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The Bystroye Canal: is Ukraine illegally dredging and how is this affecting the Danube Delta?

Located in southeastern Europe, the Danube Delta is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. The waters of the Danube, which flow into the Black Sea, form the largest and best preserved of Europe’s deltas. The Danube delta hosts over 5,500 species of plants and animals, including several rare and endangered species in its lakes and marshes. However, this unique ecosystem is facing a serious threat from the ecological disaster of the Bystroye Canal! The Danube Delta has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991, and, The European Union has repeatedly asked Ukraine to halt the project, as have Romania and the United States. The Worldwide Fund for Nature has said the canal threatens the delta’s most important wetland, where 70 percent of the world’s white pelicans and 50 percent of pygmy cormorants live. The Deepwater Navigation Course “Danube – Black Sea”, is a deep-water canal in the Danube Delta that runs through the Delta’s distributaries Chilia, Old Istambul and “Bystroe” or “Bystre”. Through most of its length, it coincides with the Romania-Ukraine border that stretches along the Danube. The canal is served by the Ukrainian state company Ukrainian Sea Ports Authority and its piloting services branch Delta Lotsman. A portion of the canal, Bystroe, which stretches through the territory of Ukraine, rather than along the main course, raised concerns in Romania and emphasized ecological issues!

Originally the distributary of the Danube Delta was among the main Soviet (and Soviet Ukraine) waterways until 1959, when its exploitation stopped due to silting that occurred after Romanian authorities created their own Danube – Black Sea Canal, away from the border with the Soviet Union. After 1997, Ukraine was left without its own deep-water canal between the Danube and the Black Sea, and, according to the Ukrainian NGO International Centre for Policy Studies, the use of the Romanian Sulina distributary costs Ukraine 0.7-1.2 million UAH annually.

Therefore, Ukraine wanted to reopen its own navigation canal, which, according to official Ukrainian plans, it was to be completed in 2008. The intent was to provide a deep-water route from the Danube to the Black Sea under Ukrainian control, in order to reduce ship transit costs and provide an alternate route to Romania. Initial dredging started in 2004, but, on August 24th, around 140 non-profit organisations and trade unions submitted an open letter at the Ukrainian embassy in Bucharest, Romania saying the project may endanger more than 280 bird species and 45 freshwater fish species living in the delta. “If Ukraine goes ahead with its plan … the delta will become a fetid swamp,” said a statement by one of the unions. Despite this, on August 26th, Ukraine officially inaugurated the project and the Romanian government announced plans to bring a lawsuit against Ukraine at The Hague-based International Court of Justice, invoking the Ramsar Convention on wetlands.

In May 2005, parties of the Aarhus Convention agreed on political sanctions against Ukraine, who later announced the temporary halt of the project in June, 2005. In February 2006 “The Conference for the Sustainable Development of the Danube Delta” was held in Odessa with participation of Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, and it was decided that work on the channel will continue, in accordance with international conventions, to a depth not bigger than 3,5m. The work continued, the Canal was lunched…and the downsides that ONGs and environment activists warned against..started to show up as well!

And here we are today!

The canal passes through the Tulcea County, which is home to the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ecologists, including the World Wildlife Fund, have raised significant concerns about damage to the Danube Delta ecosystem. An inquiry commission established under the auspices of the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (of which Romania and Ukraine are both signatories) unanimously decided that the canal would have a significant adverse ecological impact.

The Ukrainian NGO International Centre for Policy Studies also protested the decision of the Ukrainian government to do works on the canal, writing that “in its desire to get the canal as soon as possible, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine did not pay proper attention to considering all the alternatives, and approved an unjustified decision that violates Ukraine’s environmental interests and will heap greater expenditures upon the budget

The Worldwide Fund for Nature has said the canal threatens the delta’s most important wetland, where 70 percent of the world’s white pelicans and 50 percent of pygmy cormorants live.

What Does Ukraine think?

Ukraine has been transporting grain on the Bystroye Canal as it develops alternative routes for its exports while access to its Black Sea ports has been limited since Russia’s invasion. “Previously there was no need to increase the depth (of the canal). Now there is such a need,” Yuriy Vaskov, Ukraine’s deputy minister for restoration, told Reuters in an interview.

The canal was 6.5 metres deep in the mid-1990s, but Ukraine has not done any dredging in recent years, resulting in an accumulation of silt.

“We see no problem – this is not new construction but operational deepening,” Vaskov stated, adding that the dredging work was aimed at ensuring the canal was deep enough to allow ships of up to 6.5 metres draught.

However, the Romanian Government says that, right before the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, the canal was only 3.9m, and has only now reached 6,5m in depth, which proves that the Ukrainians have been deepening it. Ukraine seemed to contradict Yuriy Vaskov’s statement as well. The Ministry of Infrastructure of Ukraine stated, in a post on Twitter, that the navigation depth of the Bystroye Canal has indeed increased from 3.9 to 6.5 meters, for the first time since the declaration of the country’s independence. “For the first time during Ukraine’s independence, the draft passing through the Bystroye Canal has increased from 3.9 to 6.5 m. It is a great opportunity for the capacity of the Danube River and the turnover of export ports. We continue to develop the Danube port cluster together with our European partners”, reads the post.

There are several working hypotheses…

If the Ukrainians have only carried out maintenance work, dredging only 3.5 meters, then there is no cause for concern.

If, instead, they indeed dredged to a depth of 6.5 meters or even 7 meters, the situation changes dramatically. Water flows on the Sfântu Gheorghe and Sulina Canals would decrease considerably.

Dredging is a normal action in certain ecosystems, only if the process is done after carrying out feasibility and impact studies, and right now, there is no proof that these have even been carried out at all.

Specialists say the real problem is the water level. If the diameter of the Bystroye canal is increased, it will use up more of the flow of the Danube, and the consequence is the decrease of the flows on the Sulina and Sfântu Gheorghe canals.

In recent years, Romania has carried out works to unclog numerous canals in the Delta, in order to allow a greater amount of water to reach endangered ecosystems, so that flora and fauna can survive and develop. The problem would have been solved through these canals alone, but now, increasing the water level on the Bystroye canal, less water from the Danube will reach these canals, even if they have been resized through unclogging, and thus these ecosystems are in danger!

So what is Romania doing about it? Right now, just diplomacy!

The Social Democrat party, which is part of the current coalition in charge of the Romanian Government, issued a statement demanding that Ukraine immediately stops the dredging works on the Bystroye canal, because “they are an ecological disaster” and draws Kiev’s attention to the fact that Romania will not allow the destruction of the Danube Delta. The social democrats emphasized that Romania, has and will always be, an honest partner for Ukraine and asks its neighbors to be opened to discussions. “The unprecedented deepening of the Canal, up to 8-10 meters, to enable the navigation of large-capacity ships, dramatically changes the flow and circulation of water, with fatal effects on the biodiversity of the Danube Delta. Romania has proven to be an honest neighbor and partner. It received millions of Ukrainian refugees, provided them with a home, food, jobs for adults and schools for children. Facilitated the export of Ukrainian grain, with great effort and considerable cost. Provided international support, and support in every possible way for Ukraine to resist the Russian invasion. Ukraine had and will have an ally in Romania. That is precisely why it is all the more obliged to protect this bilateral relationship. “ said the Vice-President of PSD Sorin Grindeanu. PSD has also officially asked the European Commission, through Victor Negrescu, to rule on Ukraine’s unilateral action that ignores international conventions and agreements to which it is a party of. At the same time, PSD calls on all Romanian authorities to protect the Danube Delta: “We are all obliged to prevent the occurrence of an irreversible catastrophe and to allow our future generations to enjoy the unique heritage of the miracle of nature in our Danube”. For his part, PSD leader Marcel Ciolacu requested through a message on Facebook that the works on the Bystroye canal stop immediately, and that the Romanian authorities take quick decisions so that the Danube Delta is not destroyed. “Romania does not allow the destruction of the Danube Delta under any circumstances! The works on the Bystroye must stop NOW! The state and the Romanian people were in solidarity and helped Ukraine, in a difficult situation. I want to be very clear: the lies, manipulations and minimization of the problem must stop! We will appeal to all international conventions , bilaterally and at all forums for the cause of the Danube Delta! We will protect, with all our strength, the legacy of the next generations!”, is the message of Marcel Ciolacu. Is Ukraine doing more than maintenance works in the Bystroye Canal? That remains to be seen! But, if the answer is “yes”, then addressing the problem restoring the delta to its former glory MUST be a priority!  By working together, government agencies, environmental organizations, and local communities can ensure that this unique and valuable ecosystem is protected for generations to come.

By Ioana Constantin

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