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A Country in the Center of Hydropolitics Tension: Ukraine - Yaren Öztürk

As the war between Russia and Ukraine is in its third month and negotiations are still ongoing, it is essential to examine the war from another perspective to understand its causes entirely. While the war has multiple root causes, it shows that hydro-political tensions between Ukraine and Russia are at the center of the escalation in violence. The effects of climate change are increasing more and more every day, and countries like India are experiencing their hottest days. In such an environment, the importance of water rises gradually with the decrease of water resources; on the other side, water is turned into a more powerful weapon to be used in wars by pro-war countries. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, a global think tank with a mission to find solutions to water-related problems, stated that climate change will enhance conflicts as the accessibility of water decreases and drought increases in some geographies. Although the incidents showed that using water as a weapon decreased after World War II, it can be said that water is used as a target and weapon in the war between Russia and Ukraine.

The struggle for control over water resources has created tensions between the two countries for almost a decade. One of Russia's first actions, three days after Russian forces began invading Ukraine, was to restore water flow to Crimea by breaking a dam in the North Crimean Canal that restricted water access to Russia's annexed Crimea. It would be wrong not to say that this was a planned move from a historical perspective. The North Crimean Canal took 14 years to build during the Soviet Union and was completed in 1975. It was built to carry water from the Dnieper River in Ukraine to the arid peninsula of Crimea. The canal, which is connected to a vast reservoir network with a central channel longer than 400 km, has played an essential role in the peninsula's development in many aspects such as agriculture, industry and tourism. It has been meeting 85% of the region's water needs for a long time. This situation changed with Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, leading to a growing hydro-political tension over the years. Crimea, the only region in Ukraine with a majority of ethnic Russians, came under the control of Russia for a very long time, even though various sanctions were imposed on Russia by other countries at that time. Ukraine responded by building a dam next to this canal and cutting off Crimea's access to water, devastatingly affecting farmland. While the cultivated area in Crimea was 140,000 hectares in 2013, it decreased to 10,000 hectares in 2015. Although Russia tried to develop new technologies by drilling new wells and trying to rebuild reservoirs, it could not stop the situation in Crimea. Ukraine's decision to close the canal in 2021 was called an environmental massacre and genocide by Russia.

Crimea is not the only region in Ukraine where the conflict over control over access to water resources has caused significant tensions. Witnesses in the eastern Donetsk region indicate that Russian-backed separatists deliberately sabotaged critical water infrastructure to undermine Ukraine's defence power. Conflicts in Donetsk have left hundreds of thousands of people without access to fresh water supplies. Attacks on water resources, on the one hand, caused water scarcity. On the other hand, it caused stress and uncertainty by causing psychological effects on the local people. It has also caused people to fear, worry and distrust water resources. The worst-case scenario seems to be that more than three million people will be left without water due to infrastructure collapse. In Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine, which was captured by the Russians earlier this week, Russian troops surrounded the city, shutting down access to water supplies for residents, and preventing them from accessing drinking water and sanitation. According to Clingendael, a Netherlands-based think tank, Russia's airstrikes on Ukraine targeted Ukraine's water infrastructure, including sewage treatment plants, pipes and pumping stations. Likewise, the European Union's High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell and Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevičius accused Russia in March of "using the threat of dehydration to force the surrender of and denying access to the most basic needs.''

Ukraine is at the center of both a military and a hydro-political conflict in this context. The country, which is among the three largest grain exporters globally, has 42 million hectares of fertile agricultural lands, the largest on the continent. However, weaponizing and using water as a weapon can significantly damage agriculture and irrigation, especially in countries with poor access to water or in grain-exporting countries such as Ukraine. It is a fact that as people's access to water decreases and drought increases, violence related to water is increasing in the world. The steps taken by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine show that climate change affects Russia's aggressive attitude geopolitically.


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