A water reservoir in Crimea
Ayan reservoir and Zarichne village in Crimea. Photo: Pavel Mozhaev. Lic: CC BY-SA 3.0.

Droughts and political negligence left Crimea struggling for water

From September 2020, residents of the Russian-controlled peninsula have running water for only several hours a day.
From September 2020, residents of the Russian-controlled peninsula have running water for only several hours a day.

Every evening, Anna Romanova*, a resident of Crimean city Simferopol, hurries home. Like many of her neighbours, she has only three hours after work, from 6 pm to 9 pm, to cook dinner, clean up the flat, wash her child, her dog and herself. 

Of course, that’s if she is lucky. If she’s not, she will not enjoy any running water at all. 

“In 2020, there were periods when we did not have tap water for five days in a row,” Anna recalls. “On some days, it was just terrifying: stinky, brown, unsuitable for washing even a dog, she continues.”

According to Anna, the infamous “scheduled water supply” was introduced in Simferopol at the end of August 2020. It came at a time when the citizens of the peninsula faced severe water shortages. In some towns and villages, the problem was so acute that the precious commodity only came to their residents in water tanks.

“We had no water for most of December,” said Anastasia Karpukhina from Kerch, a city with a population of 150,000 people. “They sent us daily water carriers only in the middle of the month, after numerous complaints,” she remarks. 

Up until 2014, when the Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia, water reached local households mainly through the North-Crimean channel. However, after losing control of the region, Ukraine blocked this lifeline as a form of protest against the unlawful seizure. The new, Russian-backed administration did not come up with sophisticated solutions and merely increased the reliance on natural reservoirs and well drilling.

It worked for some time. Until the summer of 2020 came and brought the drought

Short-sighted solutions only delay the emergency

On June 6, 7 and 8 2020, the temperature in Simferopol broke three all-time records, rising to 32,6° C, 32,3°C and 34,4°C  respectively. The average temperature at the time was 7-8 °C higher than the norm.

Dry and hot weather is typical of the peninsula, but this time it took a hold. The drought and high temperatures lasted the whole summer and the first half of autumn, bringing more heat records than rains. Crimean natural reservoirs went shallow and underground wells were the only source of water for local households.

“Last time we saw a scheduled water supply was in 1991. It was also caused by a drought back then, but the one in 2020 struck us harder,” recalls Valentin Shestak, chair of the Sevastopol Society for the Conservation of Nature, Human Rights and Historical Heritage.

June 2020 served as a wake-up call for the new Crimean authorities, who had been contemplating the emerging disaster for six years but did nothing to prevent it. In September, they authorised yet more well drilling and requested funds for the construction of desalination plants. 

However, at the beginning of 2021, they admitted that groundwater is not an endless resource.

“Due to the insufficient amount of precipitation, depletion of groundwater and karst water resources, we are witnessing the deterioration of the hydrological situation in the basins of the main Crimean rivers,” said the Russian-backed Crimean Council of Ministers chairman Yuri Gotsanyuk in a press statement. “This negatively affected the water reserves in natural reservoirs. As a result, water supplies in Simferopol and the surrounding area last year accounted for only 32% of the norm,” he explained. 

Gotsanyuk, however, claims that the quality of tap water in Crimea “conforms with the norms.”

The chair of the Russian-backed Crimean administration Sergey Aksyonov talking to a resident of Novoozyornoe. Photo: rk.gov.ru. Lic. CC BY 4.0.

Redistribution of water

Сlimate scientists warned about the increased risk of extreme weather events in the South of Russia and Ukraine back in 2014. Such notices make the policy of Russian-baked Crimean administration seem even more short-sighted. According to the Russian Hydrometeorological Center’s Second Evaluation Report of Climate Change and its Consequences in the Russian Federation, global warming makes droughts in these regions more severe and wider-reaching.

“In the context of global warming, water is redistributed,” said Roman Vilfand, Scientific director of the Russian Hydrometeorological Center in a press conference in January 2020. 

“In temperate latitudes, the amount of precipitation on average remains the same. In northern latitudes, it increases, and in southern, already dry latitudes, it decreases. The Crimea is situated in the South, and, according to our calculations, there will be less and less precipitation there,” Vilfand added.

A North Eurasian Climate Center 2020 report is in agreement. The paper indicates that for the past ten years the amount of precipitation in the Russian South, the East of Ukraine, and in Moldova decreased 5-14%.

“We have to start a water-saving program,” suggests Valentin Shestak. “Up to one-third of our water in our households goes on flushing toilets. Therefore, we must separate drinking and non-drinking water and educate people about the need to do this.”

The construction of two desalination facilities in Crimea, have been long advised by experts. However, desalination comes with some environmental costs too: the process is pricey and it consumes a lot of energy. 

The desalination facilities are only expected to be finished by the end of 2021. As a result, the amount of precipitation in 2021 is again the main factor defining whether the nearly two million residents of the peninsula will enjoy a stable water supply.

* Not the source’s real name