Potential Of Water Wars And Conflicts – OpEd


“Russian forces restored water flow to a canal linking the Dnieper River in Ukraine to Russian-annexed Crimea.”

Water conflicts may soon become the main source of discord between nations replacing the ongoing boundary disputes and discords. Brigadier Pervez Musharraf (former Pak Army Chief and President) while at the Royal College of Defence Studies in 1990 opines in a research paper that ‘Indus waters issue the potential of future conflict.’ The likely future conflict scenario of water leading to wars in the Indian subcontinent will be highlighted after covering the present Ukraine-Russia ‘Water War’. One of the major causes of this uncalled for Ukraine-Russia war is also the ‘Water’ which has not got its due attention from the western media..

Crimea ‘Water War’ a new front in Russia-Ukraine conflict

Likely conflicts of water leading to wars may not happen in the near future but the world is witnessing an ongoing ‘Water War’ conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the Crimea water crisis since 2014. The North Crimean Canal (NCC) was built on Dnieper in 1975 to provide Crimea with water for agriculture and domestic use. For Crimea being sparsely populated having an arid climate this canal is a vital resource for the Crimeans. Agriculture and industry boomed, and was followed by an inflow of migrants to the peninsula. In addition, the NCC enabled rice farming, which became a major export crop from this region.

Ukraine as a retaliatory action to the occupation of Crimea constructed the concrete dam in 2014 cutting off more than 80% of Crimea’s water supply and crippling harvests. Russia while pressing Ukraine to reopen the waterway, had launched a $680 m programme to boost Crimea’s supplies by drilling wells, adding storage and desalination facilities. Russia in July 2021 filed a lawsuit in the European Court of Human Rights accusing Ukraine of “flagrant violations” over the issue of water. The water blockade is an act of state terrorism but the international community is failing to notice the Kyiv regime’s crimes,” Sergei Aksyonov. Russia has accused Ukraine of ‘Genocide’ over the building of a concrete dam across the NCC.

“Russian forces first offensive action taken while invading Ukraine was to blow up the Kherson dam  which had stopped the flow of water into Crimea through the NCC” a Soviet-built canal that previously provided up to 85 per cent of the Crimean peninsula’s water supplies.  The current conflict Crimea ‘Water War’ exemplifies a rare use of water as a means of direct leverage in a military standoff like oil. The Russian state news service has stated that the “NCC is slowly filling water and is expected to be made usable around April 15”. The canal is now full of grass and weeds. Crimea’s agricultural output has fallen owing to a lack of irrigation, making it all but impossible to grow water-intensive crops such as rice. Without water from the NCC, Crimea’s arable agricultural land has shrunk from 130,000 hectares in 2013 to 14,000 in 2017.With the poor maintenance of the canal and full of weeds it is to be seen how much water will reach the end user.

Moscow’s struggle to supply Crimea’s 2.4m residents with fresh water has become a flashpoint in this undeclared war after Russian troops seized Crimea from Ukraine. Kyiv fears that Russian troops could advance on Nova Kakhovka, the Dnipro river town where the canal begins to secure water flows from the Dnipro river. 

Ukrainians claimed in July 2019 that the NCC was blocked because Crimeans stopped paying their water bills after Crimea became a part of Russia. Russians said that the NCC blockage was nothing more than punishment for Crimea’s political decision to “rejoin” Russia; that depriving two million Crimea residents of water violates various international laws and is a violation of human rights; and that the Ukrainians never proposed to negotiate the water price or the maintenance issue.

Crimea Water War’s Outcome 

The February 24th bombing of the Kherson dam on the NCC is claimed to have restored water flow through the canal to Crimea. Regardless of the war’s outcome, finding a mechanism for sharing water between the Ukrainians and the Crimea will have to be a key agenda of any peace agreement.

A successful Soviet era model of water cooperation still exists in the case of the Arpacay Dam (between Armenia and Turkey) and the Stanca-Contesti Dam (between Moldova and Romania) even three decades after the USSR dissolved. ‘Indus waters Treaty’ between India and Pakistan has succeeded so far.

Indian Subcontinent 

Glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, the source of many rivers that sustain Asian subcontinent are melting faster than those in any other part of the world. According to reports, the glaciers in Tibet have shrunk by over 15 per cent and the situation is worsening due to global warming. The Tibetan plateau’s vast glaciers, huge underground springs, and high altitude make Tibet the world’s largest freshwater repository after the polar icecaps. Indeed, all of Asia’s major rivers, except the Ganges, originate in the Tibetan plateau. Even the Ganges’ two main tributaries flow in from Tibet. In fact, 48% of surface water that leaves China enters India.

China has ambitious plans to construct dams and other projects on the rivers which enter India. The most critical of these is Brahmaputra diversion project. The mighty river originates from Kailash range in Tibet (Yarlung Tsangpo) and flows eastwards for 16,000 km before entering India; it then meanders into Bangladesh, where it is joined by the Ganges to create the largest delta before entering into the Bay of Bengal.

Beijing’s Water management, involves two-pronged strategy-First, it aims to divert water from Yangtze River to the parched north and north-west of China. Second it aims to shift water from Brahmaputra to the Yellow River (Hwang Ho).  

NATO and the West missed an opportunity to ease tensions in the region by urging Ukraine to find a way to cooperate on providing water access to Crimea. Now future negotiations will have to consider the background of the dispute which led to escalation and propose a water-sharing arrangement between Ukraine and Crimea.  Water anywhere remains to be the real estate resource. The situation is very alarming, as water conflicts may soon become the main source of discord between India –China-Pakistan and also amongst other nations replacing the countries’ ongoing boundary disputes. Thus the need of the hour is the multilateral approach for solving this growing controversy over the waters of life in future needs to be monitored carefully by all stake holders and take timely remedial measures to resolve the water problem and avoid Water Wars. UN needs to take the lead.

Patial RC

Patial RC is a retired Infantry officer of the Indian Army and possesses unique experience of serving in active CI Ops across the country and in Sri Lanka. Patial RC is a regular writer on military and travel matters in military professional journals. The veteran is a keen mountaineer and a trekker.

One thought on “Potential Of Water Wars And Conflicts – OpEd

  • April 23, 2022 at 8:28 am

    Excellent analysis of future wars in sharing the life line perennial river waters . UN needs to look perspective where problems may arise especially where a single river passes through many states.


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