Crimea After the Floods: When Even Too Much Water Might Not be Enough

Crimea After the Floods: When Even Too Much Water Might Not be Enough

Earlier this year, the lack of rainfall and drought conditions in most of Crimea were viewed by many commentators both in Ukraine and abroad as a possible pretext for further Russian military incursions into Ukrainian territory.  The concerns focused primarily on a potential Russian operation in the neighboring Kherson oblast to gain control of the barrier built by Ukrainian activists to prevent water from the Dnipro river reaching the extensive North Crimean Canal, Crimea's principal waterway.  Prior to Putin's invasion of Crimea in 2014, water from the Dnipro accounted for 85% of Crimea's water supply.

In mid- and late- June Crimea was hit by a series of downpours that caused extensive flooding in the major population centers of Sevastopol, Yalta and Kerch.  The rains caused extensive damage and further disrupted Crimea's once-thriving but now declining tourist industry.

(That even a tragic episode can generate lighter moments was demonstrated when a video appeared of alleged former gang member and current so-called head of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, inspecting flood damage in Kerch.  The clip shows three men swimming behind the ‘official’ vessel.  The Crimean Ministry of Emergency Situations set the tone by offering the unconvincing explanation that these were private citizens who had dressed as ministry workers and for some reason – perhaps they were trialists for the Russian Olympic team? - had decided to swim after Aksyonov’s boat.  But an advisor to Aksyonov confirmed that the aquatic stragglers were indeed workers from the ministry who were just going about their business.  Such divergent explanations simply fueled speculation that the three individuals were in fact part of Aksyonov’s group for whom there was no space on the new Crimean nomenklatura’s boat - a no less plausible (or implausible) explanation…

One of the pluses of the anomalous weather conditions for the Russian occupation authorities was that the almost depleted reservoirs servicing Sevastopol, Simferopol and the Yalta region were partially replenished (up to 70% in the case of Sevastopol's main reservoir).  However, without stable precipitation these are very likely to be temporary respites.  Because the downpours were concentrated around the mountainous region of southern Crimea with its very specific micro-climate there was little or no reprieve for the parched northern and eastern parts of the peninsula.

Around this time Russian media outlets in Crimea started promoting stories that water had once again appeared  in the North Crimea Canal because of a breach in the Ukrainian barrier.  Olga Skabayeva, the firebrand propagandist from the Rossiya 1 TV channel, went so far as to claim that this demonstrateddivine approval of Moscow's presence in Crimea.  However, these stories were soon debunked and sheepish retractions made as evidence revealed that the stretch of the canal between the Ukrainian choke point and the northeastern Crimean town of Dzhankoye was dry and in places choked with vegetation.

Part of the North Crimean Canal has in fact for several years been carrying water to the worst hit regions of the peninsula - but only as another example of the kind of temporary expedient that inevitably mutates into an ultimately ruinous policy so characteristic of many of the Russian occupation regime's measures in Crimea.

In order to supply the major population centres of Kerch, Sudak and Feodisiya beginning in 2014 pumping stations were built at three points south of Dzankoye to move high-quality artesian water from a depth of around 150 meters into the canal and boost the shrinking volume of water entering from streams and rivers along its course. The Russians built a dam south of Dzankoye to prevent water flowing north to that and other surrounding communities.  (The section of the canal between the dam and Dzankoye remains just as dry as sections even further north thus providing locals with additional clear evidence dispelling the false claims regarding the origins of any water in the canal.)

According to the occupation authorities, late Soviet-era estimates showed that the three artesian sources could provide substantial volumes of water for up to 25 years.  None of this was - or has been - verified by international experts or entities.  Ukrainian law requires that artesian water is transported in pipes and not highly wasteful, often decrepit, open channels.  The Russians also recognize this and began constructing an approximately 200 km pipeline from the area around Dzankoye to the east of the peninsula.

Ukrainian experts claim that although this is a high-tech project it is not as complex as, for example, the construction of the Kerch bridge or other infrastructure projects that facilitate the rapid relocation and basing of Russian military forces in Crimea.  By some estimates it could have been completed within a year.  Yet despite the very substantial budget allocated initially for the project, the completion date has been continually deferred and reports suggest that construction has simply ground to a standstill.

The artesian water being dumped into the North Crimean Canal represents an abuse of a scarce strategic resource that could have been used to foster local economic and commercial development adjacent to the source.  In short, the apparent lack of interest or motivation in completing a relatively simple pipeline project that would have used this resource more efficiently - surely a priority given the enduring uncertainty over long-term water prospects in Crimea - provides further corroborative evidence that sustainable social development in Crimea remains very much a secondary concern, well behind projects that serve Moscow's principal strategic goal of militarizing the peninsula.