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climate change, crisis, crimea, russia, ukraine

Wither Crimea

Crimea will run out of water before the Russo-Ukrainian war ends.

Words: Sarah Martin
Pictures: Valeriia Bugaiova

Kyiv and Moscow’s intractable policies regarding Crimea have put the peninsula in a dangerous situation and climate change has exacerbated it to the point of peril. Russia seems poised to intervene in brash ways that could worsen the situation, while Ukraine is determined to remain silent until Russia evacuates the peninsula. However, this is not a battle of attrition, and as both capitals bicker about territorial claims, four million people are at risk of withering away under restricted water sources and a heavy sun.

Though the peninsula is surrounded by water, the Kerch Strait and Black Sea are both salt water while the climate remains arid. The majority of Crimea’s water comes from the mainland of Ukraine, through the Dnieper River. Following the original incursion in 2014, Kyiv shut off water supplies to Crimea, largely in hopes to drive out the Russians who illegally seized their land. Under normal circumstances, Kyiv’s decision to halt water supplies would have been painful, but not fatal, as Crimea would have supplemented their reserves with rainfall. However, the peninsula is in the middle of the worst drought in its 150 year recorded climate history — reducing those reserves by one-third. Local government officials have begun to impose water quotas. Although Crimea poses significant political challenges to Kyiv, millions of people may lose vital access to water if they cannot reach a solution with the occupying force — Russia.

It must be unequivocally stated that Crimea is a part of Ukraine and that Russia violated international norms and laws with its annexation. However, Russia’s grip on Crimea is equally resolute to the international community’s insistence that it is Ukraine’s. In addition to its ongoing military presence on land and sea, Moscow has pursued an aggressive campaign of politically integrating Crimea into its fold. In declaring Krym Nash (“Crimea is ours”), Russia has extended citizenship to the majority of the peninsula through the distribution of passports and encouraged the mass resettlement of Russian citizens from the mainland, increasing the population by at least 500,000. In addition, Russian forces have targeted the indigenous Tatar community, harassing them until they relocate or disappearing them under the auspices of “counterterrorism.” On September 5, 2021, 50 Crimean Tatars were detained and jailed. Tatar politician, Nariman Dzhelyal, was accused of sabotaging a gas pipeline near Simferopol, which the Kyiv government dismissed as fabricated.

The ongoing water crisis in Crimea demonstrates a new global paradigm — not one of pandemics or terrorism, but of climate change.

In fact, Russia incorporated votes from occupied Crimea and the Donbas in its upcoming parliamentary elections. The construction of the Kerch Strait bridge physically cemented Crimea’s presence and priority on the Russian agenda. It is arguable that President Putin annexed Crimea out of cold domestic political calculus — it certainly worked. According to the Levada Center, Putin saw a jump in the polls. Even opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, supported the annexation. Without significant movement in other parts of the conflict or in the Russian Federation itself, the possibility of Crimea returning to Kyiv control remains bleak.

Observers of the conflict have continually raised the issue of an  impending water crisis since 2018. Although Russia’s build-up of troops along the Russo-Ukrainian border in April 2021 did not ultimately lead to an escalation, observers at the time warned that the water crisis could be a flashpoint. Dwindling water supplies and an intransigent Kyiv government might compel Russian troops to invade deeper into the country to break the dams and let the water flow again. In lieu of the hot conflict, for now, the Russians have begun to drill for new water tables in ways that local environmental groups claim will only make the situation worse. Moscow sued Kyiv in the European Court of Human Rights in July over their restrictions of water, calling it “ecocide.” In the end, the Court dismissed their petition.

As the occupying force, Russia has international legal obligations to the citizens of Crimea. However, Ukraine has moral obligations as the true government. Adhering to these obligations is rendered challenging through Kyiv’s insistence that they will not engage Russia on the issue of Crimea’s water without first Russia removing itself from the peninsula. Though bilateral engagement is anathema, allies and partners can shoulder some of the political burden. Since the 2013 Euromaidan Revolution and the subsequent incursion from Russia, Ukraine has enjoyed exceptional support from the NATO alliance nations, the European Union.

In August, President Zelenskyy hosted the inaugural Crimean Platform, which convened 47 nations, including the United States and representatives from the European Union and Council of Europe, to discuss and develop solutions to the crisis on the peninsula. Participants drafted a resolution following the event, maintaining Ukraine’s territorial integrity and a commitment to finding peaceful solutions to the illegal occupation. Following the Platform, President Zelenskyy met with President Biden, where the two nations reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to each other and outlined their strategic relationship in areas such as security, human rights, and anti-corruption. President Zelenskyy returned to the United States for the 2021 United Nations General Assembly. Though these engagements were considered a success, each instance missed an opportunity to discuss Crimea’s water crisis and proffer legitimate solutions.

The ongoing water crisis in Crimea demonstrates a new global paradigm — not one of pandemics or terrorism, but of climate change. States must adjust their foreign policy strategies to meet the unique and profound challenges that an irrevocably altered climate produces. Despite the political risks, Ukraine has an obligation to ensure the safety of all Crimeans — this includes taking steps to mitigate the possibility of future Russian violence, be it through invasion or improper water extraction techniques. Support from partners and allies should be seen as a boon to reach a resolution. Kyiv’s current policy of waiting for Russia to leave is unsustainable, while unnecessarily pitting four million people against the whims and whimsy of Moscow and Mother Nature.

Sarah Martin is the 2021 YPFP Eurasia Fellow. She works in Washington, DC, supporting the implementation of human rights programs in Eurasia, with a focus on Ukraine and Moldova. Prior to this, she was a Research Associate at the Secretariat of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria, where she followed political-military affairs, and an intern with the US Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe (US Helsinki Commission), where she followed a similar portfolio.

Sarah Martin

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