Local residents carry water from the food warehouse, on the territory which is under the Government of the Donetsk People's Republic control, on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, Image Credit: AP

Though the water war catchphrase is often used in public discourse to hype up the issue of water scarcity, the correlation between water and war has been a topic of academic interest for decades.

There is considerable evidence of water being weaponised during the war. Thus, it is unsurprising that water and power infrastructure is being attacked in Ukraine. Flooding the North-Western part of Kyiv to halt the advancement of Russian tanks entering the city is another example.

Ukraine has been alleging Russian cyberattacks to cripple its water infrastructure even before the military inventions. However, the escalation of the conflict since last month has made the water and power facilities of Ukraine the targets. Without power, the Ukrainian population suffers from a lack of heating in the winter. Some cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv have already run out of clean water, and water rationing has become a norm in most urban centers.

Basic survival needs

Depriving water denies people of basic survival needs and can work to break their morale. Destruction of dams and other water infrastructures as a weapon of war is nothing new. In World War II, the Allied forces bombed the Nazi-controlled Vemork Dam in Norway, and British ‘Dam Busters’ had destroyed several German dams to flood the Ruhr Valley.

The US Air Force had bombed several dams in the Korean War to flood the railroads and damage rice cultivation. In the Vietnam War, there have been allegations of the bombing of dikes by the US Air Force in North Vietnam. In the 1991 Iraq War, the US had bombed major pumping stations and water purification facilities in Baghdad. As recent as last year, there have been accusations of a dam being bombed in the Tigray conflict.

Due to developing international humanitarian norms, there is an increasing reluctance in recent years to openly admit water deprivation, but that has not stopped countries from using water as a weapon of offence, as we witness in Ukraine.

The water has also been used as a tactical weapon to inundate strategic areas, making it difficult for the enemy forces to move, like Ukraine’s defensive strategy to protect the North-Western part of its capital city. As several satellite images show, the Irpin and Dnieper rivers have been flooded in recent days, which blocks Russian forces’ advance on the capital. This is a common military strategy, and it is not surprising that the Ukrainian troops have adopted it.

A history of breaches

In the last 500 years, the Dutch forces have intentionally breached their dikes several times to flood their country to gain leverage against the enemy forces. China had adopted the same strategy in 1938 against Japanese forces, and Finnish troops did the same in 1939 against Soviet troops to slow their movement.

In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US forces fought and took over the control of Haditha Dam on the Euphrates, fearing that Saddam Hussein might weaponise its stored water to hinder their movement.

There is general acceptability among water researchers and professionals that disagreement over water sharing doesn’t lead to war. In the last 200 years, countries have signed more than 600 agreements over shared water but have not reportedly waged a single war to protect their water supply.

Russia’s military operation in Ukraine raises the question whether water played a role in making this decision. After entering the Ukrainian territory, on the first day itself, one of the first operations of the Russian forces was to control a dam on the North Crimean Canal. The Soviet-era canal was completed in 1975 to carry the water from the Dnieper River to Kherson and Crimea.

The Russian blowed up the dam not to weaponise water against the adversary but to ensure water supply to Crimea, which it had annexed in 2014. Shortly after Russia’s control of Crimea, Ukraine had built this concrete dam that had cut off Crimea’s 85 per cent water supply.

That had put Russia in a precarious situation to ensure freshwater supply to the peninsula and had been a major source of dispute between Russia and Ukraine for more than seven years. In July 2021, Russia had even taken Ukraine to the European Court of Human Rights but was unsuccessful.

Not only has Ukraine stopped the water supply to Crimea, but the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine has also been facing a serious water situation in recent years. The Russian-majority region gets the water from the Siverskyi-Donets River through channels and pipelines from Ukraine-controlled areas.

Like any other conflict, it is not easy to say precisely why Russia decided to intervene in Ukraine militarily. However, it will be very difficult for anyone to deny the significant role the water has played in it.