Water Shortages and Recurrent Drought: Crimea after 20145 min read

 In Analysis, Eastern Europe, Politics, Russia
Crimea is drying up, and it has everything to do with political arm-wrestling between Russia and Ukraine.

Almost seven years after the seizure of Crimea by the Russian Federation, the region is suffering from severe drought and water shortages. Rural areas are already facing immediate threats of desertification, and large cities such as Sevastopol are dealing with water shortages and rationing on a daily basis. 

When Russia seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014, Kyiv rapidly reacted by closing off Crimea’s access to fresh water through a 400-km canal connecting it to the Dnieper river. According to the Ukrainian government, the reason behind this was an outstanding debt on water supplies owed by Crimea. As circumstantial as it looks, Ukraine effectively cut off Crimea from its water network, which amounted to roughly 85% of water intakes in the peninsula. 

Kyiv’s decision has hindered Crimea’s agricultural sector, its ecological system and overall quality of life. Nevertheless, the public opinion seems to align with the government’s decision to shut off Crimea from Ukrainian water supplies unless the peninsula is returned to Ukraine. When he was considering unblocking the canal last year, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal underwent strong public criticism and eventually backed down on the proposal. 

Legally speaking, it should be up to Russia to ensure public health hygiene even in occupied territories, which inevitably involves access to clear water. There are no provisions that allow Russia to demand the unblocking of the Northern Crimean Canal. However, Ukraine remains obliged to fulfil its obligations under international human rights treaties and to ensure a fair standard of living for its citizens, regardless of Russian occupation. Officially, Russia has never issued a formal request to Ukraine asking for the reopening of the canal. Doing so would imply acting as an occupying power – a narrative that the Kremlin has so far refused to adopt. Meanwhile, the international community is still stalling on the matter, seeing how very few countries have so far recognized the border between Ukraine and Crimea as a state border. 

On its part, the Kremlin has pledged to allocate over 5 billion rubles ($66 million) to tackle the water supply crisis in Crimea. The news came last October when Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin promised to construct new water supply facilities on the Crimean Peninsula. Other projects underway include the overhaul of existing water supply networks and additional wells. When asked again in December during a news conference, President Vladimir Putin reassured journalists about the government’s intention to solve the water supply problem.

Russia’s position on the matter is pretty straightforward – Kyiv is deliberately violating Crimea’s fundamental rights by cutting its access to the North Crimean Canal, disregarding the needs of the peninsula’s 2 million-strong population. Ahead of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Deputy Chairman of the Duma of the Russian Federation Piotr Tolstoy described his Ukrainian colleagues as “more worried about fostering russophobia than they are about human rights.”

So far, works for a water intake in Sevastopol are underway and expected to be concluded by March 2020. According to government sources, the new plant will deliver up to 50.000 cubic meters of water to Sevastopol, with a stocking capacity of 150.000 cubic meters. The announcement comes as a relief for the Crimean peninsula since the Simferopol reservoir is expected to shut down in February 2021 due to high ammonia levels in the water. As is the case with Yalta, the citizens of Simferopol are already being supplied water in limited time slots in the morning and evening. While the southern region of Crimea is in better conditions than the rest of the peninsula, the authorities of Sevastopol have already issued a high alert.

Water supplies do not affect citizen consumes only – as of January, an additional 240 million rubles ($3 million) have been allocated to wildfire prevention. In 2020 alone, wildfires have increased fivefold from one year ago. The drought makes it easier for forests to burst into flames, leaving the trees that are not destroyed by fire severely weakened and susceptible to diseases and parasites. As a direct result, a worrying number of animal species are suffering from a loss of habitat and dying out altogether. With large portions of Crimea facing imminent desertification, many are leaving its eastern and northern regions. At the same time, water-intense cultivations are increasingly becoming unviable. 

As dire as the situation might be, it seems unlikely that Russia will resort to forceful means to reopen the canal. However implausible, the prospect of an escalation on the Ukrainian-Crimean border is being taken fairly seriously by NATO, as demonstrated by the deployment of additional units to the Black Sea to conduct training scenarios. For the moment, Russia seems to intend to rely on more creative means than military intervention, such as the already mentioned investments in new water distribution networks, cloud seeding, and drilling.

At the end of the day, there is no clear solution in sight. As neither Ukraine nor Russia seems keen on changing their tune, there is no political solution on the table. With the international community stalling on the matter, it seems even more unlikely that something will change. With the situation in Crimea steadily degenerating, an immediate solution would be Russia’s intervention to repair faulty infrastructures and build new ones. Although the recent announcements on the progression of works seem promising, it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to reverse the desertification process in Crimea.

Featured image: Destroyed land / Curioso, Unsplash
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