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Pray For Rain: Crimea’s Dry-Up A Headache For Moscow, Dilemma For Kyiv

The waters of Crimea's Taigan reservoir, pictured in November 2019.

After Russia cut Crimea off from the rest of Ukraine by seizing control of the Black Sea peninsula in 2014, Kyiv cut off the water supply to Crimea with a grand-scale equivalent of a twist of the wrist: It shut down a 400-kilometer canal whose construction decades ago had been hailed as a Soviet feat of man mastering nature.

Promising to care for the 2 million-plus Crimean residents his country was now claiming as its own, at the cost of international condemnation and Western sanctions imposed in response to the land grab, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to fix the peninsula’s water problem -- a flaw in the crown jewel of his campaign to portray himself as a “gatherer of lands.”

But it’s not fixed, and Crimea -- six years after the Russian takeover -- faces severe water shortages.

The dry-up has triggered migration from arid areas, largely in the north and east, that experts direly warn face the threat of desertification. Agriculture on the peninsula is in retreat as water-intense crops like rice are abandoned. A mysterious chemical-plant accident in the northern part of the peninsula in 2018 was blamed on the water crisis.

As they scramble for alternative sources with few options at hand, Crimea and its Moscow overlords depend largely on two things they cannot control to meet the peninsula’s fresh water needs: rain and snow.

As is often the case, the struggle over fresh water for Crimea has a strong political current.

For Kyiv, holding water back has become one of the few levers it wields in its standoff with mightier Moscow, which as it snatched Crimea also began to foment unrest in eastern Ukraine, where more than 13,000 people have died in an ongoing conflict pitting Russia-backed separatists against Ukrainian forces.

The political resonance of the problem is not only bilateral: Like almost everything involving Russia, it is a highly sensitive issue in Kyiv. That was clear earlier this month when Denys Shmyhal, appointed prime minister just the day before by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, suggested that Kyiv could again supply Crimea with water.

"It is a matter of humanitarian responsibility before people who live in Crimea. Failure to supply water would lead to humanitarian catastrophe. We don’t want to be its authors," he said on the talk show Right To Power on March 5.

Shmyhal’s comments prompted an outcry -- and a clarification from the new prime minister, whose appointment was part of a reshuffle that some Ukrainians fear will result in a placating stance toward Moscow on a range of issues including the conflict in the eastern region known as the Donbas.

Talking Water

"The talk show program format is not the best for discussing difficult issues -- for example, the issue of water supply to Crimea,” Shmyhal said in a statement posted on the Ukrainian government website a day later. “Once again, I want to emphasize that the government has not forgotten citizens living in temporarily occupied Ukrainian Crimea.”

“We want them to feel that we care about them. In fact, for technical reasons, it is impossible to divide water that is being supplied to people and water that is supplied to military bases,” he said, underscoring the dilemma faced by a government that has been accused of helping Russia when it argues that it is trying to help Ukrainians. “This idea was lost in the noise of the studio.”

His comments came amid warnings that Crimea’s water crisis is getting worse.

A senior water-use official in the Russia-installed government on the peninsula said on February 5 that Simferopol, the regional capital and Crimea’s second largest city with a population of over 300,000, had only enough drinking water to last “90-100 days.”

The North Crimean Canal has been in decline for years.
The North Crimean Canal has been in decline for years.

“Due to the lack of rainfall, the three reservoirs that supply water to Simferopol have accumulated 25-28 million cubic meters of water less than last year,” Ihor Vayl was quoted as saying.

“The situation is not critical, but it is tense,” Vayl said, adding that city authorities must find a way to “ensure the rational use of the available resources.”

Olena Protsenko, the Russia-installed head of Simferopol, told media outlets on February 5 that water rationing would begin soon, although to date no such measures have been announced.

Protsenko said Crimea was suffering a severe water shortage, which she described as the “most critical problem now.”

Although Moscow can scapegoat Kyiv for the crisis, it needs to appear to be taking action as well. Vladimir Ustinov, presidential envoy to Russia’s Southern Federal District, chaired a March 4 government meeting “on improving the quality of the drinking-water supply” in that region, without specifically mentioning Crimea.

But Sergei Aksyonov, the Russia-installed head of Crimea, said in a Facebook post that the water supply issue on Crimea was discussed.

Aksyonov said the Russian government plans to allocate about 3.6 billion rubles ($46 million), on projects to increase water access on Crimea from 77 percent to 86.2 percent of the population. He also mentioned plans to build water treatment plants in the cities of Krasnoperekopsk and Yevpatoria, giving a date of 2022 for their completion.

No Rain Or Snow, No Water

Mykhaylo Yatsyuk, deputy director of the Kyiv-based Institute of Water Problems and Land Reclamation, told the Crimea Desk of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service that “Crimea is now dependent on natural climatic conditions. If there is snow and other forms of precipitation, then there is water. If there is no snow or other precipitation, then there is no water.”

Yatsyuk said about two-thirds of Crimea “severely lacks water resources.”

Crimea is divided into four zones. The south and west are best supplied with the highest number of natural reservoirs, rivers, and lakes. The northern and eastern areas, in contrast, are the driest parts of the peninsula, and were most dependent on the North Crimean Canal, which supplied the area with up to 85 percent of its fresh water. Opened in 1971, it is Europe’s longest canal, at 402 km, and farms and vineyards throve along its route through northern Crimea in its heyday.

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But even in April 2014, when Ukraine shut off water flows to Crimea, the canal was living in the shadows of its glorious past as a “Great Construction Project of Communism.” When the Soviet Union collapsed, canal maintenance was neglected. By 2013, water flows were one-third of historic highs in the 1980s. Plus, more regions were drawing from it, including the drought-stricken Kherson region on the Ukrainian mainland.

With the canal closed, Yatsyuk said the region is facing the real threat of desertification. The eastern cities of Feodosia, Kerch, and Sudak are among the hardest-hit, along with the Lenin District, but Simferopol, and Sevastopol are also facing problems. People in some affected areas are gradually leaving, selling property cheap to get out.

The water shortage has hit agriculture hard. During the Soviet era, as many as 400,000 hectares of land on Crimea were being tilled. That number shrank to 140,000 in 2013 and plummeted to only 17,000 hectares in 2014, the year Moscow seized Crimea.

Engineering Plans: Too Little Too Late?

Those charged with agricultural affairs in the Moscow-installed government said in 2019 that the Crimean economy loses 14 billion rubles ($180 million) a year due to the lack of water.

Rice cultivation has been abandoned and other crops, such as corn and soybeans, have been reduced. Some of the hardest-hit farmers have been Crimean Tatars, who are concentrated in the arid steppe in central Crimea.

Reservoirs in the region are gradually drying up. But Russian officials have laid out ambitious plans to reroute four rivers into one of them, the Mizhhirne, by 2024 in a project whose cost is estimated at 25 billion rubles ($310 million).

Vladimir Bazhenov, head of a Russia-controlled water company on Crimea, likened the project to the building of a bridge across the Kerch Strait from Russia, which was condemned by Kyiv and much of the international community.

While Russia and Kremlin-backed leaders tout the project as the answer to Crimea’s water woes, Bazhenov has said it would be no panacea, solving the problem only in some areas.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Tony Wesolowsky, with reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service’s Crimea Desk
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.