The Chairman of the State Council of Crimea, Vladimir Konstantinov, announced on Wednesday 10th March that the body is planning to bring a “lawsuit against Ukraine due to the losses caused to the peninsula by the water blockade.”
Since April 2014, shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian government has blocked the flow of water from the Dnieper River south through the North Crimean Canal and declared it will not resume until the occupation ends. Before 2014, the canal had supplied approximately 85 per cent of Crimea’s water. Seven years on, the cumulative effects of the watercourse’s obstruction and reduced rainfall have resulted in water rationing across large swathes of the peninsula including its second-largest city, Simferopol, where water is only available for six hours a day. Konstantinov intends to present evidence of the damage caused to the region’s ecology, agriculture, enterprises, and public health in international courts — the first time such a step has been proposed.
Reactions to Konstantinov’s announcement, both from government officials and civil society organisations, demonstrate the complexity and intensity of feeling that currently obscure potential resolutions. Alexander Lukashevich, Russia’s permanent secretary to the OSCE, recently called Ukraine’s actions an “attempt at genocide” and quoted a 2010 UN General Assembly resolution that the right to water is a “prerequisite for the realisation of other human rights.” The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, one of the oldest in Ukraine, responded that according to the Geneva Convention, Russia bears full responsibility for the basic needs of the population as the occupying power. But amidst these scrambles to claim the highest moral ground, both sides implicitly justify their own failures in providing for the Crimean people. As popular Crimean blogger RoksolanaToday put it on Twitter, “come out in hundreds and thousands, this is a humanitarian disaster.”
Although Kyiv is concerned for the wellbeing of its citizens living in “temporarily occupied Crimea,” it faces a perennial issue associated with blockading military regimes: it is impossible to restrict the Russian army’s access to water from the Dnieper, while enabling supply to the population. In one sense, the withholding of water from the peninsula is Ukraine’s most feasible nonviolent way of resisting the military occupation. But in another, the suffering it is inflicting on its citizens seemingly hinders its dreams of the region’s peaceful reintegration.
Moreover, were Russia to find a suitable solution to the water crisis, the refrain that the new regime must take responsibility would serve instead to legitimise it. While Moscow’s efforts have thus far proved ineffective, it is currently undertaking to build a desalination plant which would produce 40,000 cubic meters of fresh water a day.
Konstantinov’s announcement on the legal claim, therefore, could bring international attention to the effects of the crisis just as Russia relieves it. Kyiv may not fear it on judicial grounds, but such an attempt to meticulously draw international public attention to the worsening drought’s effects promotes little hope for peace. The obstruction of the North Crimean Canal cannot end the Russian annexation peacefully, because the bitter sentiments it fuels would remain even if all belligerents left. Documenting this suffering in the international courts will perpetuate and empirically substantiate such memories, without reaching a legal solution conducive to peace.
Kyiv’s withholding of water as a diplomatic weapon is not without precedent, perhaps the most relevant of which is Russia’s use of its petroleum monopolies to affect the region’s geopolitics. Moscow provides heavily subsidised oil and gas to de facto states like Transnistria, ensuring both their survival and loyalty to the Kremlin, while it has occasionally cut off supply to customers including Ukraine in 2014. In a region where resource control means political power and resource distribution grants political legitimacy, the North Crimean Canal dispute is often sadly viewed in terms of its geopolitical implications more than its human cost.
The State Council of Crimea’s decision to bring an international lawsuit against Ukraine seeking damages for the effects of the “water blockade” is likely an attempt to draw international attention more than money. The material cost arising from the drought is already being paid by Russia, which is investing heavily in the peninsula to secure their legitimacy. Although the dispute deserves more foreign awareness in the hope of a peaceful resolution, it should not be on such provocative grounds. As long as both sides seek to justify their contributions to the peninsula’s deprivation while blaming the other, both Ukrainian and Russian nationalist opinions harden within Crimea. The dispute over the canal will not end the conflict over Crimea’s annexation, but when the conflict does conclude, bitter interpretations of the drought could well impede hopes for a genuine peace within communities.