Polesia, the largest floodplain of Europe under urgent threat

Back in 2013, Polish, Belarusian and Ukrainian governments agreed to the construction of a long shipping channel, refered to as the ‘E40 waterway’, to enable inland waterway transport between the Black Sea and Baltic Sea. This would be the longest waterway in Europe, stretching approximately 2.000 km. The planned waterway would directly cut through Polesia, the largest floodplain of Europe. To fight this project, a coalition of nature conservation NGOs have been doing their best to stop E40 construction works. However, according to the latest announcements dredging will start in the upcoming months.

Significant biodiversity loss

To strenghten biodiversity conservation efforts, various international agreements, such as the Bern Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have been developed. Moreover, as signatories of the CBD, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine committed themselves to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. One of which, Target 11 is the common understanding to work towards conserve at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas, “especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes”. However, the E40 waterway contributes to the direct opposite. Protected areas, Ramsar sites, Natura 2000 sites and areas of the Emerald Network will be affected.

The E40 would impact impacting five rivers: the Vistula, the Bug, the Pina, the Pripyat and the Dnieper. Moreover, as the dredging will take place in the Chernobyl exclusion zone as well. This will potentially cause the radioactive sludge accumulated in the riverbed to be mixed up, thus contaminating drinking water.

Please also read: Species richness of Polesia

The battle is not over

Even though an international consortium of NGOs APB–BirdLife Belarus, Bahna, Frankfurt Zoological Society, the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine, the Polish Society for the Protection of Birds and the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds have launched a campaign in 2017 to Stop E40, construction works are still in planning. Recently, Ukrainian and Belarusian government officials have agreed to begin the dredging of the Dnieper and Pripyat rivers.

The main purpose of the waterway is to allow the transportation of cargo for local mining companies. This includes oil, mineral fertilisers, and wood. As the project is ready to be implemented, about 335.000 € has been allocated to dredge 64.5 km of the Pripyat river in Ukraine only. Back in 2015, the EU provided financial support worth €500,000 to prepare a feasibility study. However, the project failed to receive further funding due to the economic, social and enviromental concerns it poses. Moreover, a more specific Polish study underlines the devastating effects this waterway construction will have on biodiversity.

Nature conservationists highly advice the revision of the feasibility study, comprehensive assessment of the impact of the E40 project on the respective countries and a thorough environmental impact assessment. Apart from initiating discussions on a ministerial level, researchers and experts are doing their best to achieve UNESCO World Heritage designation for Polesia.

Another race to counteract habitat destruction

This seems to be now a race against time to save Polesia, reported by Guardian as well. It seems like we are putting the last vast European riverine habitats in serious danger through the extensive building of dams, hydropower plants and other river constructions. International NGOs, such as the European Wilderness Society are battling every day to get the message across: nature will always recover, no matter what we do. It will be us, who suffer from the consequences of our actions.

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