The Blue Treasure of Europe

Natural and wild rivers are the heart of the Polesia. The planned E40 inland waterway would have widespread and catastrophic consequences for them, and for the rivers Vistula and Bug in Poland, Pripyat of Polesia, and Dnipro in Ukraine in particular. These rivers are pure treasuries of life. They hold numerous natural values such as freshwater habitats, high biodiversity, protected areas and ecosystem services. If the E40 navigation route will be constructed, these values will be severely threatened.

Protected areas

Protected areas – as for instance national parks, nature or community conservation areas or wilderness areas – are vital for biodiversity conservation and a key tool for sustainable development. They are very precious as they offer a wide range of values and benefits – to nature and humans alike. Besides their environmental benefits, they can contribute significantly to a country’s economy. Protected areas play a crucial role when conserving biological diversity while simultaneously contributing to human wellbeing.

Protected areas provide environmental, social and socio-economic values:

Socio-economic valuesSocial valuesEnvironmental values
JobsHeritage valueServices provided by the ecosystems
ProductionRecreational useProtection against natural hazards
Capacity buildingScientific and educational useServices provided by the species
GovernanceHealth and quality of lifeBiodiversity/genetic heritage

Ecosystem services

Freshwater habitats offer essential natural solutions to us and can contribute to national economies through decreasing the impact of floods, providing water purification, and mitigating climate change.

The region impacted by E40 inland waterway offers the following ecosystem services to local communities and national economies:

Supporting servicesProvisioning servicesRegulating servicesCultural services
Nutrient recyclingRaw materials including timber to local populationCarbon sequestrationHistoric values
Primary productionAccess to clean waterClimate regulationRecreational services
Soil formationGenetic resourcesWater purificationScience and education
Flood mitigation

All of these ecosystem services can amongst others be provided by protected areas, which are not only conserving species, but ecosystems as a whole.

The feasibility study of E40 inland waterway from December 2015 ignored any references to the ecosystem services values of the impacted region. Our analysis, which is based on Co$ting Nature tool shows among other conclusions that carbon sequestration, access to clean water and nature-based tourism are among the greatest realised ecosystem services of Polesia (see map below).

Natural solution to mitigate climate change

Recent research on the carbon sequestration capacity of Biebrza marshland in Poland, which consists of similar habitat types as Polesia, showed that the area has a potential to absorb approximately 1 kg of carbon per m2 annually. This means 1 million tons of carbon can be stored annually in the Almany mire in Belarus alone.

Habitats

The rivers impacted by the planned E40 route form various freshwater habitat types along their banks and beyond. Freshwater habitats of Polesia include open water, grassland, forest and mire habitats. According to the European Red List of Habitats (EC, 2016), 46% of freshwater habitats are threatened. This is an alarming number, but the situation of mires and bogs, which are present along the Pripyat river, is even more shocking: 85% of them are threatened in Europe.

The hardwood floodplain forests are high biodiversity riparian forests located typically in the middle course of larger rivers. Most of these forests disappeared in Europe or were turned into plantations. Forests which still exist along the planned E40 inland waterway, are not only important from biodiversity perspective, but they also serve as an important function of flood control. An undeveloped, vegetated floodplain reduces the force, height and volume of floodwaters by allowing them to spread out horizontally, causing relatively reduced damage across the floodplain.

Transition mires and quaking bogs, like Almany transition mire in Belarus, present a large and diverse range of plant communities. Mires and bogs are important because of their unique biodiversity and the various regulatory ecosystem services they provide. One of the most critical services is linked to the mitigation of climate change: Mires act as sinks of atmospheric carbon dioxide and peatlands constitute large reservoirs of carbon and nitrogen. Drained peatlands emit carbon dioxide. Because of their extent and the large volumes of carbon stored in their peat, mires and peatlands play a major role in the global carbon balance.

Covering 100,000 hectares, the Almany mire in Belarus is the largest transition mire in Europe. The planned E40 inland waterway endangers not only the mire’s carbon stock, but also its Greater Spotted Eagle population, which is extremely sensitive to human disturbance. Belarus is one of the few countries where this globally endangered species can still be found and the country’s largest population (18-20 pairs) is found right here.

Species richness

Biological resources are essential to humanity’s health, economic and social development. There is a growing recognition that biological diversity is a global asset of tremendous value to present and future generations, for instance through providing the opportunity for the discovery of new medicines. At the same time, the threat to species and ecosystems has never been so great as it is today. Species extinction caused by human activities continues at an alarming rate.

The riverine habitats harbour many endangered species, including iconic mammals like brown bears, wolves, and birds such as waders. One of them requires particular attention, because 80% of its global population depends on habitats that will be impacted by E40: the Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola). It is the rarest migratory songbird of Europe, and the only globally threatened passerine bird found on this continent. Once widespread and numerous in fen mires and wet meadows throughout Europe, the Aquatic Warbler has disappeared from most of its former range. Now, its global population of only 12,100-13,800 vocalising males is confined to fewer than 40 regularly occupied breeding sites in only five countries. Four sites covering together only less than 400 km2 host over 80% of the global population. Polesia is one of those sites crucial to their survival.

Bird migration

Every spring and every fall, millions and millions of migratory birds rest and refuel in Polesia to gather strength for their long journeys. The Pripyat’s flood plains are a key resting place for migrating birds, including Eurasian wigeon (as many as 350,000 birds), ruffs (up to 200,000 birds) and black-tailed godwit.

This yearly gathering of wigeons and godwits on the floodplains of the Pripyat is the largest in all of Central and Eastern Europe. As the E40 inland waterway would impact the habitats available for the birds, their migration would be negatively affected.