How a Ukrainian dam played a key role in tensions with Russia
Shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine built a concrete dam cutting off 85 percent of the peninsula’s water supply. So one of Moscow’s first strategic moves after invading the country was to blow it up.
Ukraine had constructed the dam on the North Crimean Canal, a Soviet-era conduit that conveyed water from the Dnieper River to both Crimea and the Kherson region of Ukraine.
Russia has been diverting other water sources to the region since 2017, but those efforts could not compensate for the loss of canal flow, and the peninsula’s agriculture sector had essentially run dry.
“Environmental conflicts are interwoven with these kinds of complex histories,” said Saleem Ali, an environmental conflicts expert and chair of the Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences at the University of Delaware.
The North Crimean Canal’s existence is linked to the past of Crimea itself — a swath of arid land along the coast of the Black Sea whose population today is about 67 percent Russian, 15 percent Ukrainian and 12 percent Crimean Tartar.
In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Soon after, preparations began to build the canal, which was completed in 1975.
“When the Soviet Union was there, there was no future-casting that the Soviet Union would cease to exist,” Ali told The Hill.
What was once a largely infertile peninsula soon blossomed into a hub of irrigated agriculture.
“Crimea is surrounded by water but lacks water resources,” wrote Oleksii Plotnikov, an international law expert in Ukraine with the Association of Reintegration of Crimea, in an August article for the European Journal of International Law.
After the canal was built, most of the water was shuttled to Crimea, while some of it went to the Kherson region of Ukraine.
About 80 percent of the water flowing to Crimea was used for agriculture — and 60 percent of that allocation went toward water-intensive rice growth, according to Helena Vladich, an ecological economist at the University of Vermont.
“It was absolutely not ecological,” Vladich told The Hill.
Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia took over canal operations, which had been previously been run by the State Water Resources Agency of Ukraine, the independent English newspaper The Moscow Times reported. Ukrainian officials said that they decided to dam the canal only after Russian authorities failed to pay for water delivery, according to the Times.
The Russian takeover of Crimea, Ali surmised, may have prompted Ukrainians to use “water as basically a weapon,” leading to a retaliatory sentiment: “You’ve taken over our territory, we’re going to dam the river. And we’re not going to let this water flow to Crimea.”
But Plotnikov, the Ukrainian attorney, described a situation of Russian aggression and refusal, in which facilities “were seized by the new de facto authorities” who drove away Ukrainian workers. When these “authorities refused to pay for water delivery,” the debt that accumulated prompted the blockage, Plotnikov wrote.
Regardless of which side bore more blame in the cessation of flow, the sudden loss meant that agriculture no longer remained possible in Crimea.
“It was even difficult to get enough water for people who live there,” Vladich said.
While the shutdown destroyed rice plantations on the peninsula, drinking water was not affected, Plotnikov wrote, citing a 2017 report from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). However, failed attempts by Russia to find alternative resources led to water rationing during a 2020 drought, Plotnikov reported.
One way Russia began conveying some water to Crimea was by trucking it on a $3.7 billion bridge across the Kerch Strait, according to The Financial Times.
“It was costing Russia a lot of money to keep Crimea afloat,” Ali said. “And a lot of it has to do with the fact that there was no self-reliance — otherwise, it was a productive part of Ukraine.”
Russia then launched appeals to the OHCHR, claiming that “Ukraine has deprived millions of people of a basic and inalienable right to drinking water.” But these went without a response, Plotnikov noted in his report.
Last July, Russia brought forth an interstate complaint requesting that European Court of Human Rights “suspend the blockade of the North Crimean Canal,” but the body dismissed the request two days later, Plotnikov wrote.
Vladich said the repeated “attempts to somehow negotiate this issue” had no path forward because the Ukrainian side rejected negotiations.
While Ali stressed that he does not condone Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine — describing the leader’s moves as “unwarranted” — he said the water shutdown in Crimea may have “furthered Putin’s paranoia.”
With the backing of the West, he argued, Ukraine and Russia could have agreed to some form of technical cooperation on pumping stations along the canal, with Russia paying for some of the conduit’s maintenance as part of a negotiated settlement.
“Even if the environmental issues don’t end up resolving the conflict, they can help to build trust,” he said. “If people can start to cooperate on those environmental factors, then it can lead to some broader cooperation down the road.”
Plotnikov disagreed about the possibility of Western intervention, arguing that “the canal issue strongly irritates Russia,” as it both “increases the price of occupation” and “decreases the popularity of the occupying power.”
“The environmental crisis in Crimea, caused by predatory exploitation of water resources, resulted in sharp international criticism,” said Plotnikov, who responded to The Hill’s questions by email on Friday as he was serving in the Ukrainian army. “Even in a very unlikely case where the [European Court of Human Rights] would order to restore water delivery, this would not influence Putin’s decision to invade.”
“Putin openly and repeatedly denies the very existence of Ukraine and sees its conquest as his historical mission,” the attorney added. “The canal is only a tactical question here.”
Russian state news service RIA claimed last week that the canal was already filling with water and was expected to be usable by April 15, The Moscow Times reported.
From a purely supply-demand perspective, a resumption of flow to Crimea would not significantly impact Ukraine’s own water provisions, as the North Crimean Canal is located at the tail end of the Dnieper River, Ali explained.
“Ukraine doesn’t have much strategic interest in this water in terms of it reducing any supply to Kyiv, or the wheat-growing region of Ukraine,” he said.
Vladich, from the University of Vermont, expressed some hope that there could still be a chance for transboundary cooperation down the road.
“I hope that this is their opportunity for the joint management of the canal,” Vladich said. “There are a lot of cases where such negotiations were successful, even during war.”
One such case, she said, is the Enguri hydroelectric dam, which has continued to function under the joint operation of adversaries Georgia and Abkhazia — a de facto state in the South Caucasus that most countries recognize as part of Georgia.
Ali, however, was less optimistic.
“Both sides have decided that compromise would mean losing face,” he said. “And when people get into that kind of psychological mode, it’s very difficult to take them out of it.”
Plotnikov was similarly pessimistic, telling The Hill that he “cannot imagine joint management in any scenario” and describing the current situation as “a zero-sum game.”
“Ukraine will never recognize any Russian rights in Crimea, just as Russia (in its present state) will never recognize any Ukrainian rights,” Plotnikov said. “The peninsula is inscribed in the constitutions of both states.”
“I’m afraid, I can see no other solution except forcible de-occupation in this conflict, or a future conflict that will lead to regime change in Russia,” he added.
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