Polesia under threat

In 2013, a partnership was set up to advance plans by the governments of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine to construct a shipping channel – the so called ‘E40 waterway’ – linking the Black Sea and Baltic Sea. They propose the creation of the longest waterway in Europe, stretching 2,000 km and cutting through the heart of Polesia. At current state, there exist three suggestions for the route of the E40 waterway, which would affect four countries:

Nature and communities at stake

To enable freight ships to navigate the waters requires straightening, deepening, damming, and dredging of rivers in some of the most environmentally sensitive parts of the region. This will irreversibly alter the landscape, cutting through key habitats and critical refuges. The construction work will dry up rivers, degrade protected areas and national parks, and potentially disturb radioactive pollution in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Degraded peatlands will turn from carbon sink into carbon source. A new waterway would undermine ecosystem services such as water retention, flood mitigation, clean air, and carbon storage. And it could destroy the fabric of local Polesian communities and their unique way of life.

The E40 would not only damage natural resources through hydrological changes such as increasing the water flow rate, deepening the river bed and likely decreasing the groundwater level, but its proponents fail to prove its economic soundness and overall social benefits.

Learn more about the impacts of the E40 navigation waterway on the ...



Human Health

Flood & Climate

No sound business case

The feasibility study of the E40 inland waterway was unclear about the overall economic as well as social costs and benefits of the proposed project. Claiming that some of the construction along E40 would be done for other purposes like flood protection, the study did not include the total investment costs and the negative impacts on externalities.

The Business Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers (BUEE) in Belarus conducted a brief analysis of the transportation economics of the feasibility study of the E40 inland waterway (Maritime Institute of Gdansk, 2015). Accordingly, the significant capital expenditure, high investment risks and negative environmental consequences raise doubts about the feasibility of the E40. Therefore, the BUEE concluded that the governments should focus on other, more efficient transport projects.

Climate breakdown & Drought

An exceptionally dry summer in 2018 has caused havoc across Europe. The year was the fourth-driest and by far the hottest year since records began in 1881. According to the research conducted by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, there will be an increasing instability in relation to weather conditions, and extremes will occur more frequently. According to the German Weather Service (DWD), climate change means not only an increase in average temperatures, but also an increase in the frequency of weather anomalies. The summer of 2018 was exceptional with its intensive drought and prolonged heat, but the likeliness of such extreme periods is expected to increase in the future.

Over time, more frequent low water events. Due to low water levels inland shipping was partially discontinued on the majority of European rivers in 2018. Rivers such as the Elbe, Rhine, Oder and Danube carried so little water that navigation was restricted or discontinued. The increasing frequency of weather anomalies will make inland water navigation increasingly unstable and unsustainable, so developing new inland waterways, such as the E40 is unreasonable and uneconomic.

Biodiversity loss

All over the world, it is recognized that biodiversity conservation is very important. Therefore, various international agreements, including the Bern Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity (known as CBD) have been developed. Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, which are directly impacted by the planned E40 inland waterway, are signatories to the CBD and committed themselves to the so-called Aichi Biodiversity Targets. One of the components of this Aichi Targets aims at conserving at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas. The E40 inland waterway would impact nationally designated protected areas, Ramsar sites, Natura 2000 sites and areas which form part of the Emerald Network protected through the Bern Convention.

The planned E40 poses a threat to …

4,558 km2

of Poland’s Natura2000 sites (equivalent to over 7%)

5,342 km2

of Belarusian Emerald Network sites (equivalent to over 25%)

15,501 km2

of Ukrainian Emerald Network sites (equivalent to 9%)

Hence, over 25,400 km2 of Natura2000 and Emerald Network sites including their diverse habitats and species would be threatened by the E40 waterway. In addition, the E40 would affect 3.162 km2 of Wetlands of International Importance (17 Ramsar sites) in these three countries of the Polesia.

Habitat destruction is not the only negative impact of the E40 inland waterway on biodiversity. Moreover, the spread of invasive species may be harmful to the environment, the economy or even human health. Invasive species have the potential to outcompete native species by exploiting a resource which natives cannot use, or by directly consuming resources relied on by native species allowing them to take hold in the new environment. Thus, invasive or alien species alter natural habitats and thereby create a direct threat to native biodiversity.

Of course, E40 will impact life in the waters as well. Through the locks and dams built, fish stocks in the rivers will be affected. This will not only reduce the quantity of fish, but also the recreational opportunities for anglers.

Human Health

Large parts of the Polesia were contaminated after the Chernobyl disaster and the E40 route now intersects the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine and Polesie State Radioecological Reserve in Belarus, named after the region.

The E40 feasibility study does not provide a clear analysis of the potential impacts on the radioactive contaminated silt in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. As the proposed waterway crosses this area, the E40 would pose serious threats to human health and well-being in downstream Ukraine and would threaten the access to safe drinking water for the citizens of Kiev. The concentration of radioactive isotopes washed into the Kiev reservoir can accumulate in the local food chain. This might have fatal consequences to human health.

The potential impact of E40 in the Chernobyl zone is against the target 3.9 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which aims to reduce the number of deaths and illnesses linked to hazardous chemicals by 2030. The feasibility study of E40 inland waterway did not take these into account.

Flood & Climate mitigation

The Pripyat river serves as a natural solution to flood mitigation. Evidence from past modifications to rivers such as the Danube shows that optimisation of the river bed for navigation results in an increased river flow rate. This causes river bed deepening and impacts flooding through increased average flood levels. The increasing water level eventually leads to more investment in artificial flood protection measures, which in turn increases the cost of the project on society.

The transition mires and bog also serve as natural climate mitigation tools as they absorb large quantities of carbon. This capacity of the habitats will decrease with the change of water regime and the E40 inland waterway would have a negative impact on reaching the emissions targets set in the Paris Agreement.