Europe’s Amazonia will be lost if Poland, Ukraine and Belarus implement E40 waterway

Aerial photos with a drone over the River Prypiat, Polissia, Belarus. Viktar Malyshchyc 

International, Reforms

Editor’s Note

What’s wrong with the plans of Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus to create a 2352-kilometer-long waterway linking the Baltic and Black seas? It just happens to run through some of Europe’s last pristine wetlands and untouched rivers. Environmental groups have been protesting the waterway construction plans since 2017; we report on what’s at stake.

Since 2017, the Stop E40 public campaign has been ongoing in protest of plans by the Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian governments to create a new 2352-kilometer-long E40 waterway. This dangerous idea that would destroy Polissia region, the European “Amazonia” twice as large as Portugal, was slowed down in 2021 but not abandoned.

Connecting Polish Gdansk and Ukrainian Kherson, the waterway had allegedly to allow transportation of 6 million tonnes of cargo per year. At the same time, deepening and consolidating river banks would change dramatically the level of groundwater and destroy the largest pristine river in Europe and huge swamp areas, home to many rare species and one of the few remnants of natural old European landscape.

The cooperation of three countries around the project slowed down after 2020 protests in Belarus, the 2 July 2021 decision of Ukrainian State Agency for Exclusion Zone Management to remove the E40 waterway from their Strategy, and the recent decision of Polish Minister of Climate and Environment Michał Kurtyka on 24 August 2021 to revoke environmental consent for Siarzewo Dam on the Vistula River.

At the same time the idea of E40 is not abandoned. National governments have been promoting the E40 waterway step by step. One of Europe’s most pristine rivers, Prypiat, was partially dredged in Ukraine in 2020. Ukrainian Ministry of Infrastructure requested a joint decision among the governments of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, if the E40 waterway project is to be implemented.

While the future of Polissia is unclear, Save Polesia and Stop E40 public campaigns continue regular monitoring of the situation. During the 4-year-long struggle, they have collected a lot of information both about the value of Polissia and the damange coming from the E40 waterway. Euromaidan Press is publishing excerpts of their materials.

Video of Belarusian environmentalists about Polissia that explains the situation:

What is Polissia

Polissia is Europe’s Amazon – the continent’s greatest intact wetland wilderness. This stunning landscape straddles the borders of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia and is as large as twice the size of Portugal (186,000 km2). Natural and wild rivers lie at Polissia’s heart – the Bug in Poland, Dnipro in Ukraine, and the 750 km-long Prypiat, one of Europe’s most pristine rivers. The altitude across the region never varies by more than 150 meters. Meandering rivers, tributaries, and oxbows shape a labyrinth of wetlands, peatlands, forests, islands, swamps, bogs, marshes, and lakes that are home to some of the most biodiverse and culturally rich parts of Europe. The floodplains also mitigate floods, clean air, and are a major carbon store.

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Along the river Prypiat in the Ukrainian Prypiat-Stokhid National Park in Polissia. Source: savepolesia.org

The survival of many globally endangered species depends on Polissia – including European bison, grey wolves and Eurasian lynx as well as millions of migratory birds. In particular, Polissia is the most important breeding ground for the globally threatened Aquatic warbler, Europe’s rarest migratory songbird.

European bison - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia

European bizon. Source: Alchetron

The waterwheel plant is carnivorous. It grows snapping traps underwater to hunt small insects, fish and tadpoles. Around two thirds of all waterwheel plants can be found in the exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear accident site.

In spring, millions of birds descend on Polissia to rest and refuel. Spring numbers of at least 150,000-200,000 Eurasian widgeons, 200,000-400,000 ruffs and 20,000-25,000 black-tailed godwits have been recorded in the Prypiat floodplains alone – to mention just a few stunning statistics.

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A Dragonfly in the Prypiat-Stokhid National Park in, Ukraine. Photo by Daniel Rosengren for Save Polissia

Within Polissia, an impressive total area of 26,960 km2 are protected as Areas of Special Conservation Interest: 1,204 km2 Natura 2000 sites in Poland, 11,253 km2 Emerald Network sites in Belarus and 14,503 km2 Emerald network sites in Ukraine.

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Northern Lapwings breed at the River Prypiat Floodplains. Turov area, Polesie, Belarus. Photo by Daniel Rosengren for Save Polissia

This untouched landscape has not only tremendous natural value, but also provides immeasurable benefits for local communities and national economies. Polishchuks (inhabitants of Polissia) are the indigenous population of the area with a strong cultural heritage.

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The Prypiat-Stokhid National Park in, Ukraine. Photo by Daniel Rosengren for Save Polissia

E40 waterway

The planned E40 inland waterway connecting the Black Sea and the Baltic by Vistula, Prypiat, and Dnipro rivers would irrevocably alter some of Europe’s remaining free-flowing rivers and cut through the very heart of Polissia.

The idea was first presented in 2013, when partnership was set up to advance plans by the governments of Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine to construct a shipping channel linking the Black Sea and the Baltic.

The E40 has to be designed for ships more than 80 meters in length. To accommodate them the channel must be at least 2.5 meters deep. And constructing it would destroy the heart of Polissia. Europe’s last major undamaged rivers including the Pripyat and Vistula would require dredging, damming, straightening and deepening. If construction continues, this would have disastrous impacts to all life in Polissia: losing species habitats, drying out rivers, enhancing droughts.

Location of Polissia and plans for E40. Source: savepolesia.org

E40 would disturb radioactive pollution in Chornobyl

The construction work could potentially disturb radioactive pollution in the Chornobyl exclusion zone — E40 runs just in a few kilometers from the Chornobyl power plant. Construction would disturb radioactive water reservoirs close to Prypiat river that remain after 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster.

Downstream of the Chornobyl exclusion zone, the Dnipro river serves as a water source for approximately 8 million Ukrainians and its waters are used to irrigate crops consumed by as many as 20 million people. Upstream of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, there are zones along the Prypiat river that were contaminated by radioactive fallouts at the time of the accident. Construction and operation of E40 waterway would expose workers to dangerous levels of radioactivity and would pose an increased radiation risk for millions of people downstream.

Scope for nature-based tourism development will be lost if E40 waterway is constructed

Source of image: Save Polissia

Currently there is only limited tourism in Polissia, primarily rural farm stays and ‘nuclear tourism’ concentrated around the site of the Chernobyl disaster. However, with its natural landscapes, wetlands, forests, wilderness areas, and unique cultural heritage, Polissia has huge potential to become a top destination for sustainable nature-based tourism. There are many protected areas, such as the transboundary West Polissia biosphere reserve, where visitors can hike, canoe, birdwatch, or get up close to charismatic mammals like bison, bears and lynx.

Adventure and nature-based tourism now accounts for about a fifth of all international travel. Demand is increasing for destinations such as Polissia that are ‘off the beaten track’ and present opportunities for authentic cultural experiences.

To make Polissia distinctive and set it apart from all other nature-based tourism destinations, experts of Save Polissia coalition state that a strong ‘destination brand’ is needed to attract tourists. Polissia is often compared with the Amazonia region of South America and the study authors suggested branding the region as ‘Europe’s Amazon’.

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