Desertification, land degradation and empty promises of occupation authorities: Crimea is still dealing with water shortage. Ukraine provided up to 85% of Crimea’s water needs through the North Crimean Сanal, connecting the peninsula to Ukraine’s largest river Dnipro in the mainland. After the Russian annexation in 2014, water supplies stopped – and the desiccation of Crimea began.
More than five years after the annexation, on 6 July 2019, some 100 local residents of the north-Crimean town of Armiansk gathered for a picket, demanding Ukraine resume the water flow down the Canal. Speaking to Krymr.org, the picket’s organizer Vladislav Pivovar expressed his hopes that their appeal might be reviewed by newly elected Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.
In contrast to the western and southern parts of the peninsula, where many water storages, rivers, and lakes are located, its northern part is quite deserted and significantly dependent on the water supplies from the Ukrainian mainland.
The canal was built in 1961-1971. With its 402.6 km length, it is still the largest irrigation canal in Europe. For that purpose, water storage was constructed on the Dnipro river to connect the Crimean peninsula with the Ukrainian mainland. In 1963, water flowed from the Dnipro river to Crimea for the first time. The water supply spurred plantations of gardens, wineries, and increased yields of grains in northern Crimea.
Nowadays, Crimea depends on rain. Thus, the Mizhhirne water storage, which was earlier on standby, is now gradually shallowing. Local residents use wells and boreholes for their private needs.
On the other hand, problems appeared with agricultural development: growing such cultures typical for Crimea as rice, wheat, soy, and rapeseed requires far more water for irrigation, so they are drying out. The absence of cattle feed, in turn, influences livestock development. The use of groundwater leads to salinization of both water and soil.
The desertification of Crimea was visualized by the Ukrainian Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories, which used satellite images to compare the normalized difference vegetation indexes (NDVI) of the occupied peninsula in June 2016 and June 2018. The latter was found to be 23% lower than the one in 2016; however, the Ministry noted that the smaller amounts of precipitation also contributed to this picture.
left_alt="NDVI index in July 2016"
right_alt="NDVI index in July 2018"
width="100%" height="100%" classes="hover"
title="L: NDVI index in June 2016; R: NDVI index in June 2018"]
The water shortage provoked an ecological disaster: a high concentration of sulfur dioxide spewed into the atmosphere at the Crimean Titan chemical plant in Armiansk in August 2018, causing sufficient environmental damage. Owned by Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, this plant is a large producer of titanium dioxide and requires lots of water for the protective layer which covers the reservoir of sulfuric acid. The absence of water caused the acid to evaporate, the Crimean occupation authorities recognized. People were suffering from respiratory difficulties and allergic reactions, children were evacuated. Soon, the plant was temporarily shut down.
All this influences the Russian economy, so Russia, for its part, is interested in restoring water supplies through the North-Crimean Canal. For that, Russian media chose the strategy of manipulation, blaming Ukraine for shutting down the water flow. Different pro-Kremlin TV channels started spreading propaganda that “inhuman” politics of Ukraine leads to genocide, which started to “turn Crimea into a desert and punish its citizens for their Russian choice.” However, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, the occupying country is obliged to ensure the viability of the population of the occupied territory.
The desiccated canal. Photos: krymr.org
Nevertheless, in the spring of 2018 Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that Crimea “will be provided with water.” Therefore, the occupation authorities were proposing more and more fantastic plans, as expensive as unrealistic: from seawater desalination to wastewater treatment. This was followed by an aggressive information campaign against Ukraine.
In 2018 Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin made a statement that Ukraine would never allow water supplies under a contract where Crimea was mentioned as “Russian territory”. This quote was used by pro-Kremlin media to create a demonic image of Ukraine “committing an act of international terrorism,” emphasizing the word “never” and omitting the mention of the occupation.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine the pro-Russian party Opposition Bloc started calling for Klimkin’s resignation back in August 2018, blaming him for organizing a “genocide” against Crimean residents and “violating international law.”
According to Serhiy Mokrenyuk, the representative of the Ministry of the temporarily occupied territories, the volume of water in Crimea is sufficient to address the population needs; however, Russia is increasing the use of water in industry instead of meeting the needs of the population.
The position of the Ukrainian government remains unchanged: establishing economic relations between Ukraine and occupied Crimea would be beneficial for the Kremlin’s scenario – to facilitate the recognition of its annexation by the world community. Even though such an agreement may be reached, the canal needs a major refurbishment. Moreover, making deals with the occupation administration will turn it into the negotiation entity and, therefore, legitimate the annexation. In other words, only a strong influence through international sanctions may reduce Russian colonial ambitions and return water to Crimea.
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