-stage process. “You have the initial emergency and then a potentially prolonged period where people have to live in a very different environment.” A fire station in Nikopol, Dnipropetrovsk region, has had to reinstall its windows again and again this year due to Russian shells falling in the area, he explains.

“Each of these windows costs between 180 and 460 euros,” says Blakiston Houston. “They have a new grant for more new windows, but they haven’t installed them. Instead, we have been asked to install Insulate Ukraine windows. Our windows cost between 14 and 18 euros for the size we are talking about.”

“You get almost the same as with a normal window. Good insulation is obtained, good protection of the thermal envelope. You get light in so you can work inside during the day and, most importantly, they don’t break when a bomb hits,” he adds.

At most, with Insulate Ukraine windows, the frame could bend or jump, but there is an easy and cheap solution, he says. The useful life of the product is between five and eight years, but he believes that with some design tweaks it could be longer. “The idea is to go once and not have to come back, because when the war ends the glass supply will return.” As, it is expected, do the local residents.

Translated by Emma Reverter.

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