Environmental Law

Crimea’s Water Woes as an Impetus for Russian Aggression and Comparisons to California’s Embattled Water Management System During Drought

By Sara F. Dudley and Mo Roeckl-Navazio


The Canal was completed by 1975 when Crimea was part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.1 Relevant here, the Canal channels water from Ukraine’s stretch of the Dnieper River to Crimea’s arid northern region.2 At 1,367 miles long, the Dnieper River is one of the longest rivers in Europe, flowing from east of Moscow, through Belarus and Ukraine, and emptying into the Black Sea.3 Completion of the Canal, and the subsequent influx of water to northern Crimea, spurred rapid agricultural and industrial development in that region.4 Reports indicate that by 2014 Crimea was receiving an outstanding 80% of its total water supply from the Canal, 72% of which was used for agriculture and 10% for industrial purposes.5 Rice, a highly water-intensive crop that is also cultivated here in California, accounted for 60% of agricultural water use.6 Other crops cultivated by Crimea included grapes, maize, and soya.7 Crimea used Canal water to irrigate approximately 300,000 acres.8

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, control of this vital resource was given to Ukraine. It is managed by the State Water Agency of Ukraine, an agency of Ukraine’s central government.9


In February 2014, Russian military operatives illegally infiltrated Crimea. In March, the Russian military took total control of the region. On March 16, 2014, a highly contested election in Crimea returned predictable Soviet-style results, with 97% of Crimeans opting to join Russia.10 Even then, Crimeans cited Canal water as an important, unresolved issue.11

Ukraine responded swiftly by damming the Canal with sandbags and earthen structure in 2014, followed by a permanent concrete dam in 2017.12 Ukrainian authorities allege that in the aftermath of the Crimean annexation, Russia refused to pay for Crimea’s water, incurring massive debt. In addition, Ukraine alleged that the Canal needed repairs, and Russian occupiers made no effort to contribute to those costs.13 Russia responded by stating that Ukraine never negotiated with them over the price of water or the cost of repairs and that Ukraine was weaponizing a critical natural resource.14


Although reports vary, it appears that the loss of Canal water has negatively impacted northern Crimea’s agriculture, economy, and, increasingly, quality of life. Aspects of this situation may seem familiar to Californians who also rely on irrigated water, are accustomed to periods of extreme drought, and grapple with aging water infrastructure.

Satellite images from 2018 reflect increasing desertification in the region.15 Agricultural output has “plummeted” by as much as 85%. By 2017, rice production had ceased.16

To compensate, Crimeans increasingly rely on reservoirs, groundwater and precipitation. But as Californians understand, these sources are diminishing and unstable. 2020 was Crimea’s driest in 150 years. And groundwater resources, as Californians also know, are simple enough to tap but difficult to replenish.

Although a 2017 UN report concluded that drinking water was not affected by the loss of access to the Canal, that may no longer be true.17 Since April 2021, Crimeans report that water has been rationed to six hours a day (or less).18 And Crimeans report that the water that does come in is of low quality; aging pipelines have been cited as a factor.19 Making water withdrawals from low reservoirs could also be a cause. And Crimea’s population has doubled in recent years, putting additional pressure on the diminishing supply.20

On July 22, 2021, Russia filed a lawsuit in the UN Court of Human Rights to restore water delivery; the suit was dismissed two days later.21 Russia has proposed costly water infrastructure upgrades, such as digging deeper wells and a desalination plant.22 Russians are also trucking in containers of drinking water. But are these measures enough? Likely not. As Californians also understand, water projects are time-consuming to build and implement. Even if new water is made available immediately, it can take up to 15 years for soil to become arable again.23


This article began with a question. Was the Russian invasion of Ukraine motivated by Crimea’s water woes? In a world increasingly impacted by climate change, competition for natural resources should always be a considered factor in cross-border conflicts. One expert has argued that “‘the canal issue strongly irritates Russia,’ as it both ‘increases the price of occupation’ and ‘decreases the popularity of the occupying power.’”24 The timing is also telling. One of Russia’s first acts in Ukraine was to destroy the concrete dam.25 The Canal began filling, anticipated to be usable in April 2022.26


What’s next? Although the situation seems grim, it is at least possible that, ultimately, a water-sharing agreement could be part of a treaty settlement of the current Ukrainian/Russian conflict. The parties could form a joint technical committee with the authority to manage the Canal and manage needs among competing users. A joint technical committee is by nature intended to be apolitical, composed of representatives from each party. The parties share data on water usage and needs and development projects involving the watercourse.27

Although Crimea is not riparian (adjacent) to the Dnieper River, the concept could be extended. Crimean authorities should also re-evaluate their agricultural choices to focus on native and drought-tolerant crops. It may be far-fetched to assume that 60% of resumed Canal flow could be again appropriated to create rice paddies in an arid region.28 As California’s Mono Lake controversy made clear, the best source of new water may be the water you already have.29

Sara F. Dudley is a Board Member of the California Lawyers Association, Environmental Law Section. She is a staff attorney with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. The statements in this article are entirely those of the author and do not reflect those of the Department.

Mo Roeckl-Navazio is a third-year law student and Juris Doctorate candidate at the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of law. She is passionate about public policy and developed an interest in international water conflicts through her International Water Resource Law course.

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1 Accounts vary as to date the Canal was completed, with a consensus that it was done by 1975. The Moscow Times, North Crimean Canal Fills With Water After Russian Forces Destroyed Dam, Mar. 4, 2022 (last viewed Apr. 21, 2022), https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/03/04/north-crimean-canal-fills-with-water-after-russian-forces-destroyed-dam-a76755 (Canal completed in 1975); Sharon Udasin, How a Ukrainian dam played a key role in tensions with Russia, THE HILL, Mar. 12, 2022, 6:00 AM ET, https://thehill.com/policy/equilibrium-sustainability/597910-how-a-ukrainian-dam-played-a-key-role-in-tensions-with/ (history of the Canal; Canal completed in 1975) (last viewed Apr. 18, 2022.) 2 Udasin, supra note 1. 3 Brittanica, Dnieper River, https://www.britannica.com/place/Dnieper-River (last viewed Apr. 18, 2022.) 4 Mehmet Altingoz & Saleem Ali, Hydropolitics in the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict, Mar. 1, 2022, https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2022/03/hydropolitics-russian-ukrainian-conflict/ (last viewed Apr. 21, 2022) 5 BBC, Russia fears Crimea water shortage as supply drops, April 25, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27155885 (last viewed Apr. 21, 2022); Oleksii Plotnikov, The Proceedings Flow While Water Does Not: Russia’s Claims Concerning the North Crimean Canal in Strasbourg, Aug. 24, 2021, https://www.ejiltalk.org/the-proceedings-flow-while-water-does-not-russias-claims-concerning-the-north-crimean-canal-in-strasbourg/ (last viewed Apr. 21, 2022); Sharon Udasin, supra note 1. 6 Udasin, supra note 1. 7 BBC, supra note 5; Altingoz & Ali, supra note 4. 8 BBC, supra note 5; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27155885 9 See generally Udasin, supra note 1; Plotnikov, supra note 5. 10 Steven Pifer, Crimea: Six years after illegal annexation, March 17, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/03/17/crimea-six-years-after-illegal-annexation/ 11 BBC, supra note 5. 12 Financial Times, Crimea ‘water war’ opens new front in Russia-Ukraine conflict, July 28, 2021 (last viewed Apr. 21, 2022), https://www.ft.com/content/5eda71fc-d678-41cd-ac5a-d7f324e19441; see also Altingoz & Ali, supra note 4.; Plotnikov, supra note 5. 13 Altingoz & Ali, supra note 4. 14 Altingoz & Ali, supra note 4. 15 Christian Mamo, Inside Crimea’s water crisis, April 2, 2021, https://emerging-europe.com/news/inside-crimeas-water-crisis/ 16 Ibid. 17 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Situation of human rights in the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol (Ukraine); pp. 29 – 30, available at https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3954787; Oleksii Plotnikov, supra note 11. 18 Mamo, supra note 15. 19 Canan Kevser, Water reservoirs depleted in Crimea, citizens cannot access safe freshwater, March 9, 2021, https://qirim.news/en/kryimskie-tataryi-en/water-reservoirs-depleted-in-crimea-citizens-cannot-access-safe-freshwater/; Friends of Reservoirs, Best Management Practices, https://www.friendsofreservoirs.com/science/best-management-practices-manual/chapter-6-water-quality/- (last viewed Apr. 22, 2022.) 20 Ayse Betül Bal, Inside Crimea: What Moscow-Kyiv dispute means for water crisis, February 21, 2021, Https://www.dailysabah.com/business/economy/inside-crimea-what-moscow-kyiv-dispute-means-for-water-crisis 21 Oleksii Plotnikov, supra note 5. 22 Mamo, supra note 15; Ayse Betül Bal, supra note 20. 23 Bal, supra note 20. 24 Usdain, supra note 1. 25 Altingoz & Ali, supra note 4. 26 The Moscow Times, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/03/04/north-crimean-canal-fills-with-water-after-russian-forces-destroyed-dam-a76755, Mar. 4, 2022 (last viewed, Apr. 21, 2022.) 27 Kunene River Awareness Kit, The Permanent Joint Technical Committee, http://www.kunene.riverawarenesskit.com/KUNENERAK_COM/EN/GOVERNANCE/WATER_GOVERNANCE_IN_THE_KUNENE_/PJTC.HTM; see also Usdain, supra note 1 (Ukraine and Russia “could have agreed to some form of technical cooperation on pumping stations along the canal” with cost sharing.) 28 Usdain, supra note 1 (rice growing in the region “absolutely not ecological.”) 29 See generally National Audubon Soc’y v. Sup. Ct. (1983) 33 Cal.3d 419.