Russia's ongoing efforts to stretch Crimea's dwindling water supplies will only slightly delay the need to permanently fix the region's insufficient water resources by either funding expensive infrastructure overhauls, or convincing Ukraine to reopen the North Crimean Canal. The availability of fresh water in Crimea has progressively degraded following Russia's annexation in 2014. But with drought conditions worsening through the summer and beyond, the peninsula's dire water scarcity issues are now increasingly threatening industrial and agricultural consumption.
Crimea has a semi-desert climate and has always relied on others for its freshwater consumption. Crimea also suffers from a cyclical drought pattern, which includes periods of reduced rainfall and melting snow. The current drought, however, has been made worse by the fact that it's the first Crimea has experienced since losing access to crucial Ukrainian water reserves in 2014. Prior to Russian annexation, Crimea depended heavily (85 percent of its consumption) on water flow from Ukraine's Dnieper River through the North Crimean Canal, which was constructed by the Soviet Union between 1961 and 1975. But Kyiv blocked the canal after Russia took control of the peninsula, rapidly exhausting the already scarce reservoirs near Crimea's population centers.
In July, Russia built a pipeline to transport water from Crimea's Bilohirsk region to Simferopol, though this will only provide temporary relief. The cyclical droughts that have troubled Crimea have also affected the Bilohirsk reservoir, emphasizing the unsustainability of Moscow's current efforts, which have so far centered on gathering the last of the peninsula's remaining water reserves to postpone more costly permanent solutions.
- The 35-kilometer (22-mile) pipeline is able to pump 60,000 cubic meters of water per day to the peninsula's capital and most populous city.
- But water levels in the Bilohirsk reservoir are now at the lowest point they've ever been for this time of year. And with no end in sight to the peninsula's drought, there's a chance the Bilohirsk reservoir could be entirely depleted over the summer.
Crimea's increasingly scarce water reserves will have the most immediate impact on agriculture, though the worsening situation could eventually impact water availability for household consumption.
- The lack of surface water for irrigation and overuse of groundwater has already led to the rapid salination of Crimea's agricultural lands. By 2017, the amount of irrigated and farmable land had shrunk to 14,000 hectares, down from 130,000 before Russian annexation. Farming on the peninsula still occurs at a much greater scale, but with poor yields and through unsustainable practices.
- In February 2020, local authorities in Simferopol announced the city's reservoirs only had 100 days left of remaining water to cover its population's daily consumption after an unusually dry winter. The city was able to avert imposing severe restrictions on domestic water use thanks to an unexpected refill of one of its reserves, but such water preservation measures will likely be reconsidered as Simferopol's reservoirs continue to rapidly deplete without access to external water reserves, or adequate rainfall and snowmelt.
To restore Crimea's water reserves, Russian officials have raised various other potential solutions to connect the peninsula with Russian water reserves, though all of these proposals would require vast infrastructure developments.
- The proposed construction of desalination plants along the Black Sea coast could provide fresh water to Crimea. But this would require a large initial investment, and the electricity costs of operating such plants would also likely make them economically unviable.
- Moscow has also floated the idea of building a water pipeline to transport fresh water from Russia's Kuban River across the Kerch Strait into Crimea. But the upfront investment and operating costs of such a plan are higher than what could feasibly be recovered through taxation or water prices.
Achieving a diplomatic breakthrough with Ukraine to regrant Crimea access to its water reserves is Russia's only viable option to sustainably solve the peninsula's crisis without heavily subsidizing the region. Moscow will likely seek a reopening of the North Crimean Canal by either continuing to pressure the current Ukrainian government on humanitarian grounds or hoping for more pragmatic negotiations with a future Ukrainian government. But the success of such efforts remains slim, given that the Ukrainian government has repeatedly stated that it will not engage in any interaction with a Russian-occupied Crimea for fear of implying a de-facto recognition of Russian control over the territory. Even if the canal were to be reopened, however, Russia would still have to bankroll refurbishing the canal and its pumping stations, which have decayed after years of unuse.