Inside Crimea: What Moscow-Kyiv dispute means for water crisis
BY AYŞE BETÜL BAL
FEB 21, 2021 12:37 PM GMT+3
It would take another decade to make soil cultivatable again while ensuring a stable drinkable water supply of the pre-annexation levels: Experts, civilians argue water-shortages in Russian-occupied Crimea are overshadowed by political, technical disputes
“The water, which is given for two hours daily between 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., sometimes flows in a different color, you know, like brown. It is said to be drinking water, but no one can drink or cook with it,” says Alim Umerov who lives in the Crimean capital of Akmescit (Simferopol).
Umerov, whose name a pseudonym to protect his identity for security reasons, is one of many residents who have been struggling amid the already-deepening water crisis that engulfed the Russian occupied-peninsula.
He has to drive through other regions of Crimea to find clean and fresh water.
Back in 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, Kyiv decided to shut off the 400-kilometer-long (249-mile-long) North Crimean Canal (NCC) that connects the Black Sea peninsula to the mainland. It was previously providing some 85% of the water from Ukraine’s Dnieper River. There was no water shortage back then. But now, it is has become a chronic problem, according to locals who spoke to Daily Sabah.
Locals say there was no water shortage until Russian migrants started moving into the area after 2014. Russian authorities say the peninsula’s population almost doubled over the years and acknowledge a stable supply of water is becoming an increasingly urgent problem that needs to be addressed, yet they use this issue to pressure Kyiv.
Umerov is an ethnic Crimean Tatar – the peninsula’s indigenous people who have made up the majority for centuries in the region, before the demographics of the ethnicities began changing in favor of Russians who have settled throughout Crimea, especially after the Crimean Tatar deportation of 1944 and then after the annexation in 2014.
“After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Russians started to flock into the peninsula, the population increased and thus the water is not enough,” Umerov said during a phone interview with Daily Sabah. “They constructed residential buildings or complexes for their soldiers."
Russian authorities most recently in February said the Crimean capital, where Umerov resides, had a water supply that would only last 100 days and that the parched peninsula went through its driest year of the last 150 years in 2020.
The student, who is in his late 20s and works while studying at university, reiterated that one other problem besides the shortages is that the water flowing through the system is sometimes too contaminated to drink or cook with it.
Thus, he carries bottles in his car and travels across the region for cleaner water. Although he does not know the exact reason why the water turns into a brown liquid, he says it may be because the systems are very old, built during the Soviet era, and need to be renovated or replaced. Many people use filters to avoid using contaminated water, Umerov says.
“There are new systems elsewhere; they build new systems for the military,” he added, stressing that the issue is all about the growing population.
When asked about Kyiv’s shutdown of the canal, he stressed it has had some effect, but the water was enough for the locals before the Russians came.
The now acute water shortages led local authorities to apply water supply timetables in other regions as well, though it is not yet thought that the current situation is at a level that would leave the population without drinkable water.
The peninsula currently has 23 reservoirs, 15 in-stream and eight off-stream, according to the Crimean Basin Water Authority. Although the water level in those reservoirs significantly dropped and some even completely dried up like the lakes or rivers, those were the only resources supplying the region since the canal was shut down.
Meanwhile, though disrupting human lives at some level, not yet critical, it doesn’t mean that the shortages do not have any knock-on effects. On the contrary, from agriculture to industry and the smooth working of chemical factories, which are relatively abundant in the peninsula, as well as Russia’s maintaining military presence heavily depend on water. According to the estimations, agriculture was consuming some two-thirds of the water transported through the NCC before the annexation. The drastic reduction in the amount of irrigated land speaks to the effects of the water shortages on the agricultural sector. Irrigated land totaled around 140,000 hectares in 2013 but dropped to 10,000 in 2015, just a year after the occupation. According to Russian sources, it slightly rebounded to 17,000 hectares in 2018. And despite prioritizing increasing the share of irrigated land, the peninsula is said to be losing 14 billion rubles ($210 million) annually due to low water supplies, according to the Crimean Ministry of Agriculture.
Moscow has been trying ad hoc solutions but not yet a stable one. For the irrigation of arable lands, for example, extraction of underground deposits came to the forefront, which is according to the experts, is more likely to worsen agriculture in the long-run.
Dursun Yıldız, director at the Hydropolitics Association (HPA), told Daily Sabah that before Russia started to drill new wells to provide much-needed water from underground, there were only 20,000 cubic meters of water being extracted per day. This is said to be increased to 55,000 cubic meters, and Yıldız claimed that the amount was only one-sixth of the amount of water needed.
Ukrainian officials also argue that the peninsula is richer in terms of underground water than the de facto Russian authorities extracted; however, the true potential was not reached under the Ukrainian government control either due to financial reasons. Groundwater amounted to 4.41% of total water resources in the pre-annexation era, while the local stocks’ share was 8.7%; seawater was 0.16%, and the rest was from the Dnieper River through the NCC.
“Although the drilling for the groundwater seems to be the fastest solution,” Yıldız continued, if the rainfall or snow, which have been below expectations in the last couple of years, does not compensate the extracted groundwater, it would lead to seawater surrounding the peninsula from almost all sides toward deteriorating water quality as well as the soil quality.
“It is known that this situation was experienced in the 1960s, and it took 10 to 15 years for the soil to become suitable for cultivation again after the NCC was built and the desalinization of the soil was ensured,” he said.
According to the Ministry for Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons of Ukraine, which released satellite imagery, the soil salinization delivered a heavy toll especially on the eastern parts of Crimea, leaving the region with dried out plants and vegetation. Though several reports from independent institutions say the water shortages cause the Crimean economy to lose billions of rubles every year which has already been suffering despite lavish investment from Russia, it is not even yet possible to calculate the exact cost, adding the disruptions in the industry, apart from the agriculture sector.
'It’s occupier’s responsibility'
A Kyiv-based journalist, who did not want to be named, also labeled the increasing population as well as the annexation of the peninsula as the main reasons for the drought.
This, according to him, led Ukrainian officials toward shutting down the canal that would eventually supply for the Russian soldiers who annexed the peninsula in the first place.
The ethnic Crimean journalist said in a text message that the water is given within just two hours in some provinces and the occupier forces do not know how to handle the problem.
Mirroring Umerov’s statements, the Crimea resident said there was enough water for the land’s population and that if the water was not used for the Russian military, the problem wouldn’t be this bad.
“I regularly visit the peninsula, witnessing the worsening situation with my own eyes,” the Kyiv-based journalist said, stressing that, according to the international law, the responsibility of the well-being of the inhabitants of the occupied land belongs to the occupier, which, in this case, is Russia and not Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Russia has taken the matter to the international courts both at the state level and by the intermediary entities, including Crimea-based private companies known to be pro-Russian that filed lawsuits against Kyiv.
Committee of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Duma Vice-Chair Natalia Poklonskaya filed a complaint to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights over the blockage on the NCC, which resulted in the ruling that it is Russia’s responsibility to supply the needs and that the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission deployed in Ukraine needs to be enabled access into the peninsula for further observation and assessment.
Military built up
Following the annexation, Crimea has become a Russian military stronghold as it was during the Soviet era, with a growing military built up that was no secret for anyone as Moscow, itself has regularly shown off with its drills and trials of new weapon systems. While the forbidden zone signs grew over time, some empty places became home to large army presence, according to Ukraine’s National Space Facilities Control and Test Center (NSFCTC) that documented the weaponization of the Black Sea coast with satellite images. Footage includes, for instance, a military station near Akyar (Sevastopol) along with dozen satellite receivers or S-400 air defense systems deployed near Kerch strait or the radar systems in Kezlev (Yevpatoria) and the SU-30 or SU-35 aircraft at Belbek Airport. According to an article by Ukrayinska Pravda which cited the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, the number of Russian military personnel, which was around 12,000 in 2014, has reached over 31,000 as of 2019. The article noted that military personnel requires around 2.6 million cubic meters of water yearly, excluding their families or the water needed for the cleaning or engine cooling of the systems.
Given the dire situation, establishing water-purification plants or seawater desalination stations or even a cloud-seeding plane are among the solutions that the de facto authority came up with to address the problem as it is reported from time to time on the media that the country allocates billions of rubles for several investments each year. In March 2020, the authorities said they plan to invest around 3.5 billion rubles for water treatment and desalination plants across the peninsula along with a project worth 25 billion rubles for an intermountain water reservoir near Simferopol. Russia seems determined to spend more billions to compensate for the losses, while as much is being spent as a result of the crisis. It also has a megaproject tailored to deliver water from the Kuban River, across the Kerch Strait to Crimea, which is among its long-term projects to eliminate the peninsula's dependence on Ukrainian water.
Ukraine makes it clear every time that the country will not supply water until “de-occupation.” Even when a politician would open the subject to discussion it backfired with public criticism, leading the politicians to back down. One thing that Russia might have on the table in the near future is it may be within the realm of transboundary waters.
The HPA’s Yıldız emphasized that 65% of the Dnieper River basin from which water is transported into the NCC is within the territory of Ukraine while the river originates in Russia and passes through Belarus before entering the country. The annual average flow of the river is 46 billion cubic meters; some 26 billion cubic meters of this comes from Belarus, and 20 billion cubic meters are generated within Ukraine.
“Russia can deal with this issue from this perspective in the long term, since both the main stream of the Dnieper and the longest tributary of the Desna, arise from its land,” Yıldız said, though stressing that per the international water law, an issue such as the right to leave a part of transboundary water originating from its own territory to a land occupied by an upstream country has not been addressed.
“However, after the deepening of the water crisis in Crimea and the understanding that water will not be delivered from the NCC, it will not be a surprise that Russia develops some radical strategies over the water that originates from its land,” he concluded.
Yet, like the politicians, Ukraine’s maintaining water supply is an eliminated option in the eyes of the locals until the reversing of the occupation.
“If Ukraine maintains the flow of water through the canal, the Russian army would have no reason to left the annexed land,” the Kyiv journalist said, adding: “Thus, Ukraine should wait for Russian forces to withdraw at any cost.”
“Crimean population is ready to endure.”