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Occupied Crimea faces a critical water shortage

The lack of a clean water supply is worsening the humanitarian situation on the Crimean peninsula. Russia is increasingly blaming Ukraine for the problem as part of its overall attempts to lift sanctions.

June 23, 2020 - Maksym Skrypchenko - Articles and Commentary

Segment of the Crimean Canal near Lenine, Kerch Peninsula in 2014 Photo: Aleksander Kaasik (cc) wikimedia.org

Ever since Russia occupied the Crimean peninsula in 2014, there has been a huge problem concerning its water supply. This issue is largely concerned with the North Crimean Canal, which provides 85 per cent of the area’s clean water. This canal originates in springs found in territory controlled by the Ukrainian government. As a result, the supply of water was halted following Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.

Moscow has asked Ukraine to restart the flow of drinkable water on several occasions. The Kremlin was even apparently ready to offer money to make this happen. Of course, should Kyiv agree to this through an intergovernmental treaty, it would effectively signify recognition of Russian control over the peninsula. At the same time, Moscow spends billions to supply water from its territory to occupied Crimea, so why should Ukraine facilitate Russian efforts to maintain the occupied territory? Sanctions against Russia are simply a means of opposing Kremlin attempts to undermine Ukraine and maintain its control over the occupied territories.

Article 56 of the Geneva Convention makes it clear that an occupying state is responsible for any negative developments in the occupied territory. Due to this, Russia is responsible for any problems related to a shortage of water. This is a responsibility owed to the people of Crimea, as well as the international community. Putin should have thought about this problem back in 2014 when Russian armed forces began to occupy the territory. However, he prefers to argue that Ukraine is responsible for the water shortage on the peninsula. His main idea is still to blame “fascist Ukraine” for the “water genocide” affecting the population of Crimea. There are many supporters of Putin in the Russian parliament which tend to go further. For example, Zhirinovsky has proposed blocking the headwaters of Ukrainian rivers which are located in Russia. Some of them even urge Putin to take water sources by force. Naturally, this would require the Russian military to occupy various parts of southern Ukraine.

Whilst the likelihood of a serious humanitarian catastrophe in the area grows every day, Moscow is still trying to lift sanctions by legalising the occupation of Crimea. The Kremlin has even attempted to organise a video conference focused on “people who live in Crimea” within the United Nations Security Council. Simultaneously, Moscow has used collaborators which have been given official government positions as a means of proving that Ukraine is responsible for Crimea’s humanitarian crisis. For instance, a so-called former “prosecutor” of Crimea and current MP in the Russian parliament Natalia Poklonskaya recently sent a letter to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The letter urged the organisation’s chief, Michelle Bachelet, to “condemn Kyiv’s unlawful actions that have deprived Crimeans of freshwater, as well as to take corresponding measures to resume the supply of water from the Dnipro river via the North Crimean Canal”. Although Poklonskaya has stated publicly that she wants to represent Russia as an official ambassador in the future, her activities against Kyiv are still being investigated by Ukrainian authorities.

Putin is also using other speakers with illegitimate positions in the peninsula to make statements on the region’s current situation. To use another example, Crimea’s “Chairman of the State Council” Konstantinov recently stated that the peninsula did not need Ukrainian water. He also said that “people who live in Crimea should hold their heads high in pride that they do not take anything from the fascists”. Later, however, he added that the people should still expect Kyiv to supply water. The word “fascist” is now being used more often by Russian authorities as official commemorations of the 75th “Victory Day Parade” draw closer. Of course, this celebration has been moved to 24th June due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Russian officials continue to stress that the situation regarding Crimea’s water supply is under control. Despite this, the country is now increasingly blaming Ukraine for the problem as part of its overall attempts to lift sanctions. Moscow has already tried to address the United Nations two times this month regarding this issue. A few days ago, Ukraine reported that one of its soldiers had been abducted at a temporary border between territory controlled by Kyiv and Crimea. Subsequently, it is clear that Moscow is trying to use all available means to pressure Ukraine into recognising the annexation, as well as lifting sanctions that have proven harmful to the Russian economy.

Maksym Skrypchenko is a cofounder of Ukrainian Translatlantic Platform and a Deputy Director of Security Initiative Center residing in Kyiv. His main areas of expertise are conflictology, Eastern Europe, Ukraine-EU and Ukraine-NATO relations.

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