Here is why Ukraine should maintain the water blockade of Crimea and why the peninsula’s water supply is going to be yet worse and yet more expensive for the occupiers in 2020.
After Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine ceased supplying water to this naturally arid region with only 400 mm of annual fallout. Before the occupation, water was supplied to Crimea by the North Crimean Canal. Today, a dam blocks the canal on the administrative border with Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast.
The shortage of water destroys Crimean agriculture, puts additional pressure on the industry, and makes the household water supply expensive for the occupiers. However, Ukrainian MPs recently proposed resuming the water supply, leading to public outrage.
Proposals to sell water to Crimea
One by one, three MPs from the ruling Servant of the People party expressed their “personal thoughts” regarding the possibility of selling water to Crimea. First, Yuriy Aristov, the head of the parliamentary budget committee, expressed the idea that Ukraine could earn money by selling water to Crimea. Then, MP Yuriy Kamelchuk told the same, arguing that it is Ukrainians who live in Crimea and they suffer from the water shortage.
Finally, the head of the Servant of the People faction David Arakhamiya stated that personally he would decide to supply water to Crimea but only if Russia from its side pulls all troops out from Donbas, where a war between Russian-backed militants has been sizzling for over five years, and Ukraine reinstates control of the border in the east-Ukrainian region. He recognized this as a possibility of a bilateral deal.
Subsequently, the head of the Crimean Tatar Medzhlis Refat Chubarov responded that any agreement to supply water to Crimea, regardless of the conditions, is a betrayal of the 500,000 Crimean Tatars living in the peninsula.
Also, Ihor Tyshkevych, expert of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, claimed that any “humanitarian” arguments for the supply of water to Crimea are absurd. Water provided by the North Crimean Canal from Ukraine was overwhelmingly not used for drinking. Rather, it would become a resource for Russian enterprises in Crimea, including Russian defense enterprises, therefore – a resource for the Crimean occupational economy.
Also, a decision to supply water to Crimea would be inexplicable for the Western partners of Ukraine. If Ukraine itself supplies resources to Crimea, why should they maintain their sanctions?
Later, David Arakhamiya apologized for his statement, recognizing that his words were offensive for Crimeans and too simplified.
Officially, any reconsideration of the water blockade was denied. Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Crimea Anton Korynevych (acting in Ukraine) stated:
Nobody talks about any renewal of water supply. The water will go through the channel to Crimea only after de-occupation. No water before de-occupation.
Also, Head of the Presidential Office Andriy Yermak denied any talks with Russia regarding water to Crimea.
Nonetheless, statements of three MPs from the Servant of People party caused worries that the authorities were trying out public opinion regarding possibilities to ease the Crimean policy if it leads to an agreement with Russia over Donbas and provides additional money for the state budget.
The water situation in Crimea in 2020 and why the blockade should be maintained
There are several reasons why Ukraine should maintain its current policy regarding water to Crimea, the presidential officials recognized.
The main reason is that Russia can’t solve Crimea’s water problem by its own means. At the same time, it has to spend a lot of money to satisfy at least the elementary needs of water supply to households. This raises the price of occupation.
- Read also: Russia can’t solve Crimea’s water problem
The water consumption by households hasn’t dropped after the occupation. At the same time, 10% of the water supplied by the North Crimean Canal was supplied directly to the households. That means, that after the canal was blocked, Crimean authorities had to almost double their own water production to satisfy basic needs, as well as to change the whole system of water supply. All this costs a lot.
For example, according to the Ukrainian outlet NV, the harshest situation with water is in north-eastern Crimea, where almost all the water was supplied by the canal from the Dnipro river. That concerns first of all the easternmost town of Kerch. Less than 1% of Kerch’s water needs were satisfied by local sources. All the rest was supplied mainly from the North Crimean Canal, according to the infographic by NV.
Today, when the channel is closed, Crimean authorities need to supply Kerch with water from other regions. This requires reconstructing the Canal and the whole system of water supply in order to redirect the water. These changes are estimated to be worth $322 million. For comparison, this is about 13% of the entire consolidated Crimean annual budget, including direct Russian state transfers and spendings that constitute 2/3 of this budget.
Yet the problem is not only about money. Theoretically, Crimea has enough underground water to satisfy the basic needs that were previously met by the water from the channel. However, former vice-prime-minister of Crimea Andriy Senchenko explains that Russia’s Crimean water problems are exacerbated by “barbarous” methods of drilling and usage of this underground water. If many wells were drilled in various regions and water was pumped in moderation, Crimea could double its domestic water production in comparison to 2013. However, due to few wells and fast consumption, underground stocks become degraded and exhausted. This leads to the salinization of wells and causes yet more shortages. This problem is especially harsh in the north-eastern Crimea, where underground water is now used.
The overall problem is evident taking into account that water reservoirs are already empty by 2/3 on average. The biggest Crimean water reservoir in Mizhhirne is already empty. Сrimean authorities announced the relocation of $390 million – another huge amount – for the reconstruction of this water reservoir. But even if the reconstruction is completed to optimize its usage, the reservoir yet has to be filled with water.
The death of agriculture
Despite the hard situation, Russian authorities didn’t sacrifice Crimea’s industry, which also consumes a huge portion of water. Moreover, with the relocation of numerous army units to Crimea, the water consumption of the military industry grew significantly. This came at the price of all water being taken away from agriculture.
72% of the water from the North Crimean Channel was used for the irrigation of crops. And the absence of this water today causes difficulties for food production.
Rice fields require a huge amount of water. Till 2013, rice fields occupied 35,000 hectares in the peninsula. A complex irrigation system was built for these fields. Their reconstruction would now cost a lot. Soybeans also became a traditional agricultural plant for Crimea just like many other vegetables and fruits. Today all of them, as well as milk, are imported from Russia. These products became much more expensive.
“After five years without water, the population structure of the villages of the steppe regions of Crimea looks depressing. By the end of 2020, 90% of the remaining population will be unemployed. All the rest will leave the region,” concludes Liev.
The scope of this disaster is illustrated by the fact that one can buy a house with land for $2000 in the Crimean steppe. However, this house would be useless without water.
The social consequences are closely linked to ecological problems. The water from the channel evaporated and filtered into the ground. This water filled the underground arteries. Taken together, all this created a single ecosystem.
“During the years of the channel’s existence, the ecosystem of Crimea not only embraced it but also incorporated it into itself,” explains Oleksandr Liev, eks-minister of tourism in Crimea.
According to Liev, in the last 50 years, when the irrigation functioned, the peninsula received a new layer of fertile land. However, in the last 5 years, this soil has not been moistened enough and is already degraded.
No less disturbing is the fact that since the annexation, the chemical industry of the region has been operating without the amount of water required by technical regulations. This has already caused catastrophic damage to people’s health. The most notorious disaster was the situation with the acid storage facility near Armiansk. Since 2017, when the ecological disaster occurred due to the ejection of chemicals, no measures were taken to prevent such a situation in the future.
As an occupying power, Russia is entirely responsible for the maintenance of the Crimean region according to the Geneva Convention, says Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Crimea Anton Korynevych. Ukraine’s task is to make the occupation as burdensome for Russia as possible. The water supply to Crimea may be effectively used by Ukraine to put additional pressure on Russia so that it returns Crimea.
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