Lobby for E40 inland waterway continues at the First Forum of Regions of Belarus and Ukraine

On October 25-26, Gomel hosted the First Forum of Regions of Belarus and Ukraine where a session of the Belarusian-Ukrainian Commission for Coordination of Protection and Sustainable Use of Transboundary Protected Areas took place. One of the discussions covered the development of river navigation between Belarus and Ukraine. The focus was on sending of freight of mixed-class ships on the territory of Belarus across the Black Sea to the countries of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The initiative involves the planning and construction of the E40 waterway by dredging operations, for the implementation of the container and bulk cargo transportation on the Dnipro river to Belarus. Volha Kaskevich, from Bahna, the coordinator of the Belarusian Environmental Alliance says

The Ukrainian authorities are trying to revive the water transport system of the country, which has sunk into degradation after the collapse of the Soviet Union for a reason. The E40 project is questionable because it has undergone neither a strategic environmental assessment nor an environmental impact assessment.

In Poland, the preliminary cost of E40 is calculated at 11.9 billion euros. Both the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development stated that in order to make the decision on financing the project, they first need to assess its environmental and social impact. The Belarusian environmental alliance is very concerned about the fate of the Pripyat, one of the last prominent intact rivers in Europe. This region is of international importance from an environmental and touristic perspective.

“We envision a completely different development scenario for the Polesia and Chernobyl zone in the coming years. Belarus can create a new world heritage site that will bring vastly more wealth to the country in the future than industrial development and the transformation of the main aorta of the region into a canal,” adds Volha Kaskevich.

In the course of the session, the Belarusian party presented its investment project on the construction of a port terminal and the surrounding infrastructure: a multimodal hub and a yacht club harbor with a recreation zone, in the village of Nizhniye Zhary. Additionally, investment into the infrastructure of a deepwater port on the Dnieper River in the village of Verkhniye Zhary of the Bragin district, Gomel region, situated just 500 meters from the border with Ukraine, was discussed.

There is no guarantee that the port will be able to become indispensable for any significant amounts of cargo. Taking into account these and other circumstances, the reservation of the investors is more than justified.

“It’s clear why, despite the repeated presentation of the project to private donors, there is still no one willing to invest in this facility”, notes Ales Gerasimenko, deputy chief editor of the Belarusians and the Market weekly and press-secretary of Business Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers n.a. Kunyavski.

The expert casts doubt on the competitiveness of the inland waterway transport in the region compared to railroad and motor transport. The inland waterway transport has a much slower speed of delivery, lacks the ability to handle small volumes of cargo, and cannot use flexible logistics schemes due to seasonal constraints. In the navigation through inland waterways, extra segments in the chain of goods transportation appear that slow down the shipping and increase the costs. Six leading business unions of Belarus called attention to this particular fact when on April 3, 2018, they sent a joint letter to the government and the Presidential Executive Office indicating extremely high investment, economic risks of the E40 project.

The competitive weakness of river transport as compared to railroad transport is acknowledged even by those promoting the project. Thus, in the report on the feasibility study of the waterway E40 restoration, the Gdansk Maritime Institute pointed out that due to the numerous obstacles to navigation in the upper reaches of the Dnipro represented by low bridges, and in view of the high fees for passing locks, railroad shipment between Odessa and Kiev is less costly. The same can be said about the transportation of goods from Belarusian territories bordering with Ukraine toward the Black Sea ports.

The construction of the port and the infrastructure for it on this territory is fraught with serious environmental problems. “If you look at the map, the village of Nizhniye Zhary is located in the area contaminated by radiation, it’s only 20 kilometers away from Chernobyl, in the vicinity of the exclusion zone. It is interesting that the existing documentation on the restoration of the E40 waterway only briefly mentions that the waterway will pass through unsafe places inundated with radionuclides. We believe that a significant part of the rationale against the construction of the waterway should be devoted to the radiological component. Dredging will raise silt particles contaminated by radioactive isotope cesium-137 which settled there after the nuclear accident in 1986. Particles can be carried into the Kiev reservoir, which supplies drinking water for the 2.8 million inhabitants of Kiev”, asserts Volha Kaskevich.

The commission’s report on the financial viability assessment states that throughout the route it is necessary to provide a minimum water depth of 2.5 meters, which involves large-scale dredging. However, inconsistent rainfall in Belarus results in periods of insufficient water level in rivers for functional navigation. According to Maria Germenchuk, deputy head of the Republican Center for Hydrometeorology, Radioactive Contamination and Environmental Monitoring (Belhydromet) under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, who spoke at a press conference in October last year to a current situation is dangerous for large vessels.

“It is a utopia to think that our rivers with low groundwater level can be aligned with the standards of class IV navigation (throughout the route, a minimum water depth of 2.5 m should be provided), especially given the fact that the Pripyat is primarily snow-fed. From a technical point of view, this will require now just dredging, but also the construction of the cascade of dams which significantly increases the risks for the environment. Such works will completely alter and destroy the unique coastal ecosystems, including dozens of unique conservation areas of global importance which are concentrated in the valley”, comments Volha Kaskevich.

Aleksandr Vinchevski, the main partner of the #Stop_E40 campaign, ornithologist, director of the APB-BirdLife Belarus NGO states:

“Transport authorities of Belarus and Ukraine are busy to the utmost planning the use of the Dnieper and the Pripyat for large-scale freight transport. However, they are referring to 1990, when the volume of traffic between the two countries was 13 times bigger and neither the lack of ports in the Verkhniye and Nizhniye Zhary, nor the bed of the Pripyat were considered a problem. Maybe, the task here is not the increase in traffic, but a commonplace drawdown of the funds? The Pripyat and the Belarusian stretch of the Dnieper are two of the few medium-sized rivers in Europe preserved in its natural state and extremely important for hundreds of thousands of migrating and nesting birds. These are rivers with biodiversity of international importance. The lining of the Pripyat under the E40 project will cause a drop in water levels in the river, groundwater levels, extinction of numerous oxbows and the associated flora, fauna. In this case, both independent environmentalist and economists are concerned with promoting the plans that do not have a convincing argument and can serve as the enrichment for only a few people, while causing damage for the elimination of which much more money and time will be needed”.

© Volha Kaskevich
© Alexander Vintchevsky
© Ales Herasimanka