For those of us who have always had it, access to clean water is something that is all too easy to take for granted. We turn on the tap, cook and bathe, and water our lawns and gardens, without ever thinking of the complexities that bring us our clean water.  Others must constantly think about clean water because they have never had access to piped-in clean water in their homes, and have always made do by carrying water from the local well.

In the former Soviet Union, some communities once had access to clean water, but are now suffering the effects of crumbling infrastructure and increasing water demands. Nowhere is this more true than in the small communities scattered across Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

USAID will utilize the existing Soviet-era pump facility (background) in Pervimaysky to irrigate farm fields for a rural community of 300 persons. Photo credit: Jason Gilpin, USAID

Crimea is an attractive region, with a wide variety of ecosystems, rainfall, sunshine, land use and people. For two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, I lived in Sevastopol, a city located on the peninsula’s south-western tip, and often traveled throught small villages and towns in Crimea where Ukrainian NGO colleagues and other volunteers were based. I saw firsthand how many people in rural Crimea go days or even weeks without water, particularly in summer. In many villages, the public water system operates for one or two hours a day only on a few days a week. Even quick showers are a luxury and residents use the brief time the water system is functioning to quickly fill up as many empty plastic containers as possible in order to live through the dry period. Bottled water is expensive for the average Crimean villager, whose monthly income rarely exceeds $200. Crimea is also growing as a tourism destination, further burdening  the overwhelmed public water system during the summer season.

The problem with poor water availability isn’t caused by a lack of water in the region. While Crimea is a fairly dry place, averaging just over 15 inches of precipitation annually, there are ample sources of underground  water and Dnipro river tributary water provided by aqueducts from the north. The challenge is transporting enough water from aquifers and aqueducts to households in order to satisfy seasonal demand during the periods of increased use. This is particularly true in spring and summer when people use this water to irrigate backyard cash crops, which are critical to supplementing rural residents’ annual income.

The USAID Project “Partnership for Sustainable Water Supply for Agriculture Development in Crimea (SWaSAD)” launched in July 2012 by our Ukrainian partner, Agrarian Markets Development Institute, is successfully demonstrating that with transparent planning, modest investment and strong community support, infrastructure improvements can be made that will bring reliable water service to residents in small communities in Crimea. The Project includes demonstration projects in three districts in Crimea: Saki, Pervimaysky and Razdolnensky.

I joined my colleagues from USAID in late February in visiting the communities selected for partnership on this project. In Saki, we heard from the project’s major stakeholders. A local farmer remarked that this project was “very important” in improving crop yields and local income, and that locals were “enthusiastic” about the prospect of reliable water in their communities.

In many ways, the objectives are simple: most of the project sites involve simply connecting the existing water sources, such as the water in a canal with homes along the streets in the villages, using simple irrigation pipes and pumps, so that people can irrigate their backyard cash crops with non-potable canal water without burdening the community’s drinking water system.

One of the project sites plans a broader-based agricultural application on large, communally-owned plots of land. The site we visited in Pervimaysky would restore the function of Soviet-era water infrastructure to irrigate fields farmed by 30 families. This, in turn, would support 300 beneficiaries in the nearby village, providing much-needed employment opportunities and increased economic activity for local businesses. The difference between an irrigated field and a non-irrigated field was fairly obvious and pretty stark — one field a bright green, the other a dull brown.

As tourism continues to develop in Crimea, water demands will continue to grow.  It is economically critical that the region develops a plan to supply reliable potable water to the tourist centers, while also allowing farmers to irrigate their crops, helping to fulfill Ukraine’s promise as the breadbasket of Europe.

What makes this project particularly unique is that USAID/Ukraine is implementing it with the support of the Development Grants Program, which is designed specifically to increase the capacity of locally-managed and operated organizations, thereby increasing local knowledge to sustain the results of USAID-funded initiatives after grant completion. As part of this initiative, our local implementing partner is improving its internal controls and management processes, and developing its human resources so that it can independently achieve results from similar activities.

In the end, we are not only helping Crimea increase its water security and improve the quality of life of local residents, we are also improving the ability of local NGOs to use their own skills and resources to continue to develop this critical region of Ukraine.