Mehmet Altingoz And Saleem Ali
It’s telling that one of the first actions that Russian forces took in their invasion of Ukraine was to blow up a dam on the North Crimean Canal (NCC), allowing water to flow back into Crimea. The current war being waged by Russia in Ukraine has its origins in fractured and contested political history, but there are also key natural resource security questions which often go overlooked. While there are established debates about the extent to which natural resources contribute to conflict, the current conflagration exemplifies a rare use of water as a means of direct leverage in a military standoff. Regardless of the outcome of the conflict, the tensions between Russia and Ukraine over the NCC illustrate the need to consider the role of natural resources—and access to them—in broader diplomatic efforts.
Crimea was part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (SFSR) until 1954, when the Soviet authorities transferred it to the Ukrainian SFSR as part of the larger Soviet Union. The NCC was built on Dnieper in 1975 to provide Crimea with water for agriculture and domestic use. The natural course of water flow on this gradient was changed through engineering (see figure the water is supposed to flow south west and discharge into the Black Sea). Crimea was sparsely populated and had an arid climate and this canal was a vital resource for the population. Agriculture and industry boomed, and was followed by an inflow of migrants to the peninsula. In addition, the NCC enabled rice farming, which became a major export crop from this region.
After Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014, the canal became a transboundary/international feature. As a retaliatory action Ukraine blocked the canal and water flow to Crimea, cutting off 85 percent of Crimea’s water and leaving two million people water-stressed. A Ukrainian paramilitary group also blew up electricity lines, leaving Crimea to rely on expensive diesel generation capacity. At the same time, more Russians were moving to Crimea, attracted by the warmer climate, leading to even more pressure on the resources. Without water from the NCC, Crimea’s arable land has shrunk, from 130,000 hectares in 2013—already a fraction of Soviet-era levels—to 14,000 in 2017.
Photo Credit:Map of the North Crimean Canal that connects the Dneiper at the Kakhovka reservoir with the east of Crimea, courtesy of Berihert, Wikimedia Commons.
In field research interviews conducted in July 2019, Ukrainians claimed that the NCC was blocked because Crimeans stopped paying their water bills after Crimea became a part of Russia. They also claimed that the canal needed major maintenance before it could be reopened and there was no attempt from the Russian side to work with them to fix the canal. Russians said that the NCC blockage was nothing more than punishment for Crimea’s political decision to “rejoin” Russia; that depriving two million Crimea residents of water violates various international laws and is a violation of human rights; and that the Ukrainians never proposed to negotiate the water price or maintenance.
To address the water and energy issues in Crimea, from 2017 onwards the Russian authorities, in coordination with the local Crimean government, built small hydroelectric plants, new wells, diverted local water sources, built a bridge from Russia to the peninsula for food and goods transportation, and reoriented agriculture towards less water-consuming crops. Food and electricity problems have only been temporarily resolved and water insecurity is still an unhealed wound. There is only enough water for the most vital needs at the moment and a permanent solution is needed for the 2.3 million inhabitants of what is deemed to be the choicest real estate on the Black Sea.
Efforts have been made to resolve this conflict through existing institutions. Russian prosecutors filed a complaint in the European Court of Human Rights against Ukraine over the issue. Crimea’s governor, Sergei Aksyonov, indicated plans to file a separate complaint demanding compensation, stating that Ukraine uses Crimea’s infrastructure dependence as a weapon—“an act of state terrorism”—and the international community had failed to intervene.
On the other side, Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s Minister of Defense, blamed Russia, stating that under the Geneva Conventions, it is Russia’s responsibility to secure water and other basic needs for Crimeans as the “occupation power.” Ukraine also filed claims against Russia for losses caused by Russia’s “illegal land grab.”
Current Conflict Dynamics
The February 24th bombing of the dam on the NCC restored water access from the canal to Crimea. Regardless of the war’s outcome, Russian and Ukrainian communities in this key ethnically diverse region will need to be healed. Finding a mechanism for sharing water between the mainland and the Crimean peninsula will be a key aspect of any agreement moving forward.
Finding a pathway for cooperation over the NCC could play an integral role in building trust between the two sides in any future peace agreement. There is considerable research in the emerging field of “environmental peacebuilding” to show that cooperation over common natural resources can improve relations among the sharing countries by forming dialogue, trust, and accountability. Hence, creating a cooperative framework for the resolution of the NCC canal dispute during the Russo-Ukrainian peace negotiations could be an ecologically predicated compromise.
Technical and localized management of shared water resources for countries that have severe conflicts with each other is possible and helps to maintain peace. In fact, there is a Soviet era model of such cooperation that has still persisted in the case of the Arpacay Dam (between Armenia and Turkey) and the Stanca-Contesti Dam (between Moldova and Romania) even three decades after the USSR dissolved. This model devolves authority to a small joint committee that is formed by technical personnel from both countries. The committee, given full authority for management, meets regularly, makes decisions, delegates tasks, and executes decisions with little to no reporting to the higher authorities. Hence, politics are kept at bay for the most part, and often trust and friendly relations are built among the committee members as they work closely together.
According to reports from Bloomberg, Crimea’s occupation cost Russia 1.5 trillion rubles to support in the first five years, which is around two years of Russia’s education budget—more than $20 billion at 2021 exchange rates. Due to a lack of water and resultant extinguishing of export revenues from agriculture (which were halted due to damming of the NCC), Russia had to provide subsidies, grants, and subventions to Crimea which added up to around $1.4 billion in 2021. Although environmental factors are often relegated to the realm of low politics in grand discussions of world order, it is often such incremental impacts of core resource stresses—which translate into broader economic and political implications—that can pave the way for protracted conflict. Furthermore, a deprivation of natural resources has a potent impact on human trust between ethnically divided communities.
NATO and the West missed an opportunity to ease tensions in the region by urging Ukraine to find a way to cooperate on providing water access to Crimea. There was far too much attention paid to entrenched positions on border delineation and organizational membership and far less attention paid to the natural resource needs of the people in the region. An independently monitored referendum will likely be essential to resolve the political aspects of Crimea’s status. Any future negotiations therein should also consider how this particular dispute led to escalation and propose a water-sharing arrangement between the mainland and Crimea.
Mehmet Altingoz is a Doctoral Candidate in Water Science and Policy at the University of Delaware where his research is focusing on environmental peacebuilding in the Black Sea region.
Saleem H. Ali is Chair of the Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences at the University of Delaware and a Senior Fellow at The Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).
Sources: Bloomberg, Eurasia Review, Regional Research of Russia, Reuters, The Financial Times, U.S. News.