BAKU – Six years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the peninsula faces a new threat: water shortage. Ukraine has cut off access to the Dnieper, and over the years, Crimea has seen its water supplies plummet. So much so that the major cities are now rationing supplies, with strict restrictions expected down the line. The situation is so bad that 2020 was deemed the driest year in Crimean history. The creeping drought affects agriculture, urban centres, as well as the operation of the military assets in the peninsula. In this zero-sum game, Russia will do whatever it takes to secure its interests. So, if the 21st century will have water wars, it may as well start in Crimea.

From occupation to governance

The Crimean Peninsula is the grand-prize in the Black Sea. It is the single-most-important region in terms of power projection. Whoever controls it will gain the ability to shape affairs far beyond national borders. It is, therefore, no surprise that Crimea was a point of fixation for the empires of the past. The Scythians, Greeks, Romans, Slavs, Mongols, Tatars, Turks, and Cossacks all laid claims to the peninsula at some point in history. Russia took control of it in 1783, and Crimea instantly became its gateway into the world economy. Control over Crimea secured the Russian Black Sea coastline and its territories in the Caucasus. It also restricted the flexibility of the Ottoman Empire and set in its decline.

During the Soviet era, Crimea was transferred to Soviet Ukraine, and when the USSR collapsed, independent Ukraine inherited the neck of land. Still, Ukrainian sovereignty was a brief experience, lasting only from 1991 to 2014. Crimea was too valuable to be left outside of the Kremlin’s authority. Russia wanted it back, even if it risked provoking an economic and diplomatic backlash. So, in 2014, Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation. That decision, however, was unlawful, and Crimea continues to be recognized as part of Ukraine by much of the international community. Having said that, and beyond the point of legality, there were unshakeable geopolitical conditions that drew Russia to Crimea. 

Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea, hosted not only a sizable Russian community but the city was home the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian navy. Without Sevastopol, Russia would be incapable of running overseas operations like in Syria, Libya, etc. Moreover, military facilities in and around Sevastopol granted the Russians indispensable area denial capacity. Much like the fortresses of old, modern anti-access/area-denial weapon systems prevent hostile forces from occupying or traversing the land, sea, or airspace in and around Crimea, protecting Russia’s soft underbelly. Crimea was thus paramount for the defence of Russia’s territorial integrity. These security considerations were, above all else, the primary motives in Russia’s annexation. 

Now, six years after the act, things turned out differently. Russia has had to govern Crimea and provide its two million inhabitants with all sorts of services and facilities. However, since the peninsula was not connected directly to the Russian mainland, the initial objective was to maintain the existing Ukrainian utilities such as power lines, energy pipelines, etc. Kyiv thought otherwise, and cut off the peninsula from its infrastructure. In response, the Russians laid new cables in the Sea of Azov and provided Crimea with new means of energy and communications. Additionally, a new bridge was constructed across the Kerch Strait, which provided road and rail traffic between the Russian mainland and the Crimean Peninsula. The newly constructed infrastructure was a testimony of Russia’s commitment to Crimea, but there was one necessity the Russians could not provide, even after so many years: water.

The local water sources of Crimea can only cover 15 per cent of its demand. The remaining 85 per cent was provided through the North Crimean Canal, which is on Ukrainian territory. The North Crimean Canal gets its water from the Dnieper River, and about a billion cubic meters of water was pumped into Crimea each year. The source of the Dnieper, meanwhile, is in the Smolensk region of Russia. So, in legal terms, the Dnieper is an international trans-border river. Its length on Russian territory is almost 485 kilometres, another 700 kilometres of the river passes through Belarus, while 1095 kilometre of the river sits within Ukraine. Its watershed covers about 500,000 square kilometres, making it one of the major drainage basins of Europe.  After Russia’s annexation, Kyiv halted the water flow. It was one of the few levers Ukraine had in the standoff with Russia. At first, in 2014, Ukraine closed the sluices of the canal and built a dam using sandbags. Three years later, the dam became permanent and was made of concrete. Lawmakers from Moscow held numerous rounds of negotiations to convince their counterparts in Kyiv to reopen the North Crimean Canal, claiming that the Ukrainian act was illegal and inhumane, but it’s somewhat insincere for the Russians to talk about international law after having annexed the territory of another. Regardless, the Ukrainians did not budge, and this political stalemate set in a creeping drought in Crimea.

A creeping water crisis

As things stand now, Crimea depends on one thing to meet its freshwater needs: rainfall – an element that it cannot control. Due to climate change, however, rainfall in Crimea has been unusually low in recent years. The local reservoirs had been running at one-third since the start of last year, and 2020 marked the driest years since precipitation recording began some 150 years ago. The result of this drought has been profound. Two-thirds of the peninsula faces a severe lack of water resources. The situation is particularly dire in the north and east of the peninsula, where people are migrating from the arid areas.

Interestingly, Russia claims that the population of Crimea has nearly doubled to 4 million as of 2020, with much of the growth coming from Russian migrants. The increased human presence serves to bolster Russia’s hold over Crimea, but it has also doubled the local quota for water resources. The newly constructed facilities and infrastructure, and the Russian immigrants have stretched the local water supplies thinly. The water deficit was grown as much as the population has increased.

Take agriculture as an example. During the heydays of the Soviet Union, about 400,000 hectares of Crimean land was being cultivated. By 2013, after years of reckless water management, cultivated lands had been reduced to 140,000 hectares. That number dropped to a mere 17,000 hectares in 2014 when Russia seized control of Crimea. Going by these numbers, Crimea’s agricultural sector has shrunk by a factor of 8 since Russia’s takeover, and a factor 23 when compared to its peak output during the Soviet era. Clearly, Crimea has been steadily running out of water for decades, but Russia’s annexation proved to be the turning point. As a result of vanishing agriculture, local farmers have had to abort crops such as rice and soybeans – which are water-intensive crops. The Russian government calls it environmental adaption, but it’s a sign of decay if nothing else.

Exhausting all options

To reverse its fortunes, Moscow has developed a blueprint to secure Crimea’s water security. The deadline is set for 2024, by then Russia seeks to construct new dams, new desalination plants, and drill new wells to extract underground water. It also seeks to build new water pipelines to connect Crimea to the Don and Kuban rivers, and there is even a plan to employ aeroplanes to artificially increase rainfall – though this is not a sustainable solution. It’s unclear what the total price tag is, but the Russian state has set aside at least 650 million USD for the blueprint. The trouble for Russia is that Crimea is considered part of Ukraine by the international community, and Russia’s presence in the peninsula is deemed an illegal occupation. That means any project developed in Crimea can only be assigned to Russian companies, but the Russians do not have the best civil technologies. For instance, desalination technology is something the Russians never specialized in because water shortage was unheard of in Russia. Thus, constructing desalination plants would require international partners, but that would be difficult because no company would risk doing business in Crimea.

This legal aspect of building Crimea’s water infrastructure is one of the most significant drawbacks. Even so, should the plan fail to improve Crimea’s water supply, the Russians could opt for more extreme measures. Depending on the severity of the water crisis, Russia could destroy the Ukrainian dams on the Dnieper River blocking the flow of water. It could also decide to occupy additional territories along the North Crimean Canal in southern Ukraine. Such a military occupation would require the Russians to anchor by the banks of the Dnieper, some 60 kilometres north of Crimea. Neither of these military measures will be easy. Russia will only employ its military when all other options have exhausted. Still, wars have been waged for much less, and geopolitics is the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.

Shirvan Neftchi

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  1. Segment of the Crimean Canal near Lenine, Kerch Peninsula in 2014 – Aleksander Kaasik via Wikipedia
  2. Crimea (Level-1 and Atmosphere Archive & Distribution System Distributed Active Archive Center) – LAADS DAAC via Wikimedia
  3. The Crimean Bridge in May 2020. The infrastructure of the Port of Taman is visible in the background – Росавтодор via Wikimedia

“The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.”


· Unprecedented Drought in Crimea: Can the Russian-Occupied Peninsula Solve Its Water Problems Without Ukraine? (Eurasia Daily Monitor, August 2020)

· Crimea Drills For Water As Crisis Deepens In Parched Peninsula (Radio Liberty, October 2020)–crimea-water-shortage-drought/30903039.html

· Pray For Rain: Crimea’s Dry-Up A Headache For Moscow, Dilemma For Kyiv (Radio Liberty, March 2020)

· Inside Crimea’s slow-burn water crisis (Open Democracy, October 2020) -crimeas-slow-burn-water-crisis/

· Water Shortages in Occupied Crimea (The Polish Institute of International Affairs, December 2020)

· Why Did Russia Give Away Crimea Sixty Years Ago? (Wilson Center)

· Shifting Loyalty: Moscow Accused Of Reshaping Annexed Crimea’s Demographics (Radio Liberty, May 2018)

· Ukraine builds dam on North Crimean Canal to block water supply to peninsula (Tass, May 2014)

· RPT-INSIGHT-Russia-annexed Crimea faces long road to power security (Reuters, December 2015)

· Crimea just switched over to the Russian internet (Quartz, August 2014)

· The Geo-Economics of the Water Deficit in Crimea (Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 2020)


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