The North Crimean Canal and Salğır river

The North Crimean Canal was built between 1961 and 1971. It was built by settlers, who, after the colonial construction was complete, remained on the peninsula. At the moment of its construction, as a result of the mass deportations of Crimean Tatars and the consequent destruction or ruin of water supply infrastructure, Crimea was suffering from a drought. According to deputy director of Water Management Services in Krasnoperekopsk, Antonina Lisovskaya, “the ground was dry and cracked, only wormwood and camelthorn could grow”.

Contrary to claims that before the North Crimean Canal the peninsula had lacked water supply infrastructure, the materials of an expedition, undertaken by N. P. Repnikov in 1930s showed presence of water supply techniques which did not require large-scale socialist construction. He wrote, about the pipe ducts found in Eski Kermen and dating to the middle ages: “There is no grounds to suppose that the drainage reservoirs, cut into hard shale rock at the heads of the draw or the basins cut into hard marl at the foot of Eski Kermen, are destroyed – they could clearly still serve their purpose, and replacing looted parts of the pipe ducts with new clay pipes and laying these pipes into a fully ready and whole specialised tiled trench is not very difficult.” Instead of work aimed at restoring and supporting infrastructure, central state government choose to construct a large-scale structure, and their choice has exhausted the very builders themselves, who afterwards told, when interviewed, that their gums bled from lack of food and their tools were so primitive that two hours of labour demanded five hours of adjustment.

The North Crimean canal produces a no-win situation. While functional, it carried radionuclides from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and “returned waters” from irrigation systems, contaminated with fertilisers and pesticides straight into the Black sea. A lack of water in the channel leaves many enterprises unable to access water. After the Ukranian government had closed the North Crimean canal in response to Russian aggression, the chemical factory “Krymskiy Titan” in Armyansk has began drawing water from wellsites near the city. The composition of well water is different from that of river water and is not suitable for use in production. As a result, poisonous fumes affect the breathing and corrode the skin of the population of Armyansk. The material embodiment of Russian colonialism destroys the bodies of humans and animals in either case – whether it contains water or not.


The system of canals in Crimea

Crimean Tatar water supply in the mountainous Crimea in the XVIII century consisted primarily in catching water and subsequent directing it into cities, fields, orchards and vinyards. In a message from 1932, Repnikov and Shmit characterise this literally as a practice of “care”. The careful attitude of Crimean Tatars towards water is mentioned in practically all sources which devote attention to Crimean Tatar irrigation infrastructures. Water drainage in such a system, especially in the mountainous part of Crimea, was achieved through small stone grooves. V. F. Zuyev, a biologist who participated in a research expedition to study the peninsula, describes this process thus: “they [Crimean Tatars] dig along the mountain and to the side, whatever the distance to their village, a small canal more or less an arshin [71cm] in width, and with it, they divert part of the river to their home or mill, and from this line others do the same, digging a small canal for themselves”.

This Crimean Tatar practice, based on common use of water, was dismissed by Russian colonisers. Not only could they not grasp the branchings of such a system, reducing it to the extraction of water from springs, but they also began the process of privatising those springs, deriving profit from water. Zuev, continuing his description, remarks that Russians frequently did not understand the very principle of irrigation as a branching system, describing, for instance, the Büyük Qarasuv river, as a river that flows upwards.

Canals slip away from the colonial gaze in principle, viewed as chaotic and too insignificant. Descriptions of Crimea are full of stories about water shortages, where Crimean Tatar canals are given the role of “unnoticeable trickles of water”. It is “rather natural”, remark Repnikov and Shmit, “that Russian conquerors, used to procure water from rivers or wells with high water levels in their own territories, did not pay attention to the contraptions they found in Crimea, and simply did not understand why would one gather water little by little and how that is to be done, and hence they did nothing to maintain the functionality of whatever they found in the mountains of Crimea.”

Rejecting the infrastructure of care was the first step towards the ceaseless ecological disasters on Crimea, which testify to the Russian colonial policy on the peninsula. The ecological damage must be understood here in its direct relation to the violence against Crimean Tatars. As they are the indigenous people of Crimea, they have the unique rights as to the distribution of the region's natural resources – a right which is very difficult to realise in the conditions of advance ecological collapse.

This ecological collapse, the foundations of which have been gradually lain in the Russian empire, was actively implemented in the Soviet Union with its aggressive industrialisation policy. Instead of small stone canals, large concrete canals were built to pump water from the Salğır river. At the same time, the sheer fact of ethnic cleansing, undertaken against the people who cared for the irrigation systems, has led to the dessication of many plains and villages. When Crimean Tatars returned from deportation, a very different Crimea awaited them – dry and encased in concrete.