The planned E 40 waterway could pose a threat to Polesia, Europe's largest intact floodplain.
When infrastructure plans are revived decades (or in this case centuries) later, the result is rarely innovative. But this is often easier than coming up with genuinely effective and sustainable solutions, as they promise short-term political success combined with little scrutiny. The dam in the middle of the Tanzanian Selous Game Reserve is such a case. But even on our European doorstep, a project is taking shape that could develop into an ecological threat for the entire Polesia region.
In the Slavic languages "Polesia" means "being in the forest" – in this case the forest along the river Pripyat, the lifeline of Polesia. The 700 kilometre river meanders through the south of Belarus where it is bordered by large alluvial forests, swamps and fen mires. Wild, largely untouched nature with high biodiversity levels.
Fast trade route from China to Europe
But the pristine natural environment of Polesia is under threat: a 2,000 kilometre inland waterway will create a navigable connection between the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, leading through the middle of Polesia. The project was initiated by representatives from Belarus, Poland and Ukraine and a committee was set up in 2013 to push ahead with the construction plans. The committee calculated costs of between 9.5 and 11.9 billion euros for the project. The planning work has so far been financed both by the European Union (as part of the cross-border cooperation programme) and by the Polish government.
The idea of a connecting route between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea is not new and dates back to the 18th century. The Dnieper-Bug-Canal was dug between 1775 and 1784 to connect the Bug and Pripyat rivers. This forms part of what is now to be developed as the great European E-40 Inland Waterway (E 40 IWW). "In the 17th century, waterways played an even more important role in the transportation of goods," says Zoltan Kun from Hungary. He is working on behalf of FZS to unite the forces that are still keen to prevent the E 40. Kun has doubts about whether there is any justification for the waterway these days: "According to an economic analysis by the Business Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers (BUEE) in Belarus, there is currently no obvious need for a new navigable trade route in the country. Oil products and potash fertilizers are at the top of a very short list of goods that could be transported via the E 40. So far, however, no company in Belarus has shown any great interest in using the waterway."
The reason for the current revival of the project is the congestion on terrestrial transport routes, in particular due to increasing exports from China to Europe. The proponents of the project therefore see the E 40 as the beginning of an important new trade route between the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. It is also argued that it will raise the attractiveness of the region for potential investors and employers.
In the 18th century, waterways played an even more important role in the transportation of goods. According to an economic analysis by the Business Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers (BUEE) in Belarus, there is currently no obvious need for a new navigable trade route in the country. Zoltan Kun, FZS project-leader from Hungary
Massive hydrological intervention
However, there are many arguments against such a major project – beside the billions of euros it will consume. The waterway would also have a catastrophic effect on the nature and wildlife of Polesia. The E 40 will cross protected areas over its entire length. By straightening the Pripyat, numerous meanders and huge areas of intact moorland would dry up and important habitats within the protected areas would be lost. The Vistula, Bug, Pina and Dnieper rivers would also be affected. Overall, it could change the entire hydromorphology of a vast region. The consequences of such a large project are often ignored, especially when it comes to the ecosystem functions of an area, because in many cases these are not immediately apparent. Polesia is responsible for water retention, water purification and groundwater supply over a large area.
A particularly sensitive aspect is the fact that the waterway will also pass through the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Excavation work and intensive shipping traffic could stir up radioactive sediment. River straightening also increases the flow velocity, and the contaminated sludge would then flow down into the Kiev reservoir. This supplies millions of Ukrainians with drinking water. 28 million people live in the catchment area of the almost 400,000 square kilometre region affected by the E 40. Some of them have received no information about the project. A citizens' group has now been formed. Under the banner of "Stop E 40" it has set up a website to provide information about the construction project and the associated consequences. The members believe that the large-scale project was poorly conceived, is economically inefficient and the construction would be a disaster for the ecosystem. The aim of the citizens' movement is to draw the attention of the governments of the participating countries and the European Parliament to the consequences of the project. The campaign website (www.stope40.org) has therefore launched a petition to collect the signatures of those opposed to the project. More than 25,000 citizens in the countries affected – Poland, Belarus and Ukraine – have already signed.
"In the 21st century, ships should be adapted to rivers, not the other way around," says Zoltan Kun. There are also enough alternatives to the E 40 which would probably also be much cheaper, he says. For example, developing the railways by widening the existing tracks would entail less destruction of nature. It's not too late. The planned inland waterway has not yet been finally decided. Which is why it is now all the more important to do everything possible to stop the project.