The critical, chronic and worsening water shortages gripping the Crimean Peninsula derive from a combination of long-term and complex (both anthropogenic and natural) factors that can be traced back to at least the 16th and 17th centuries. Despite the changing technological capabilities and shifting political ideologies of the successive regimes that have wielded control over the area, local water-related problems have persisted. For now, there is little indication to suggest that Russia (which occupies Crimea since early 2014) has found a long-term and economically acceptable solution to this exacerbating crisis.
While access to fresh water may not be quite as limited in Donbas—partially and temporarily occupied by Russia-backed forces—this region also faces some dire challenges. Specifically, the local ecological conditions, which directly affect the health of regional water resources, have been deteriorating over the past eight years. In many ways this has been the result of mismanagement and the ongoing fighting that persists dangerously close to heavy industrial plants and water system infrastructure. If this situation continues (even absent any intensification in current, mostly low-level military engagements), a massive ecological catastrophe may prove inevitable.
While Russia could attempt to solve the water problem in Crimea by force, for now such a scenario does not appear realistic. Most likely, Moscow will preserve its current course, combining several approaches to dealing with the local water shortages. That status quo, however, will almost ensure that Crimea’s civilian population and, above all, the agriculture sector will continue to suffer.
After Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and then sparked a military conflict in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, the environmental conditions and access to clean drinking water for local populations in both territories rapidly deteriorated. These concurrent (though varying in their intensity) crises stem from a combination of factors, including long-term infrastructural problems, administrative mismanagement, corruption, ecological negligence, militarization, as well as ongoing fighting between the Russia-backed “separatists” and the Ukrainian army. Despite the fact that these mounting challenges have grown worse directly as a result of Russian-sponsored actions, the Russian side that blames Ukraine for these developments. In fact, Russia says it plans to conduct a comprehensive environmental impact assessment to determine the amount of damage ostensibly done by Ukraine. Indeed, the occupying Russian authorities in Crimea have already put forward some preliminary estimates claiming the “damage” to be $19.4 billion—more such spurious claims are surely coming.
Furthermore, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) seeks to initiate criminal proceedings against 12 Ukrainian citizens, including former presidents Leonid Kravchuk and Petro Poroshenko, for (among other charges) so-called “ecocide,” thus shifting the blame for the water (and environmental) crisis in the Ukrainian southeast to Ukraine’s political elite. Nevertheless, major international organizations wholly reject those accusations: for instance, the United Nations’ monitoring mission in Ukraine insists that, according to international law, Russia as the de facto occupier bears full responsibility for providing the Crimean population with water.
Drawing on a broad array of Russian- and Ukrainian-language sources, the following study examines the current catastrophic water situations in Donbas and illegally annexed Crimea, paying special attention to the roots (including historical) of the present-day conditions.
Historical Background: The Water Issue in Crimea
Due to its arid climate, the Crimean Peninsula is predisposed to water-related difficulties. That is why a scarcity of water resources has been an essential factor influencing Crimea’s geo-economic and military-political situations for much of its history. In 1687, for example, lack of water proved a major hindrance to the advance of the Russian army (led by Vasily Golitsyn), which was then attempting to impose its control over Crimea and gain a foothold along the Black Sea coast. Local leaders, including Crimean Khan Selim Giray, understood that an open battle with large numbers of Russian troops would be unwise, and so they resorted instead to “scorched earth” tactics. This turned out to be a winning strategy: Despite sufficient food supplies, Tsarist Russia’s advance was halted primarily due to the lack of water, forcing its army to turn back, temporarily postponing the strategic peninsula’s occupation.
Water Issues Before 1917
Russia’s apprehension over access to water in Crimea and its first attempts to solve the issue date back to the 18th century (the first annexation), when cartographers drew up initial maps of the Crimean Black Sea steppes, paying specific attention to the particularities of the local hydrographic network. Up until 1917, the Russian Empire engaged its best experts to try to solve the water issue, yet little practical success was achieved. One particularly notable visionary from this period was Russian botanist of Swedish descent Christian von Steven, who, for the first time in recorded history, in 1846, proposed building a canal connecting the Dnieper River and the Crimean Peninsula. Yet, the estimated costs for such a project discouraged the Russian authorities. Moreover, the issue of irrigation of the Crimean steppe was repeatedly raised in the State Duma. But again, because of excessive costs, the decision was postponed until 1916. By then, however, World War I, coupled with the ensuing February Revolution (1917), thwarted these plans, and the project was never implemented.
Despite understanding the problem, the Imperial Russian authorities were constrained by a lack of technology and thus could not resolve the water shortage issues. As a result devastating droughts repeatedly harmed local agriculture and inhabitants.
Water Issues During the Soviet Era
After the introduction of Communism, first Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin initiated a special program aimed at irrigating the dry lands in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). In 1924, the construction began on the Alminsky Reservoir, with a capacity of more than 6 million cubic meters of water. It was completed in 1936. Following the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945), the issue of supplying more water to Crimea resurfaced, with the Soviet authorities proposing three different options:
- Construction of a water pipeline from the Kuban region;
- Desalination of the Sea of Azov; or
- Building of a canal from the Dnieper River (assumed to be the most rational choice).
As a result, on September 21, 1950, the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union adopted a resolution “On the Construction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station, South Ukrainian and North Crimean Canals to Irrigate Areas of Southern Ukraine and Northern Crimea.” Yet the issue did not move forward until 1961, when the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine and the Council of Ministers of the Ukrainian SSR declared the start of “the Great Construction Projects of Communism.” Thanks to these efforts, water began flowing through the newly built North Crimean Canal (NCC) and reached Krasnoperekopsk (northern Crimea) on October 17, 1963. Two years later, channeled water reached Dzhankoy; and in 1971, it flowed all the way to the Kerch Peninsula—Crimea’s easternmost point.
Despite these infrastructure mega-projects, the chronic water deficits were never entirely eliminated, with severe droughts recurring throughout the 1970s and 1980s—especially between 1982 and 1984—devastating local agriculture. In 1990, the authorities commissioned the second stage of the NCC and built the Mezhgornoye Reservoir, to this day the largest artificial water reservoir in Crimea. Even this failed to solve local water shortages, however, while creating additional challenges. Specifically, due to mistakes in engineering, the loss of water during transportation via canal reached a staggering 40 percent, which was accompanied by a rise in the groundwater levels, causing the salinization of soils. In general, the Soviet authorities frequently disregarded scientific principles and conducted extremely low-quality construction works, which took a serious toll on local water security.
Water Issue After Ukraine’s Independence
After 1991, practically no major undertakings were carried out until the late 1990s, with the third stage of the NCC’s construction accomplished in 1997. By then, the total length of the canals and irrigation pipelines in Crimea reached 11,000 kilometers. Further works (stage four) were frozen due to a lack of funding, while follow-on stages five and six, which would have been crucial for resolving chronic water supply problems, were never built.
In spite of these shortcomings, the construction of the NCC—though incomplete—made it possible to address the water supply shortages in at least parts of Crimea. Up to 80 percent of the water sent to the peninsula from mainland Ukraine was utilized for agriculture and fish farming. Importantly, the NCC was seasonal, not year-round. The flow of water usually occurred between the end of March and November. Thus, until 2014, the North Crimean Canal provided the peninsula with 80 to 87 percent of its overall water intake.
Crimea’s Annexation, Continuing Water Issues, and Russia’s Myth-Building
Water Crises in Crimea (2014–21): Outlook
Following the unlawful annexation of Crimea, Ukraine blocked the water supply through the NCC. In May 2014, at the canal’s 91st kilometer, on the territory of Kherson region, near the Kherson–Armyansk section of European route E97, local farmers hastily built a temporary dam to disrupt the flow of water from the Dnieper to the peninsula. Between 2015 and 2017, the authorities constructed a permanent dam at the NCC’s 107th kilometer, which now restricts the flow of water into occupied Crimea. Since 2014, Crimea’s entire water supply has solely depended on internal reserves, but these are proving to be insufficient, causing Crimea to face one of the most acute water shortages in 50 years. Importantly, since most of the water from the NCC was used for agriculture-related needs, this sector suffered the most. To somehow alleviate these shortages, farmers started switching to drought-resistant crops (the cultivation of rice discontinued), while also relying on so-called “drip irrigation” systems. Simultaneously, water scarcity caused a dramatic decrease in water diverted for irrigation: from 700 million cubic meters in 2013 to 17.7 million cubic meters two years later. Another side effect was the rapid dwindling of irrigated land, which reduced from 140,000 hectares to a mere 13,400.
The water situation became so dire that, in 2016, Andrey Nikitchenko (the head of the directorate managing the federal development program for the peninsula) announced that the issue had been taken up at the federal level. These measures included the construction of a complex system of water supply networks—a project expected to cost more than 20 billion rubles (approximately $276 million). At the same time, the authorities announced that work was already in full swing, but no improvements ensued. The problem rapidly extended beyond the original irrigation needs, affecting the supply of clean drinking water as well. In the summer of 2017, the Crimea-based session of the Russian Security Council raised the issue. According to Nikolai Patrushev, in 2016 (compared to 2014), water intake on the peninsula had decreased by five times, and the area of irrigated land dwindled by 92 percent.
Nevertheless, local officials continued to deny the true gravity of the dilemma. But after 2020, when the situation became critical—owing to a combination of factors such as an abnormally dry autumn and lack of precipitation during several consecutive winters—hiding the reality became next to impossible, and Crimean authorities had to publicly acknowledge that the scarcity of water in Crimea is the key problem the peninsula faces. Even Sergey Aksyonov (the region’s installed pro-Russian head) did not rule out that Moscow might classify this as an emergency. Since the end of August 2020, in the Crimean regional capital of Simferopol, Bakhchisarai District, Belogorsk Region and the southern coastal city of Alushta, the authorities introduced water rationing. Other areas—including the cities of Yevpatoria and Yalta—switched to water-saving regimes. A strategically important source of water for Simferopol—“the Simferopol Sea,” once one of the largest artificial water reservoirs in Crimea—has now turned into a dried pond. The rest of Simferopol’s main reservoirs were filled to a mere 14 percent of their designed volumes. Experts believe that in the next 30 years, not a single freshwater lake will remain in Crimea.
Typically, Crimean reservoirs fill up with water toward the end of the winter; but 2020 was atypical. The Crimean Ministry of Housing and Communal Services reported that in February 2021, the reserves of the Simferopol and Zagorsk water reservoirs were completely exhausted and the Balanovskoye reservoir was approaching a so-called “dead volume.” The natural rejuvenation of local water reserves—via the melting snow and rainfall—did not occur either. Despite this, the Crimean authorities stated the peninsula was ready to welcome about eight million tourists during the summer of 2021, predicting moreover that, by 2025–2026, this number could swell to ten million.
Frustratingly for locals, the much-needed precipitation that fell on Crimea last summer brought little alleviation. The abnormal rain showers in June 2021 helped mitigate some immediate, localized problems, filling reservoirs along the southern coast enough to last through the end of 2021; while Yalta and Sevastopol received a typical year’s worth of water. But the flooding also damaged infrastructure and profoundly aggravated the quality of the water reaching consumers (the true extent of which is yet to be identified).
Explaining the Reasons for the Water Crisis Post-2014
Crimea’s difficulties with supplying sufficient and clean water stem from a combination of several factors. These can be broken into four areas.
First, poor infrastructure is a long-term issue that could not have been solved (realistically speaking) in the post-2014 period. While some improvements have been completed, those did not collectively bring any noticeable qualitative change. By and large, the vast bulk of local infrastructure and equipment dates back to the 1970s and needs urgent renovation, which, in turn, would require massive investments.
The second issue is corruption and mismanagement. Following the annexation of Crimea and shutdown of the NCC, the local occupying authorities disregarded the possibility of critical water shortages. Moreover, no strategic reserves were accumulated. Additionally, in some cities, water losses—due to mismanagement and dated transportation networks—exceeded 50 percent. According to the head of the Department of Geoecology at the Crimean University, Tatiana Bobra, even a partial, mid-term solution would require an overhaul of the peninsula’s entire water-supply system. On top of that, it appears that practically all funds allocated from the Russian budget to address the issue have been distributed among local influence groups. In 2020, Vladimir Garnachuk, a former advisor to Aksyonov, stated that 87.5 billion rubles (approximately $1.2 billion) were allocated between 2014 and 2020 to solve the water supply problems in Crimea. But due to corrupt practices, only a third of the money was used, and just 2 out of 37 planned projects were fully completed.
Third is the demographic transformation on the peninsula. Since the annexation, Crimea has hosted large numbers of newcomers from Russia, both civilian and military. Russian military service members, law enforcement officers, regulatory agency officials and inspectors, along with their families, make up a large portion of this new migration wave. Incidentally, resettlement practice in Crimea is hardly a novelty; it was used in the 1940s after the mass deportation of the local Crimean Tatars. During Soviet times, this measure was unquestionably coercive; but today, resettlement to the peninsula is seen as more of a privilege. For instance, as a reward, some military retirees are eligible for a special relocation program. Retirees from Moscow, the High North, Siberia and other wealthy Russian regions, who have bought real estate in Crimean recreation zones, are attracted by special mortgage programs. Also, representatives of the Russian bureaucratic apparatus, their family members, as well as migrants from the Russia-backed Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” (LPR/DPR), have contributed to migration flows into Crimea.
The fourth factor–inseparable from the issue above—is the continued militarization of the peninsula and expansion of Russian military facilities there. Prior to 2014, the approximate number of Russian service members in Crimea (limited to the area surrounding the Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol) was between 10,000 and 12,000. Today, the current number, while classified, could be close to 42,000 (excluding family members). Moreover, this quantity increases during various trainings and exercises. Undoubtedly, these transformations have resulted in a massive increase in water consumption, causing the further depletion of local reserves.
While the exact figure of those who moved to Crimea following the annexation is difficult to determine, Russian official statistics say that from January 2020 to January 2021, the peninsula’s population increased by 498,948. According to the latest Russian population census (2021), in total, at least 568,105 people have moved to Crimea since its forced takeover by Russia. It is worth pointing out that some Russians are settling in Crimea without changing their registration (propiska) in Russian passports (because of a fear of being sanctioned or denied a visa to a foreign country), and thus they are not included in official statistics. Ukrainian experts argue the real number of migrants to Crimea after 2014 could be between 800,000 and 1 million.
Russia’s Attempt to Address the Water Issue: Main Approaches
When Ukraine discontinued the southward flow of water from the NCC in early 2014, the Crimean population was confident in Russia’s ability to expeditiously find a workable solution. Initially, both the federal center and the pro-Russian Crimean authorities hoped to reach some kind of agreement with the Ukrainian government. But when no deal could be struck, Moscow began—albeit reluctantly—to search for other options (though occasionally still extending overtures to Kyiv).
Broadly speaking, since the annexation, Russia’s main strategies and proposed projects have involved the following:
This project envisages the transportation of water to Crimea directly from Russia by diverting some of the flow of the Kuban River. The proposal calls for either creating a water intake system at the mouth of the Kuban or to building a 300-kilometer pipeline along the bottom of the Sea of Azov. However, due to the high cost (tentatively, hundreds of millions of dollars), long distance (550 kilometers) and lack of domestic technical capabilities, the project was deemed unrealistic, and the idea was dropped.
The first desalination plant was commissioned in Sudak, on the Black Sea coast, in December 2014. Interestingly, despite sanctions, Russia received numerous proposals from foreign companies (Dutch, Swiss and German) to supply necessary equipment. The Crimean regional head, Sergey Askyonov, also drew up plans for this technology to be used in Yalta, Kerch and Feodosia. The construction of desalination plants was included in the Russian government plan for the water supply of Crimea, with 8 billion rubles ($111 million) allocated for these needs in the 2021–2022 budget. At the end of November 2020, Aksyonov said the companies that would be engaged in construction had been selected, but because of the sanctions, their names could not be announced. Ultimately, the extremely high costs (both for the equipment and the large amounts of energy needed to run these facilities) precluded any of the planned desalination plants from being constructed—something President Vladimir Putin admitted himself.
Use of Military Engineers
This has comprised battalions of a military logistical support brigade, which has been involved in laying temporary aboveground water pipelines in various parts of the peninsula since May 2014. Also, special hydraulic structures were built, making it possible to fill the portion of the NCC on Crimean territory with water from the Belogorsk and Taigan Reservoirs, along the bed of the Biyuk-Karasu River. Even though, by the summer of 2014, the drinking water emergency was temporarily resolved, it still proved impossible to ensure the required amount of water for irrigation needs. As a result, Crimea lost almost its entire harvest of rice and soybeans that year.
In 2020, due to an unprecedented drought in Simferopol, the Crimean authorities once again asked for help from the Russian military. In July 2020, over 300 soldiers and 140 units of equipment from the Southern and Western military districts started to lay more than 50 kilometers of temporary pipeline to supply water from the Taihinske Reservoir to the Simferopol Reservoir. But already in December 2020, the connection between those reservoirs was halted because the useful volume of water in the Taihinske Reservoir had become fully depleted; and in June 2021, the Russian Armed Forces started to disassemble this water pipeline. Also, specialists of the Main Construction Department No. 4 of the Russian Ministry of Defense built a water intake on the Belbek River and an aboveground pipeline from the Kadykovsky quarry to a water intake on the Chorna River. Those quickly and haphazardly laid pipes rupture all the time, however; and useful volumes of pumped water continue to be wasted.
One reason for these failures is that the pipelines used by the Armed Forces are not actually suitable for carrying water. Rather, the pipes implemented are utilized for military purposes such as supplying fuels and lubricants. Also, the quality of the work performed by the military engineers, along with the quality of the water that comes out of the tap, caused many complaints from local residents. And due to the pipe breaks, some nearby settlements began to experience sinkholes; while many local roads were ruined by heavy military equipment. Despite the fact that, in May 2021, Defense Minister Shoigu stated the temporary water pipelines built by the Russian military helped to “lift the water blockade,” this approach actually turned out to be extremely ineffective and resource-consuming.
Drilling for Fresh Water Under the Sea of Azov
This idea goes back to Soviet times, when scientists assumed that reserves beneath the Azov seabed could hold as much as 100 billion cubic meters of fresh water, which would be enough to satisfy local needs for several hundred years. On May 21, 2021, Russian scientists started geological exploration and drilling of wells under the Sea of Azov. According to the Russian State Geological Holding JSC “Rosgeologia,” a huge amount of fresh water is hidden under the sea, and it will be possible to produce 0.5–1.2 billion cubic meters of water annually. But some experts believe the water under the Sea of Azov would require additional purification even for technical consumption. This view is shared by Aksyonov. He stated that the water found under the Sea of Azov turned out to be unsuitable for transporting through Crimea’s water supply networks due to its high mineralization. Moreover, Crimean cleaning stations cannot cope with the capacity required for the peninsula’s needs; therefore, this project, in Aksyonov’s words, “Will have to be forgotten.”
Artificial Rain Production
In the fall of 2020, a Yak-42D aircraft belonging to the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring (Roshydromet) was transferred to Simferopol for the purpose of trying to seed clouds to generate artificial rain. But the test failed due to unfavorable weather conditions. Moreover, according to some experts, this plan cannot be a long-term solution: Sowing the silver iodide used in such operations does not work well in coastal regions such as Crimea, where the agricultural land is separated from the sea by mountains. Environmentalists expressed concerns as well. However, after China’s announcement that it would regularly employ this method by 2025—producing artificial rain over 56 percent of China’s territory—hopes to use it in Crimea were revitalized.
Water Rationing for the Civilian Population
In 2020, the pro-Russian Crimean authorities decided to resort to an old Soviet practice: reducing water consumption by limiting or restricting the population’s access to water. The first stage of water rationing was introduced on August 24, 2020, in many parts of the peninsula, including Simferopol, Alushta, Yevpatoria and Yalta. Moreover, an hourly water supply schedule was posted, and hot water supply was suspended completely. In some settlements in the Bakhchisaray region, water only flowed for 15 minutes at a time, twice a day. For technical reasons associated with the constant turning on and off of water, these measures led to numerous main water pipeline breakdowns, causing additional water leakage and financial costs. The Crimean republican government allocated 27 million rubles (approximately $374,000) to purchase special water containers, which were installed near residential buildings, children’s educational institutions and hospitals. In 2021, water rationing for civilians remained unchanged, but military bases are now fully supplied.
Crimea produces almost 150 million cubic meters of wastewater per year; and according to some specialists, improved sewage treatment could help to address water problems in at least certain industries, including agriculture. However, this, again, would require massive investments amidst an unfavorable financial environment caused by international sanctions. Still, the sewer infrastructure in Crimea requires a major overhaul: clogged storm sewers caused massive flooding and an emergency situation in Yalta, Kerch and other settlements following the particularly heavy rainstorms that occurred in June 2021. The republican statistical agency Krymstat notes that 56.5 percent of water supply networks need to be replaced in Crimea. In 2019, less than 1 percent were refurbished.
The above-mentioned list of projects and approaches notwithstanding, it appears that Russia will primarily rely on two strategies to address Crimea’s water shortages. The first is drilling new artesian wells (currently, there are 3,200 on the peninsula, including illegal ones). The second is water rationing and reliance on precipitation and rainwater collection. Despite economic sanctions, Western companies have facilitated Russia’s policies in this space: for instance, German Siemens and Danish Grundfos have assisted local authorities in pumping water from artesian wells. And in March 2021, the Beshterek-Zuya water supply system—equipped with pumps manufactured by Western companies—was launched. This dramatically improved the water supply in Simferopol, whose residents started to receive running water for 18 hours a day. Since April 2021, Simferopol and its suburbs have been almost fully transferred to water supply from artesian wells, which have even been drilled in city parks.
Assessing Ecological Repercussions
Crimea’s ecological situation more generally has also worsened significantly since 2014. Extensive drilling of new wells has led to ground subsidence, affecting not only the quantity but also the quality of the water produced. Moreover, seawater started to seep in and replace the fresh groundwater pumped out via artesian wells, resulting in changes to the water’s chemical composition. High levels of mineralization of well water have gradually made it undrinkable and unusable even for irrigation, also contributing to soil salinization. Additionally, outdated water purification methods and equipment do not ensure the required quality of drinking water. Grievances about the poor water quality have gradually increased, reaching unprecedentedly high levels. Residents of Crimea have complained about rusty and salty water coming out of their taps; in some cities, drinking water even contains seaweed. According to a report from the Department of Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing (Rospotrebnadzor) in Crimea, 19 percent of drinking water on the peninsula does not meet Russian standards. In some regions, the share of good-quality drinking water is only 55 percent. Also, in some districts, the water’s salinity exceeds acceptable levels by five to six times.
Apart from this, in 2015–2020, the pollution of coastal seawaters from local sources increased, with the main perpetrators being urban wastewater facilities. The most dangerous situation occurred in Sevastopol. This city, the site of the main—and expanding—Russian military base in the Black Sea region, received a constant influx of new inhabitants since the annexation. In 2015–2016, the main Sevastopol sewage treatment facility—Yuzhnye—ceased to function, and city waste is now being dumped directly into the Black Sea. The Sevastopol Naval Base and other military facilities associated with the Russian Black Sea Fleet are major sources of pollution in their own right. Oil dumps along with uncontrolled discharges of rocket fuel components, ballast and bilge water have caused a rapid deterioration in coastal seawater quality. Finally, the offshore platforms of Chernomorneftegaz, which produces natural gas and gas condensate in the northern part of the Black Sea, have become a steady source of water pollution. Currents spread these polluted waters throughout the whole Black Sea basin.
Because large chemical plants (Crimean Titan, Crimean Soda Plant, and Brom) need huge amounts of water for their production cycles, the water shortages they contribute to have also created severe environmental problems in the northern areas of the annexed peninsula. For example, in Krasnoperekopsk, the city’s chemical plants turned once-living salt lakes into waste storage facilities. As a result, the concentration of harmful chemical substances in the air regularly exceeds the maximum allowable levels. Moreover, chemical plants have started to drill dozens of wells, inadvertently launching the process of soil salinization in the region. Seventy-five percent of the soil in these areas has become unsuitable for agriculture; and drinking water for the population acquired a salty taste. Also, in August and September 2018, in the northern Crimean city of Armyansk, sulfurous anhydride from the Crimean Titanium plant, the largest chemical substances producer in Europe’s East, leaked into the atmosphere. The plant’s production technology requires that waste containing sulfur compounds be stored in water. But due to a lack of proper waste management, this waste was deposited in a local lake. When water shortages occurred and the lake started to dry up, harmful chemicals began to evaporate into the atmosphere. As a result, over 5,000 people, half of them children, were evacuated from Armyansk.
War for Water: Will Russia Invade Ukraine to Solve Crimea’s Water Problems?
Since the unlawful annexation of Crimea in 2014, many Russian and Ukrainian experts have started to discuss the possibility of a Russian military invasion from the peninsula into continental Ukraine. In recent years, chronic water shortages, the failure of Crimean and Russian authorities to resolve the growing water scarcity, increasing militarization of the peninsula, and growing numbers of military exercises there have convinced both Western and Ukrainian experts and military specialists that the threat of war over water in Crimea is real.
On June 5, 2020, Serhiy Nayev, the commander of Operational Command East of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, informed that the Ukrainian military and law enforcement agencies had reinforced the security and defense capabilities of water supply infrastructure objects (such as the NCC, once Crimea’s lifeline) and other objects of critical infrastructure in the Kherson and Mykolaiv oblasts. Also, in July 2020, the commander of the Ukrainian Navy, Rear Admiral Oleksiy Neizhpapa, confirmed that the Ukrainian Armed Forces did not exclude that Russian troops might try to break through from Crimea to southern Kherson in order to access the NCC. He also mentioned that when Russia starts to restore the part of the NCC that runs through Crimea, it will be a signal of a possible Russian invasion to seize the rest of the canal.
Russia itself has fueled such assumptions. For example, in September 2020, during the Slavic Brotherhood 2020 military exercise, tactical groups of Russian (Pskov-based) and Belarusian paratroopers with air support carried out a simulated operation that aimed to free hydraulic systems captured by the enemy. This stage of the exercises did not go unnoticed by Ukrainian military experts. Russia also intensified its “hybrid” threats—pro-Russian disinformation and cyber operations as well as the use of Cossacks, other paramilitary formations and the Orthodox Church—in the strategically vital Kherson, Odesa and Zaporizhia oblasts. Agitation and pro-Russian moods would presumably make military intervention there much easier by helping Russia gain total control over these territories, secure access to the NCC and the Kakhovka Reservoir, thus enabling Moscow to redirect those water supplies to annexed Crimea. Moreover, such a military operation would physically connect Crimea (via the M14 highway, which is part of the Black Sea Economic Association transportation corridor) with the LPR/DPR, mainland Russia and Transnistria.
In the fall of 2020, both Russian officials and the occupying Crimean authorities belligerently started to accuse Ukraine of creating a humanitarian catastrophe and attempting a “genocide” of the Crimean civilian population. So when Russia deployed tens of thousands of troops and advanced weapons to Crimea and near the border with the separatist (LPR/DPR) regions during the spring of 2021, many experts (including Andriy Taran, then–minister of defense of Ukraine) suggested that the Russian Federation was considering an attack on Ukraine to secure water supplies to the occupied peninsula. In addition, news reports claimed that the Russian troops deployed near the Ukrainian borders had all the strategic means that would be required for an invasion: artillery, electronic warfare (EW) equipment, logistical support and field hospitals. Allegedly, Russia also deployed various elements of the air force necessary to create an aerial advantage over the battlefield and to support the ground forces.
Torrential rainfalls in Crimea in late spring–summer refilled some of the dry rivers, lakes and reservoirs on the peninsula, temporarily relieving the drought-related disasters across the territory. The question, however, is whether this has fully eliminated the threat of a potential Russian invasion from Crimea to take the NCC and the Kakhovka Reservoir. For now, such an option seems off the table for two reasons: First, the aforementioned precipitation will relieve the situation for at least one year; second, the hypothetical costs of invading Ukraine are likely to exceed the cost of a possible solution to the Crimean water crisis. Moscow has no real intention of fully invading Ukraine—at least not with the purpose of providing water to civilians in Crimea. (The Russian military is first in line when it comes to access to water, so its units are not hampered in this way.) Moreover, Western sanctions have hit the Russian economy quite painfully, and so the Kremlin is unlikely to willingly try to provoke the West into imposing even more stringent measures. Finally, with the renewed large project with Western Europe—the Nord Stream Two gas pipeline—Russia will likely try to present itself as a nonaggressive international player to ensure the pipeline is accepted by the German government.
Even though, as of mid-January 2022, Russia continues to concentrate numerous military forces near Ukrainian borders (in Crimea as well), they are there mainly to blackmail North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries and Ukraine as well as to mobilize domestic opinion behind the regime. Uncertainty certainly persists. But most likely, if Russia has real intentions to seize southeastern Ukraine, it will try to use a combination of “hybrid” and conventional forces—similar to how it acted in Donbas. Such threats require close monitoring so that the experience of Donbas does not spread to other Ukrainian territories.
Water Issues in Donbas: The War and Its Ecological Impact
Crimea’s ecology is not the only victim of Russia’s activities. In effect, acute water shortages and a potential ecological catastrophe are also looming in war-torn Donbas and even more widely throughout central and eastern Ukraine. Specifically, according to the United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF), more than 3.6 million people in eastern Ukraine—including 500,000 children—have unstable access to clean water and suffer poor sanitation. In part, this is due to periodic shelling of key infrastructure facilities in the area. For instance, in 2018 alone, 89 attacks on water infrastructure facilities were recorded, which resulted in several million people being left without access to clean water for a protracted period.
During Soviet times, the lack of local water resources in Donbas was solved via a trans-basin diversion of surface waters through the Siverskyi Donets–Donbas Canal (133.4 kilometers in length). The war has profoundly complicated the normal functioning of this canal, however: its related infrastructure—located on both sides of the contact line—has been damaged more than 300 times since 2014. Moreover, continuous fighting limits the possibility for essential repairs. More than 30 workers have been killed or injured on the spot.
Apart from this, the armed conflict has threatened the normal functioning of toxic and radioactive waste storage facilities, causing the ingress of toxic substances into the local groundwater. Now, environmentalists are warning that the contamination of the 1,000 km Don River—which further flows into the Sea of Azov—is highly hazardous, posing potential serious risks to riparian communities living up and down this major waterway. Also, Donbas and areas located in dangerous proximity to the fighting are home to several environmentally unfriendly plants and industrial facilities (established before 1991), which include coal mines, landfills, chemical and metallurgical facilities, and tailing dumps (designed for the storage and disposal of radioactive and toxic waste). If any of these objects are damaged—even unintentionally—the ecological impact would be catastrophic, and the harmful effects would extend far beyond Ukraine’s state borders.
It is worth recalling the case of the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant (Donetsk Oblast). Constant shelling since 2014 eventually led to an incident involving a hazardous ammonia leak and contamination of the surrounding area. In effect, in January 2021, inhabitants of Donetsk, Horlivka and other cities in the DPR shared information (through social networks) about the poor quality of their drinking water since the incident. This was corroborated by the company Water of Donbas, which admitted that the water in the Siverskyi Donets–Donbas Canal had a much higher than normal concentration of ammonium. Regular consumption of water with an excessive concentration of ammonium leads to a number of serious ailments, including disorders of the reproductive and nervous systems and diseases of the liver, kidneys, and lungs.
Another point of concern and a grave challenge to the local environment are flooded abandoned coal mines. According to the National Institute for Strategic Research, more than 80 percent of mines in the LPR/DPR have been flooded, presenting a huge ecological challenge to the downstream Sea of Azov. For example, anthropogenic radionuclides from the Yunkom mine—which was used for a nuclear test in 1979—have already begun to penetrate local groundwater. In 2020, water samples collected 5 km from the site demonstrated that radioactive water filled with heavy metals and other toxic substances had reached Debaltseve, Vuhlehirsk, Zhdanovka and Shakhtarsk. Also, the hostilities in the region have significantly worsened the situation in the Pervomaiskugol (Zolote) mines, where groundwater is rapidly accumulating. Normally, this water would have been pumped out, processed and discharged into the river. However, under current circumstances, such operations are not done, resulting in contaminated water mixing with surface waters to be subsequently carried to Mariupol.
Lastly, the overall low quality of drinking water in Donbas bears mentioning. According to the Ukrainian Ministry for Reintegration of the Temporary Occupied Territories, the LPR/DPR authorities habitually dump untreated mine wastewater into reservoirs, so that “the norms for the maximum permissible concentration of oil products in the water in the Volyntsevsky drinking reservoir [became] exceeded by six times, nitrates by 5.7 times, sulfates 3.5 times, and zinc by almost four times.” If these reckless actions and their consequences remain unaddressed, there is a viable risk of a large-scale ecological catastrophe affecting an area extending well beyond Donbas, with the potential of dealing damage to the entire Black–Baltic Sea region (Ponto-Baltic Isthmus).
Russia’s direct and unintended actions in southeastern Ukraine—both in Crimea and Donbas—have not only broken key principles of international law but have also had a deeply negative impact on the regional ecologies and water situations. Based on the information coming from open sources (Russian, Ukrainian and local outlets), the current poor state of the environment and water-related problems there are bound to further to worsen due to several interdependent factors.
First, continued mismanagement, endemic corruption, and the militarization of Crimea (which has now become Russia’s “bastion” and anti-access, area denial bubble on the Black Sea) is likely to result in further problems with water management, which will negatively affect the local populations and agriculture. While Russia will not cut water supplies to locally deployed military formations (and their families), it still has no long-term or economically sustainable solution to local water-related issues. This means that the local (civilian) population will bear the brunt of the difficulties stemming from Russia’s reckless behavior. This crisis is, however, (partly) manageable: On average, Crimean households require 200 million–250 million cubic meters of water per year, which the peninsula could generate on its own assuming weather-related drought conditions end; so the needs of the local population can be satisfied.
However, taking into account other needs—the key one being agriculture—the peninsula will require imports of water or else Crimean farming will suffer. Given most recent forecasts by local climate experts and scientists, including, among others, acting member of the Crimean Academy of Science Aleksander Khloptsev, during 2022 the peninsula is almost certain to start experiencing massive droughts anew, meaning that more water will be required. For now, however, it is unclear how Russia is planning to solve these issues.
Second, Donbas—to be more specific, the part that Moscow had de facto transformed into a “gray zone”—is rapidly turning into an ecological time bomb as well, threatening regional areas well beyond Ukraine’s borders. And while the local environmental situation is rapidly deteriorating, Russia and its “separatist” proxies are doing almost nothing to mitigate the looming ecological catastrophe. If this trend continues, contamination—including of the local groundwater aquafers—could spread beyond Donbas, affecting the Sea of Azov and ultimately the entire Black Sea basin.
If one day Ukraine manages to take back Crimea and eastern Donbas, solving the water issues and ecological problems in these territories will necessitate diverting massive financial resources. But no definitive estimates of those total costs can be made, in part because neither Ukrainian nor Western specialists can gain full access to these Russian-occupied areas. According to some Ukrainian experts, the restoration of the NCC alone will require at least $1 million. Others posit that if Ukraine manages to retake Crimea, new hydraulic structures will have to be built. The international community will need to address the issue seriously, since the impact will not be confined to these areas nor Ukraine alone.
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 Gosudarstvennyy doklad “O sostoyanii sanitarno-epidemiologicheskogo blagopoluchiya naseleniya v respublike Krym I gorode Federalnogo znacheniya Sevastopole v 2018 godu,” Rospotrebnadzor, 2018, http://82.rospotrebnadzor.ru/s/82/files/documents/Gosdoklad/147785.pdf.
 Boris Babin, “OON issleduyet morskiye ekologicheskiye problemy, svyazannye s Krymom,” [UN Explores Maritime Environmental Issues Related to Crimea], ARC, March 31, 2021, https://arc.construction/12981?lang=ru.
 “Krasnoperekops: ekologichna katastrofa vzhe zaplanovana,” [Krasnoperekopsk: An Ecological Catastrophe Is Already Planned], Krym.Realii, May 7, 2021, https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/krasnoperekopsk-ekolohichna-katastrofa-vzhe-zaplanovana/31243400.html.
 Sergey Gromenko, “Kto otvetit za ekologicheskuyu katastrofu v Armyanske?,” [Who Will Be Responsible for the Ecological Disaster in Armyansk?], Krym.Realii, September 18, 2018, https://ru.krymr.com/a/kompensatsii-za-ekologicheskuyu-katastrofu-v-armianske/29495750.html.
 “Rossiya mozhet ppoyti na zakhvat Severo-Krymskogo kanala iz-za zasukhi,” [Russia May Go to Seize the North Crimean Canal Due to Drought], Krym Realii, June 9, 2020, https://ru.krymr.com/a/news-krym-voina-za-severokrymsky-kanal-umland/30660465.html.
 Alla Hurska, “Pro-Russian Disinformation Operations in Kherson: A New-Old Challenge for Ukraine’s National Security,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 17, no. 93, June 29, 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/pro-russian-disinformation-operations-in-kherson-a-new-old-challenge-for-ukraines-national-security/.
 Alena Balaba, “Komanduyushchiy VMSU: amerikanskiye fregaty ne nuzhny, korvet budet dostroyen, a pervyy division ‘Neptun’ zhdem v 2021 godu,” [Commander of the Naval Forces of Ukraine: American Frigates Are Not Needed, the Corvette Will Be Completed, and the First Battalion of “Neptune” Is Expected in 2021], Dumskaya, July 5, 2020, https://dumskaya.net/news/komanduyushchiy-aleksey-neizhpapa-o-razvitii-vms-119359/.
 “Na Ukraine: Ucheniya VDV RF I RB na gidrotekhnicheskom uzle ‘mogut byt napravlenny protiv Severo-Krymskogo kanala,’” [In Ukraine: Exercises of the Airborne Forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus at the Hydraulic Unit “Can Be Directed Against the North Crimean Canal”], Voyennoye obozreniye, September 22, 2020 https://topwar.ru/175330-na-ukraine-uchenija-vdv-rf-i-rb-na-gidrotehnicheskom-uzle-mogut-byt-napravleny-protiv-severo-krymskogo-kanala.html.
 Hurska, “Pro-Russian Disinformation Operations in Kherson.”; and Alla Hurska, “Zaporizhia Oblast: The Next Flash Point in Russia’s ‘Hybrid’ Aggression Against Southeastern Ukraine?” Eurasia Daily Monitor 17, no. 110, July 28, 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/zaporizhia-oblast-the-next-flash-point-in-russias-hybrid-aggression-against-southeastern-ukraine/.
 “Rossiya mozhet napast na Ukrainu iz okkupirovannogo Kryma – Minoborony,” Glavcom, April 14, 2021, https://glavcom.ua/ru/news/rossiya-mozhet-napast-na-ukrainu-iz-okkupirovannogo-kryma-minoborony-749934.html.
 Yuriy Sheyko, “Gotovila la li Rossiya nastupleniye na Ukrainu: vyvody zapadnykh analitikov,” [Was Russia Preparing an Offensive Against Ukraine: Conclusions of Western Analysts], DW, April 22, 2021, https://www.dw.com/ru/gotovit-li-rossija-nastuplenie-na-ukrainu-na-chto-ukazyvajut-novye-dannye/a-57284735.
 Alla Hurska, “Donbas Without Water: The Ecology of the East Ukrainian Frontline,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 17, no. 149, October 22, 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/donbas-without-water-the-ecology-of-the-east-ukrainian-frontline/.
 Anastasiya Magazova, “Dostup k pityevoy vode – odna iz seryezneyshykh problem zhyteley Donbassa,” [Access to Drinking Water Is One of the Most Serious Problems of Donbass Residents], Radio Svoboda, March 27, 2019, https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/accesses-to-drinking-water-in-donbass/29839304.html.
 Hurska, “Donbas Without Water.”
 Magazova, “Dostup k pityevoy vode – odna iz seryezneyshykh problem zhyteley Donbassa.”
Hurska, “Donbas Without Water.”
 I. Nikolayeva, et al., “Doslidzhennya potochnogo stanu khvostoskhovyshch u Donetskiy ta Luhanskiy oblastyakh,” OBSE, 2020, https://media.voog.com/0000/0036/1658/files/Summary_OSCE_Donbas%20TSFs%202020_ukr_upd-1.pdf.
 Wim Zwijnenburg, “Donbass-khimicheskaya bomba zamedlennogo deystviya,” [Donbass – A Chemical Time Bomb], Bellingcat, April 16, 2017, https://ru.bellingcat.com/novosti/ukraine/2017/04/16/donbas-timebomb/.
 “Kompaniya ‘Voda Donbassa’ poyasnila izmeneniye tsveta I zapakha pityevoy vody v regione,” [“The company Water of Donbassa” Explained the Change in the Color and Smell of Drinking Water in the Region], DAN, January 12, 2021, https://dan-news.info/obschestvo/kompaniya-voda-donbassa-poyasnila-izmenenie-cveta-i-zapaxa-pitevoj-vody-v-donbasse.html.
 Tina Avdeyeva, “Donbass okazalsya nag rani ekologicheskoy katastrofy, pityevaya voda stanovitsya opasnoy: podrobnosti,” [Donbass Is on the Brink of Environmental Disaster, Drinking Water Becomes Dangerous: Details], Avdeevka.city, May 25, 2021, http://avdeevka.city/news/view/donbass-okazalsya-na-grani-e-kologicheskoj-katastrofy-pitevaya-voda-stanovitsya-opasnoj-podrobnosti.
 Margarita Dneprovskaya, “Pityevaya voda Donbassa pod ugrozoy radioaktivnogo zagryazneniya, mezhdunarodnye nablyudateli,” [Drinking Water of Donbass Under the Threat of Radioactive Contamination: International Observers], Vilne Radio, July 10, 2020, https://freeradio.com.ua/ru/pytevaia-voda-donbassa-pod-uhrozoi-radyoaktyvnoho-zahriaznenyia-mezhdunarodnye-nabliudately/.
 Aleksandra Yarlykova, “Shakhtnyye vody, radiatsiya, khimikaty. Chto proiskhodit s ekologiyey na Donbasse,” [Mine Water, Radiation, Chemicals. What Is Happening to the Environment in Donbass], Rubrika, October 28, 2019, https://rubryka.com/ru/article/donbas-ekologiya/.
 “Minintegratsii planuye zaprovaduty mekhanizm monitoringu ekologichnoyi sytuatsii na TOT za dopomogoyu suputnykov,” [The Ministry of Reintegration Plans to Introduce a Mechanism for Monitoring the Environmental Situation at TOT with the Help of Satellites], Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, March 10, 2021, https://minre.gov.ua/news/minreintegraciyi-planuye-zaprovadyty-mehanizm-monitoryngu-ekologichnoyi-sytuaciyi-na-tot-za.
 Sevryugin, “‘Dlya voyennykh baz vody hvatayet,’
 Aleksandr Yankovskiy and Inna Annitova, “Po chetnym – zasukha: zhdat li Krymu dozhdya v 20211 godu,” [On Even – Drought: Should Crimea Wait for Rain in 2022], Krym.Realii, June 11, 2021, https://ru.krymr.com/a/krym-sezonnye-perepady-opresneniye-vody-eksperty-zasukha/31302961.html.
 Ihor Tokar, “ ‘Krymskaya pustynya’: reki peresokhli, a kanal rushytsya,” [“Crimean Desert”: Rivers Dried up, and the Canal Collapsed], Krym.Realii, September 11, 2020, https://ru.krymr.com/a/krymskaya-pustynya-obostreniye-problemy-vodosnabzheniya/30821282.html.
 “Professor obyasnil, pochemu nelzya vosstanovit rabotu Severo-Krymskogo kanala,” Propozytsiya, October 9, 2020, https://propozitsiya.com/profesor-poyasniv-chomu-ne-mozhna-vidnoviti-robotu-pivnichno-krimskogo-kanalu.