AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
Water's flowing to Crimea again. When Russia seized that part of Ukraine eight years ago, Ukraine shut off the peninsula's fresh water supply. But as NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, even as Russia stumbles in its current invasion, it has restarted the taps.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: If there was any question about how important restoring water to Crimea was on the Kremlin's priority list, the answer came two days after the invasion. On February 26, Russia bombed a dam on the North Crimea Canal that Ukraine had built to divert water away from the Crimean Peninsula.
ANNA OLENENKO: This is the first thing that Russians did in this war, and I think that this shows us the importance of that issue.
BEAUBIEN: Anna Olenenko is an agricultural historian from the Khortytsia National Academy in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.
OLENENKO: Because Putin and the government promised to Crimean people that they solved the water problem in Crimea.
BEAUBIEN: Prior to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, she says 85% of Crimea's water came from mainland Ukraine. The North Crimea Canal was built during Soviet control of Ukraine in the 1960s. It turned the semiarid northern plains of the Crimean Peninsula into a lush agricultural region. All of a sudden, farmers created orchards, rice paddies and even fish farms. Olenenko says grain yields increased four or five times.
OLENENKO: So Crimea, after the construction of this canal, became the land of agriculture and the land of rice growing.
BEAUBIEN: But after Russia seized the peninsula in 2014 and Ukraine shut off the tap, Crimea's booming agricultural economy shriveled. There was barely enough water to drink. Moscow spent billions of rubles trying to get fresh water to Crimea.
Professor Milena Sterio at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Ohio says Russia even tried going to court.
MILENA STERIO: Russia, actually, last summer in July of 2021, lodged the so-called interstate complaint against Ukraine and the European Court of Human Rights precisely over this water issue.
BEAUBIEN: Sterio, who focuses on international law, says Russia accused Ukraine of violating the human rights of Crimea's residents by denying them water. She says which nation was in the right legally prior to this February's invasion is quite complicated. First of all, most of the world still recognizes Crimea as part of Ukraine.
STERIO: So if you consider this territory to be legitimately a part of Ukraine but illegally - or occupied by Russia, then the law of occupation - the so-called Fourth Geneva Convention - clearly says that it's the occupier that has the responsibility to ensure the welfare of the people living in that occupied territory.
BEAUBIEN: So getting the people of Crimea access to water under this view of the conflict is Russia's problem. Also, regarding the claim of human rights violations, Sterio says this only applies to water for basic human needs. The statute doesn't assert that a country has to give its neighbors enough water to run fish farms or grow rice.
STERIO: Again, this is why this is such a difficult issue. It gets to be a little bit tricky because the international law on water rights is not 100% clear.
BEAUBIEN: Making things even more complicated, international rules requiring equitable sharing of water with downstream states don't explicitly define what equitable means. Also, it's unclear whether these rules apply to an entirely human-made system, such as the North Crimea Canal, or just to rivers and other natural bodies. In practice, Russia's invasion made all of these legal questions moot. Moscow now controls the canal to Crimea and much of the watershed that feeds it.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.