The weaponisation of water is not new. As water becomes an increasingly scarce resource, it has potential to become one of the most important strategic targets of modern warfare. As the case of Ukraine shows, access to water is of significance, not only to ensure human safety but also energy security.
The weaponisation of water
In the Ukrainian war, water has been utilised as a weapon by both sides. Ukraine and Russia are fighting over the access and control over water resources, as they are essential to ensure energy and human security. Here are some examples of how both sides weaponised water.
On the second day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces were heading south, towards Kyiv. To keep them from advancing, Ukraine mounted a defensive operation on its own territory. Deliberate flooding during combat might have been key to the country’s survival. Such a defensive operation requires in-depth knowledge of the terrain (source).
During the early stages of the conflict, the Ukrainian military relied significantly on hydraulic warfare. They destroyed bridges and infrastructures, especially a dam regulating the Irpin River flowing south (source). Indeed, blowing up the dam would flood the land south of it – whether fields or villages, such as the village of Demydiv. Doing so would slow down – if not stop – Russian forces from advancing to the capital. And it worked. Russia forces couldn’t continue moving south (source). Overall, over 300 bridges and overpasses were damaged or destroyed, mainly by Ukrainian forces (source).
On 26 February 2022, Ukrainian air defences shot down a Russian missile, heading for the Kyiv dam on the Dnieper River. Had the dam been breached, 1.2 cubic kilometres of water would have been unleashed as a maelstrom of diluvian destruction. It would have flooded the entire left bank of Kyiv city and potentially destroying other dams downstream (source).
After the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine diverted a canal toward the Kakhovka Reservoir, leaving the peninsula parched. Following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russia diverted the water out of the reservoir to restore Crimea’s water supply (source). Since early November 2022, Russia seems to be draining the Kakhovka Reservoir, through sluice gates at a hydroelectric power plant. Satellite data shows that the water level is the lowest it has been in three decades. Since the 1950s, the Kakhovka Reservoir provides drinking and irrigation water to parts of Ukraine’s southern districts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Then, on November 11th, 2022, Russian troops blew up a road over the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Dam (source).
The strategic importance of water in Ukraine
The growing scarcity of water leads to intense political pressures and strategic concerns. Water not only ignores political boundaries; it transcends them. Demands are increasing, groundwater levels are dropping, surface-water supplies are increasingly contaminated, and delivery and treatment infrastructures are ageing.
Water and human security
Dehydration and starvation
In this century, in which demographic explosion and climate change are conducive to an increasing global need for water, the use of water as a weapon of war poses a significant threat to human security.
Disruptions in water cycles impact food security, as irrigation is central to agriculture. Agricultural activities consume a large part of freshwater resources (70% to 90% depending on the region) (source). Moreover, when sanitation systems are destroyed or inadequate, the risk of transmission of water-borne diseases increases. In this respect, ensuring access to sanitation for all in complete safety is a major challenge (source). Hence, the use of water as a weapon of war increases the vulnerability of populations. It leaves them destitute in the face of health and food risks.
Between the 24th of February 2022 and the 15th of April 2022, at least twenty separate incidents to damage water infrastructures in eastern Ukraine were reported (source). The lack of access to water because of the war has catastrophic consequences. 80% of Ukrainian drinking water supply comes from surface sources. Since the beginning of the war, the overall water system has experienced a 36% loss of produced drinking water. Moreover, 35% of drinking water infrastructures are in a state of emergency (source). In total, over six million people in Ukraine are struggling to access drinking water (source).
In Mariupol, Russian soldiers shut off local water supply. It left the trapped population with very limited access to safe drinking water or sanitation (source). Russian troops destroyed or flooded all 22 pumping stations, and damaged more than 50% of the water supply network. The lack of functioning sewage treatment and drainage system has led, and will continue to do so, to a significant humanitarian crisis and starvation. Moreover, there are concerns over the potential contamination of the drinking supply in the city. The high number of decomposing bodies and garbage places residents at risk of infectious diseases, such as cholera, typhoid fever, and measles (source). Given the lack of normal medical care, the number of deaths will increase daily. Ukraine as a whole might face the threat of an epidemic.
Water, energy, or both?
By blowing up a road over the Kakhovka Hydraulic Dam, Russian troops gained control over the water level of the reservoir (source). Such action gave them control over agriculture and drinking water supply. But it endangers the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, by limiting its cooling water (source).
Water and energy infrastructures are incredibly linked. Hence, the deliberate destruction or capture of water infrastructures in urban warfare is of particular significance. For instance, taking out a water infrastructure means limiting the cooling down process of a nuclear power plant. Likewise, the destruction of a power plant means taking out a water infrastructure, as they rely on power plans to function.
One can therefore question which of energy/nuclear or water infrastructures are the real target of the Russian army. The capture of critical infrastructures like power plants and water systems give almost complete control over Ukraine’s energy system. Nuclear power plants are responsible for generating more than 60% of Ukraine’s electricity (source). By seizing water infrastructures, Russia could thus assert control over energy supply. Moreover, it could provide Vladimir Putin’s army with the possibility to blackmail European countries with the risk of radiation pollution, resulting from a potential voluntary or involuntary accident on a nuclear power plant – or the water infrastructure used to cool it down.
The weaponization of water has always been an integral part of warfare. As the world faces climate change and a growing water scarcity, water becomes one of the most important strategic targets of modern warfare. As the war in Ukraine shows, critical water infrastructures are of significance, both as part of offensive, and defensive strategies. The access and control over water is essential to ensure energy and human security.