In Russian-occupied Crimea, people are praying with Christian Orthodox priests for rain and snow because the last six months passed by with virtually no precipitation. Because of the dry winter, local reservoirs are now almost empty. Journalists forecast apocalyptic drought scenarios for the peninsula. And in the administrative capital of Simferopol, the authorities have gradually introduced rationing measures to conserve the limited water supply.
Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin initiated unprecedented infrastructure projects that have had important geopolitical consequences for the region. Inter alia, Russia is presently completing three enormous projects: the Tavrida highway, Kerch Strait Bridge and thermal power stations on the peninsula. As a result, Moscow has managed to develop Crimea’s energy self-sufficiency, a sophisticated system of communications and logistics (natural gas, electricity, railways, airports), and it restored the status of Crimea as a Russian military bastion in the Black Sea. Total Russian investments in Crimea from 2014 to 2022 approximate $15 billion (Vzglyad, January 17). However, chronic water shortages remain the biggest still-unresolved problem that Russia inherited following the annexation.
In 2013, the total water consumed by Crimea amounted to 1,553.78 million cubic meters. Of this, water procured from the Dnieper River in Ukraine proper, via the North Crimean Canal, made up 86.65 percent of the total water intake; local stocks equaled 8.7 percent; groundwater—4.41 percent; and seawater—0.16 percent (Meco.rk.gov.ru, December 2013). But following the peninsula’s forcible annexation by Russia, Kyiv cut off water supplies from the Dnieper. The resulting water shortages have most severely affected eastern Crimea, notably such major cities as Feodosia, Kerch, Sudak, the Leninsky district, as well as, partially, Simferopol and Sevastopol (Vestnik.vsu.ru, August 2015). This negatively affected Crimean agriculture: rice cultivation has had to be abandoned and other crops, primarily corn and soybeans, had to be reduced. Some of the most affected have been Crimean Tartars farmers, who are concentrated in the Crimean steppe zone.
The severe impact of these water shortages on local agriculture becomes clear when comparing the amount of irrigated land on the peninsula over time. During the Soviet period, it reached 402,000 hectares; before the annexation, in 2013, the area still covered 140,000 hectares. But by 2014, it was only 17,000 hectares, which bottomed out at 10,000 in 2015. Those amounts have rebounded slightly since then: 14,000 hectares in 2017, and 17,000 in 2018 (Rk.gov.ru, December 26, 2017). Russia plans to reach 20,000 hectares of irrigated land by the end of 2020 (Expocrimea.com, accessed February 26, 2020). Still, according to the Crimean Ministry of Agriculture, the Crimean economy loses 14 billion rubles ($210 million) per year due to the lack of water (Vzglayd, August 14, 2019). And Russia is spending around 200 million rubles ($3 million) to restore irrigation to the peninsula (TASS, December 16, 2019). Namely, Russia is establishing a sophisticated system of new artesian wells, but this will not solve the matter completely. Heavy use of underground water sources can lead to soil salinization. As another solution, Crimean farmers are switching to new grain varieties better able to survive drier conditions.
Although trying to revive the agricultural sector is important to Moscow, its main concern is stabilizing the water supply for civil consumption and preventing shortages during the upcoming tourist season, which will start at the end of May. Crimean authorities contend that the region will have enough reserves in the natural reservoirs to last until June. Yet, these reservoirs are currently only 37 percent full (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 28, 2020). The urgency of the situation is compounded by the recent launch of a full-fledged railway connection with mainland Russia: there are huge hopes that Crimea will see a record number of tourists this year.
Moreover, the lack of water has already caused an ecological disaster in Armyansk related to the largest manufacturer of titanium dioxide pigment in Eastern Europe, the Crimean Titan plant. In September 2018, because of a lack of water flowing to the facility, hazardous chemical waste produced by the plant began to evaporate into the atmosphere. The occupying authorities were forced to evacuate about 4,000 children and youth from northern Crimea (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 4, 2018).
Russia hopes to secure full water self-sufficiency for Crimea by 2025 (Izvestia, October 5, 2019). According to the official document “Crimean Strategy 2030,” the local population will grow to 2.34 million in 2030; it is currently 1.9 million (without counting the federal city of Sevastopol) (Crimea.gov.ru, April 24, 2018).
The water crisis in Crimea has attracted both Ukrainian and Russian attention. For example, during a meeting on the socio-economic development of Crimea and Sevastopol last January, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized local officials for their inadequate attention to solving the water supply issue (RBC, January 10). More recently, Crimean authorities reportedly sought to buy Ukrainian water, but Kyiv refused. However, some Ukrainian politicians from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party have expressed willingness to sell to Crimea. Notably, the head of the budget committee of the Ukrainian parliament, Yuriy Aristov, stressed that Kyiv can sell Dnieper water to the occupying regime just as Israel sells its water to neighboring belligerent countries (Krymr.com, January 31). Another representative of Zelenskyy’s party, the head of the parliamentarian majority, Davyd Arakhamia, proposed resuming the water supply to Crimea in exchange for certain concessions from Russia regarding occupied Donbas (Kommersant, February 13). Additionally, some Crimean Tatars in Ukraine propose providing water to Crimean Tatar political prisoners incarcerated on the peninsula (QHA.com.ua, February 10). For the Crimean Tartar Mejlis (the nationality’s executive body), however, the only real solution to the Crimean water crisis can come following de-occupation (Krymr.com, February 3).
Over the long term, Russia has a mega-project planned to deliver water from the Kuban River, across the Kerch Strait to Crimea (C-O-K.ru, November 2018). The peninsula may ultimately be able to survive without water from Ukraine, but it will be impossible to restore its agrarian sector to pre-2014 levels, and the local tourism industry will continue to face huge challenges in the meantime. Additionally, the water issue may take on a military aspect if Russia is not able to find a solution inside the Crimean peninsula. It is worth noting that the Ukrainian Security Service (SSU) recently found a cache of weapons and explosiveness near the North Crimean Canal, which used to supply most of the water for Crimea’s use (0552.ua, February 18). Thus, the water problem can be expected to continue to raise security concerns and instability for the foreseeable future.