Crimean water shortage stokes Russia – Ukraine tensions

With the annexed Crimean peninsula facing an increasingly acute shortage of fresh water, speculation has been rife lately that Russia may launch a military offensive against Ukraine in order to seize a dam in the country’s south to unblock supply. Some experts believe that this could happen as early as this September, when the Russian army is scheduled to hold a major exercise. So far, Moscow has been trying to resolve the crisis through diplomatic means.

Dried-up reservoirs

Crimea has been experiencing problems with water since Ukraine blocked the North Crimean Canal, which links the Dnipro river to the peninsula, following the annexation in 2014. It had covered 85 per cent of the territory’s needs. Over the past six years, Crimea has relied on natural reservoirs and underground sources, which has adversely impacted its economy and environment. According to Oleksandr Liyev, a former minister for Crimean resorts and tourism, the persistent shortage of water has “devastated” Crimea’s irrigation network, made its soils much less fertile and changed the demographic composition of villages in the northern steppe areas, now largely abandoned by those left jobless because of the situation. This year’s drought has made things worse. The Bilohirsk reservoir, one of the biggest in Crimea, has been drying up since May. In July, local activist Reshad Memetov reported that the Biyuk-Karasu river flowing into it had turned into a stream. He called the situation “alarming” and warned that the Tayhan reservoir may empty this autumn.

In spring, the three reservoirs supplying the capital Simferopol held enough water for only three and a half months, with Crimean head Sergei Aksyonov not ruling out the possibility of supply being rationed.

‘Driven by revenge’

The Russian authorities acknowledge the problem and have engaged in diplomatic efforts to settle it. In June, State Duma MP Natalya Poklonskaya, a former top Crimean prosecutor, sent a letter to Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, urging her to take “all the measures necessary to ensure in all ways possible a resumption of the functioning of the North Crimean Canal”. In her opinion, Ukraine, having blocked water supply, violates human rights and “is driven by revenge”. Her statement echoes that by Russia’s UN envoy Pyotr Ilyichev who earlier accused Kyiv of “undermining human rights and international law” – to which the then Ukrainian ambassador reiterated that the peninsula’s “de-occupation” was a precondition for a resumption of water supply. And senior Crimean lawmaker Yuriy Gempel insists that Ukraine should be taken to international courts over the issue.

Imminent attack?

But as the crisis is deteriorating, fears have been raised that Russia may use the army to resolve it. Serhiy Kunitsyn, a former Crimean prime minister and Sevastopol governor, said in June that the situation with water was “critical” and that Moscow could, therefore, resort to a “military escalation” to seize the Kakhovka reservoir in Kherson Region. Gen Ben Hodges, a former commander of US Army forces in Europe, shared the concern in an interview that has been widely quoted in Ukraine. He suggested that the Kremlin could use troops involved in the Kavkaz-2020 exercise, due this September, to capture a dam in the city of Kherson. “I hope I am wrong but I have a vision that… during the exercise in the Caucasus they will declare a humanitarian crisis in Crimea because of water and then will say they have no choice,” he warned.

But Ukraine’s foreign intelligence chief Valeriy Kondratyuk argues that although a Russian attack to take control of the North Crimean Canal is probable, it is unlikely to occur in September for a number of reasons, including falling oil and gas prices, the upcoming US election and Ukraine’s October local polls at which pro-Russian parties are expected to make gains. Meanwhile, Ukraine has stepped up security at critical infrastructure facilities in Kherson and Mykolayiv regions to guard against a potential Russian assault.

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