Russia’s Hidden Water War in Ukraine

Via H2O Global News, an article on how water is a motivating factor in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

Beneath the horror of Russia’s war in Ukraine flows an undercurrent of political tension over that most vital and intractable resource – water.

Control over water resources has been a point of contention between the two countries for almost a decade.

It is particularly telling that one of Russia’s first actions in the conflict, which officially began on February 24, was to destroy a dam on the North Crimean Canal – restoring the flow of water to Crimea.

This seemingly simple act is part of a much deeper story.

The North Crimean Canal was built during the Soviet era to transport water from the Dnieper river in Ukraine to the arid peninsula of Crimea.

With a main channel over 400km long, connected to a vast network of reservoirs, the canal was hailed as an engineering marvel at the time.

For decades it satisfied 85% of the region’s water needs, helping transform the peninsula into a hub of agriculture, industry and tourism.

However, that all changed in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from right under Ukraine’s nose. In a swift move that shocked the international community, Crimea, which is the only region of Ukraine where ethnic Russians predominate, came under Kremlin control.

Kyiv quickly retaliated by constructing a dam on its side of the canal, cutting off Crimea’s liquid lifeline. In a matter of weeks, the North Crimean Canal was laid bare, reduced to a brown mass of mud and weeds.

The impact on agriculture was immediate and devastating.

The area under cultivation in Crimea shrunk from 140,000 hectares in 2013, to just 10,000 in 2015. The region was forced to ration water among its citizens and rely on bottled water imports.

Despite significant Russian efforts to redirect local rivers, drill new wells, rebuild reservoirs, and invest in desalination technology – water insecurity in Crimea has only worsened.

After a particularly harsh drought in 2021 which aggravated an already delicate situation, Moscow accused Ukraine of genocide and ecocide for its decision to block the canal.

Ukrainian officials refuted the allegations. Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, said Russia, as the occupying force, was responsible under the Geneva Convention for securing water and other basic needs for the local population.

Map of Ukraine

Crimea isn’t the only region of Ukraine where control over water access has caused significant tensions. In the eastern Donetsk region, multiple reports and eyewitness accounts suggest that Russian-backed separatists deliberately sabotaged critical water infrastructure in an effort to upend Ukraine’s defence.

Foreman Anatoli Malyuk and his team at Ukrainian state water authority, Voda Donbasu, trek each day to repair some 300 kilometres of water pipeline at the frontline in Donetsk.

Malyuk says the pipeline has been damaged almost 400 times since the conflict began. How much of this damage was intentional is difficult to ascertain. But what is certain is that being a water worker here is extremely dangerous.

In the last seven years, nine of Malyuk’s colleagues have been killed and 26 injured while on the job.

On the tap-end of the conflict in Donetsk, hundreds of thousands of civilians have suffered without freshwater supplies, forced to rely on aid organisations to survive.

But the situation could get much worse.

Speaking in a documentary released by European public service channel Arte last December, a representative from Unicef in Ukraine commented: “The biggest problem is the awful condition of the critical water infrastructure in Donetsk, which is all located near the front line.

“If this infrastructure is destroyed, more than three million people will be without water. This really is the worst case scenario.”

Water is Power

At the heart of hydro-political conflict in Ukraine is water as a long-term, far-reaching strategic resource. One without which food cannot be grown, industry cannot operate, and energy cannot be produced.

Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe. Among the top three grain exporters globally, the country offers 42 million hectares of fertile farmland – the largest area on the continent.

Winding its way through these fertile soils is the Dnieper river – the fourth longest in Europe. The river has been a critical source of trade, transportation, energy, and irrigation for the Ukrainian state since its very inception. It forms the backbone of the agricultural economy. Coupled with its deep-water Black Sea ports and proximity to agricultural markets in North Africa and the Middle East, Ukraine’s location and natural resources make it a place of global strategic significance.

This value has not gone unnoticed. In 2013, China signed a deal with Kyiv to farm three million hectares of the country’s best agricultural land for half a century. The deal also included $3 billion in agricultural development aid from China’s Export-Import bank.

Last year President Zelenskyy also visited the United Arab Emirates, where agriculture trade featured prominently in a range of signed memorandums and agreements, also worth around $3 billion.

By conquering Ukraine, Russia would control food & water essential to feed Europe, China & the Middle East – gaining leverage over nations at their most fundamental level.

That is power.

Climate change only amplifies the geopolitical significance of Russia’s aggression. Precipitation models have long predicted increasing risk of drought in central & southeastern Europe, including Ukraine.

With precipitation shifting northward & increasing in winter while summers grow drier, control of the entire Dnieper river basin ensures control of the water supply needed to irrigate summer crops.

Russian & Belarusian control of this basin in the context of an occupied Ukraine, secures an uncontested water supply for the future of agriculture in the region.

Boiling point

The hydro-political tension between Russia and Ukraine came to a head this year.

Speaking just days before the war broke out, Dmytro Natalukha, a Ukrainian MP who is chair of the country’s parliamentary Economic Affairs Committee, told the Globe & Mail: “The concern [of war] is really high, because the canal itself and the supply of water to Crimea have been a tactical objective of the Russians since 2014.”

Last year, retired US Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges described a Russian military offensive scenario in which “humanitarian forces” are dispatched “to relieve the water problem, which would of course be a pretext for an invasion of southern Ukraine.”

Hodges’ prophecy came to fruition. On day one of the conflict, Russian forces destroyed the dam blocking the North Crimea Canal.

The city of Kherson, located in southern Ukraine at the mouth of the Dnieper on the Black Sea, was also the first significant urban centre to fall. Hanna Shelest, director of security programmes at the Ukrainian Prism think-tank, told Al Jazeera that Russian occupation of Kherson enabled access to the mainland from Crimea. The city’s strategic location commands access to freshwater supplies for the entire peninsula.

Beyond securing strategic water geographies, the war has already taken a severe toll on water supplies. “The damage to infrastructure as a result of shelling and bombing is the worst,” said Jurij Zerlitsyn, representative of the Ukrainian Association of Water and Sewerage. “The lack of electricity also causes a lack of water and sewage services.”

Water war?

Water wars generally describe a conflict between countries, states, or groups over the rights to access water resources. But a water war is much more than war over water itself; it is a war over what water can do.

According to the Pacific Institute’s Water Conflict Chronology, events that constitute water conflict can be categorised as triggers, weapons, or casualties.

Firstly as a trigger or root cause of conflict, where there is a dispute over the control of water or water systems. Secondly, as a weapon of conflict. A situation where water resources, or water systems themselves, are used as a weapon in a conflict. Finally, water systems can be a casualty of conflict. Where water resources are intentional or incidental casualties or targets of violence.

While the root causes of war are many, the evidence suggests that hydro-political tensions between Ukraine and Russia were at the heart of the recent escalation in violence.

As early as 2014, water was weaponised by both Russia & Ukraine. By blocking the Northern Crimea Canal, in the case of Ukraine. Also by Russia, through its sustained bombardment of water supplies and infrastructure in Donbas.

Water war, like siege warfare, can also be a form of indirect war. War meant to undermine a defender’s ability to hold ground by depriving them of the fundamentals needed to do so.

Attacks on personnel at the Donetsk Filter Station & critical water infrastructure follow a similar pattern of siege warfare. Assaults on water infrastructure undoubtedly undermine Ukraine’s defence, the economy of the region, and day-to-day life.

Attacks on water supply caused water scarcity. Attacks on water treatment infrastructure by Russian-backed separatists created stress & uncertainty in the local population. Specifically, their attacks on infrastructure for the treatment and management of toxic wastes created fear and mistrust of water supplies in the Donbas region. This exacerbated physical and social water stress, destabilising the native Ukrainian population and undermining their ability to fight. This speaks to the final component of the Water Conflict Chronology – water as a casualty of broader conflict.

Look no further than the tragic siege of the city of Mariupol, undoubtedly the hardest hit city in the conflict so far, to see how water resources become casualties of war, threatening day-to-day life itself. In Mariupol, at the time of writing, food and water are rapidly depleting.

If we follow the Water Conflict Chronology framework, Russia is without a doubt waging a water war in Ukraine.

Is it the sole cause of the conflict? Certainly not. But water emerges time and time again as a major undercurrent.

But why does it matter if water sits at the heart of this conflict? Because understanding the multiple root causes of this war can help us resolve it, create a starting point for negotiations, and prevent similar conflicts in the future.

Regardless of the war’s outcome, Russian & Ukrainian communities in the region need to heal. The need for water transcends ethnic and political divisions in Crimea, Donbas, and throughout Ukraine.

Making amends to reach accord is critical to the future of both nations. Without water, Crimea withers. Without access to Black Sea ports, the abundant produce of Ukraine’s fertile farmland cannot reach global markets. It is not an exaggeration to say that peace is the path to prosperity.

Achieving peace begins with reaching an agreement to share diminishing water resources equitably throughout the region.

Perhaps brokering peace over water will set a new precedent for cooperation in the region, establishing a solid foundation for long-term stability in Eastern Europe? Only time will tell…

This entry was posted on Monday, March 28th, 2022 at 9:21 am and is filed under Russia, Ukraine.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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