Our Water Matters

Is the Russian war on Ukraine really about water?

In a recent article in H2O Global News, Siôn Geschwindt and Dr. Michael Stanley Gallisdorfer make a convincing case that the greatest motivating factor behind the current conflict in Ukraine could actually be water. They point out that, “Control over water resources has been a point of contention between [Russia and Ukraine] for almost a decade.”

One of the biggest bones of contention? The North Crimean Canal. Built during the Soviet era to convey water from the Dnieper River in Ukraine to the Crimean Peninsula, the main canal is about 250 miles long with a huge network of side channels and reservoirs. The system has provided a vital lifeline to the arid Crimean region since the 1960s, transforming the peninsula into a hub of agriculture, industry and tourism.

Following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Ukrainians retaliated by building a dam on their side of the North Crimean Canal, effectively cutting the supply of water to Crimea. Dramatic photos taken just a few weeks later show the canal completely dry.

“The impact on agriculture was immediate and devastating,” according to Geschwindt and Gallisdorfer. The area under cultivation in Crimea shrunk from 350,000 acres in 2013 to just 25,000 in 2015. “Despite significant Russian efforts to redirect local rivers, drill new wells, rebuild reservoirs, and invest in desalination technology –– water insecurity in Crimea has only worsened.”

Tellingly, the breakaway region of Donetsk is another area of Ukraine where control over water access has caused significant tensions. According to the Geschwindt and Gallisdorfer, many “reports and eyewitness accounts suggest that Russian-backed separatists deliberately sabotaged critical water infrastructure in an effort to upend Ukraine’s defense.”

The water pipeline at the frontline in Donetsk has been damaged hundreds of times since the current conflict began. The local water authority has reported nine deaths and 26 injuries among its workers as they have tried to repair the pipeline. According to a representative from Unicef in Ukraine, “The biggest problem is the awful condition of the critical water infrastructure in Donetsk, which is all located near the front line. If this infrastructure is destroyed, more than three million people will be without water.”

Nowhere has this weaponization of water been more effective than in Mariupol, where Russian soldiers shut off the water supply to the civilian population. “The basic idea of war is that it’s organized violence and to use the threat of force to compel people,” says Matthew Schmidt, an associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven. “Because we have to drink water to survive, it’s always been a weapon of war.”

According to a recent article in Politico, “Weaponizing water is particularly effective when it is scarce or when a country — such as Ukraine, known as Europe’s breadbasket — is heavily dependent on agriculture and irrigation.” With about 104 million acres under cultivation, Ukraine has the most arable farmland on the continent. Any interruption in the water supply could have far-reaching effects on Europe and the world.

So how do we make sense of the many signs of a water war between Russia and Ukraine? One available tool is the Water Conflict Chronology. Created by the Pacific Institute, the chronology classifies water conflict into three categories. The first category involves a trigger or root cause of conflict over the control of water or water systems. The second category involves water as a weapon, where water resources or water systems themselves are weaponized in a conflict. The third category involves water systems as a casualty of conflict, where water resources are the intentional or incidental targets of violence.

Geschwindt and Gallisdorfer state that, “If we follow the Water Conflict Chronology framework, Russia is without a doubt waging a water war in Ukraine. Is it the sole cause of the conflict? Certainly not. But water emerges time and time again as a major undercurrent.”

Why is this important? “Because understanding the multiple root causes of this war can help us resolve it … Without water, Crimea withers. Without access to Black Sea ports, the abundant produce of Ukraine’s fertile farmland cannot reach global markets … Achieving peace begins with reaching an agreement to share diminishing water resources equitably throughout the region.”

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as board chairman of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He earns his living as a translator of technical documents from German to English for the German and Swiss pharmaceutical and medical-science industries. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected].