Hydrating Crimea

Paul Goncharoff

“Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”  are lines from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Coleridge. The speaker, a sailor on a becalmed ship, is surrounded by salt water that he cannot drink. The people living on the Crimean Peninsula of Russia, surrounded by the Black Sea and denied fresh water from the Dnieper river branch canal are much like that sailor. There’s reason to be concerned as I learned this week from a friend who is trying to farm medicial herbs on Crimea. Dried-up rivers, shrinking old reservoirs and recently blocked canal access have combined to make 2020 the driest year with consequential crop failures – the worst in 150 recorded years, according to Crimean officials. Sadly, the rebirth of the once-reknowned Crimean wine industry has also been negatively affected.

Hectares of Crimean vineyards

Throughout history, Crimea has been limited by the availability of water. Around the middle of the twentieth century, the water resources of Crimea totalled 0.83 km3, found mostly in the Mountains. Resources in the Crimean Plains amounted to only 0.04 km3. The water resources of Crimea have been extensively studied since the 1920s in order to meet the continuously growing demands for both drinking and commercial-use water. 

Moscow ordered hydrogeological surveys and exploratory drilling throughout every part of the peninsula since the early 1940s. From 1949 onwards, thousands of boreholes were drilled in the northern part of Crimea, and thus the yearly extraction of water from deep-seated aquifers increased from 0.19 km3 in 1960 to 0.55 km3 in 1975. This wholesale massive water extraction produced unintended consequences which included regional-scale depressions in Miocene aquifers, trans-formational flow and contamination, as well as, in coastal areas, incursion of seawater into the aquifers – not a good Eco-thing.

The North Crimean Canal

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the Komsomol (an organization of approximately 500,000 then young volunteers) was instructed by Moscow to build the North Crimean Canal. Opened in 1963 the canal brought Dnieper river water from the Ukraine to the Crimean Peninsula. The water was primarily used for irrigation and water supply in the northern and eastern parts of the peninsula. The North Crimean Canal dramatically increased the water resources of the entire peninsula. The share of Dnieper water in Crimea’s water balance from the time the canal was opened in 1963 until it was dammed off by Ukraine in 2014 ranged between 70% and 86%. A serious quantity in every respect, with severe ripple effects. Consider that three-quarters of all water for basic human hydration through to irrigating crops, even by drip methods disappeared overnight.

Today water demand must be met by local peninsular resources, but they are not nearly enough. Groundwater, mostly from karst aquifers. For those that did not know, like myself, a karst aquifer is an aquifer that occurs within limestone geology, where the limestone has been partially dissolved so that some fractures are enlarged into passages that carry the groundwater flow. The location and size of these passages is unpredictable, hence problematic and unpredicatable. These karst aquifers today provide for about 40% of the water budget in Crimea, supplying 1.2 million people (about 50 % of the Crimean population) who must depend on unpredicatble karst sources as their sole source of water. The demand increases hugely in the summer due to the large inflow of tourists (about 6 million visitors a year). In 2018, about 0.12 km3 of water was extracted from 1204 artesian wells. This far exceeds the maximum sustainable withdrawal rate which has been calculated as 0.04 km3.

A vineyard in Crimea

So, given these arid truths, what is actually being done if anything to let Crimeans, their vineyards and their farms get hydrated?

It looks like 2021 will be a rough year, however starting in late 2021 the water supply pipelines to Feodosia and Kerch should be switched on, and in full flow by early 2022. This is a new waterway pipeline to the two large Crimean towns and a number of settlements of the Leninsky district, covering all their drinking water needs, and then some. 

There are two projects that have been ongoing to achieve water independence for Crimea. The first is the construction of three new water sources (wells) at locations discovered in Soviet times which were finally started in December of 2014 and finished in mid-2016. Also 12 wells drilled at  depths of between 110 to 160m depth with their own hardened reservoirs and pumping stations. At the same time, the military corps of engineers also laid pipes from these water sources to the remnants of the Crimean side of the North Crimean Canal. The launch of this “temporary” fix was in 2015 and made it possible to  pour from70 to 135 thousand cubic meters of water into the canal daily and thus distributed through established canal servicing destinations.

The second project has already laid 65 km of water pipeline from water sources to the first pumping station, then 153.5 km of the water pipeline to Feodosia and Kerch, as well as the construction of five pumping stations which are in late stages of completion, expected to open end 2021.

The project provides for the supply of 195 thousand cubic meters of water to consumers per day: 106 thousand to Feodosia, 89 thousand – to Kerch. 

At the end of the day the reality remains that underground water reserves in Crimea are not unlimited as population and use are dynamically growing. Sooner or later a sustainable way must be found to resolve this conundrum. One way being considered is to pipe water across the Kerch strait from the mainland, or even further enhancing water collection and storage infrastructure which are being done now. There is also an interesting and fairly advanced plan to tap large reserves of cyclic fresh water now known to be located under the Sea of ​​Azov at the northeast of Crimea. The costs and planning are expected to be finalized in Moscow during the first half of 2021, with anticipated completion by mid-2023.

In the meantime, the full potential of Crimea, even with the massive road, bridge, ports, energy, housing and social infrastructure programs that have been both completed and ongoing since 2014, making up for decades of neglect, all boil down to available water. This is truly getting down to the basics of life.

Paul Goncharoff

Moscow February 2, 2021

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