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Russia has achieved at least 1 of its war goals: return Ukraine's water to Crimea

The canal that provided water from mainland Ukraine to Crimea, which Ukraine blocked after Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, is now reopened and flowing.
Claire Harbage
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NPR
The canal that provided water from mainland Ukraine to Crimea, which Ukraine blocked after Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, is now reopened and flowing.

Updated June 13, 2022 at 4:10 PM ET

Two days into Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February, Russian military forces blew up a dam that Ukraine had built to cut off Crimea's primary water supply. Ukraine barricaded the North Crimean Canal in retaliation for Russia seizing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

The Kremlin had been fuming about the dam ever since.

Anna Olenenko, an agriculture historian from the Khortytsia National Academy in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, points out that blowing up the dam and restarting the flow of water toward Crimea was one of Russia's first acts of the war.

"I think that this shows us the importance of that issue [to Russia]," she says. There were multiple reasons why Russia invaded Ukraine, Olenenko says, and restoring the flow of water to Crimea was one of them. "Putin and the [Russian] government promised to the Crimean people that they would solve the water problem in Crimea," she says.

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The canal flows from the Dnipro River

Before Russia annexed Crimea, Olenenko says, 85% of the peninsula's water came from mainland Ukraine.

The North Crimean Canal was built in stages during Soviet control of Ukraine in the 1960s. It turned the semiarid northern plains of the Crimean Peninsula into a lush agricultural region. All of a sudden, farmers were able to plant fruit orchards. They built rice paddies and even fish farms. Olenenko says grain yields increased four or five times.

The diverted water from the Dnipro River, Olenenko says, turned Crimea into "the land of agriculture and the land of rice growing."

Olenenko studies agriculture in southeastern Ukraine near the city of Mariupol but fled to Poland soon after the February invasion. She now lives in a small town outside of the Polish city of Gdansk.

"I miss Ukraine very much," she says. She'd like to return home but fighting continues just a few miles from where she used to live. "So it's too scary to go back now," she says.

A picture taken in Crimea's Kirovsky region on April 27, 2014, shows an empty Northern Crimean Canal. Ukrainian officials closed the canal, which supplies most of the peninsula's water, after Russia annexed Crimea. This year, Russia blew up the dam blocking the canal.
Yuriy Lashov / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A picture taken in Crimea's Kirovsky region on April 27, 2014, shows an empty Northern Crimean Canal. Ukrainian officials closed the canal, which supplies most of the peninsula's water, after Russia annexed Crimea. This year, Russia blew up the dam blocking the canal.

Crimea's economy took a hit from the dam

Soon after Ukraine blocked the North Crimean Canal in 2014, Crimea's booming agricultural economy shriveled. There was barely enough water even to drink.

Moscow spent billions of rubles trying to solve the Crimea water crisis. The Kremlin proposed various solutions, including trucking it across a new 12-mile-long bridge from mainland Russia, desalination plants and a failed scheme to tap fresh water reservoirs under the Sea of Azov. But nothing worked.

Another possibility was to seize more of Ukraine.

"Water, I would say, was an additional factor that Russia felt legitimized the [February] invasion," says Saleem Ali, who studies conflict and natural resources at the University of Delaware.

Russia tried to take Ukraine to court

Ali says Russia was desperate to find a way to restore the flow of fresh water to Crimea. Last summer, Russia even went to the European Court of Human Rights claiming that Ukraine was violating the rights of Crimea's residents by denying them access to water.

"[Russia] tried to pursue legal mechanisms to get that water and they were not given an audience," Ali says. "They kept getting more aggrieved." Domestically inside Russia, he says, the Kremlin's propaganda machine beat the drum over Ukraine denying water to Crimea as a selling point for why the full-scale invasion what it calls a "special military operation" was necessary.

Professor Milena Sterio at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Ohio says Russia's legal claims to that water are unclear under international law. One of the first things muddying the waters is that it's not even clear if this is an international dispute because most of the world still considers Crimea to legitimately belong to Ukraine.

"So if you consider the territory [Crimea] to be a part of Ukraine but occupied by Russia, then the law of occupation, the so-called Fourth Geneva Convention, clearly says that it's the occupier that has the responsibility to ensure the welfare of the people living in that occupied territory," Sterio says.

So getting the people of Crimea access to water, under this view of the conflict, is Russia's problem. Also regarding the claim of human rights violations, Sterio says this only applies to water for basic human needs. The statute doesn't assert that a country has to give its neighbors enough water to run fish farms and grow rice.

There are laws governing access to water

International law on access to water is relatively new. A United Nations convention on the issue only came in to effect in 2014 and it helps little in this clash because neither Ukraine nor Russia have signed on to it.

Sterio is an expert on international law, but she says, "It gets to be a little bit tricky because international law on water rights is not 100% clear."

Built in the Soviet era, the canal from mainland Ukraine is flowing again now into Crimea.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Built in the Soviet era, the canal from mainland Ukraine is flowing again now into Crimea.

Making things even more complicated, international rules requiring "equitable" sharing of water with downstream states don't explicitly define what "equitable" means, she says.

Another question is whether any international statutes would apply to an entirely human-made system such as the North Crimean Canal or just to rivers and other natural bodies of water.

In practice, Russia's invasion made all these legal questions moot, regarding the water for Crimea. Moscow now controls the canal to the peninsula and much of the watershed that feeds it. Last week, Russia's defense minister announced that the water supply to Crimea from mainland Ukraine has been fully restored.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.