Ukraine Pushes Ship Canal Across Protected Danube Wetland

GLAND, Switzerland, May 14, 2004 (ENS) - Ukraine is building a navigable ship channel to the Black Sea across the most environmentally sensitive part of the Danube Delta, a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance and one of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Reserves. The project is going ahead despite pending legal challenges and warnings from Ukranian and intergovernmental organizations that the project violates several international agreements and would destroy the fragile area.

Ramsar Convention Secretary General Peter Bridgewater on Tuesday again expressed concern to Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma that the course chosen for this waterway appears likely to affect "seriously and irreversibly the ecological character of the Kyliiske Mouth." This wetland is in the core area of the Danube Biosphere Reserve, shared by Ukraine and Romania. The Romanian portion of the Danube Delta is also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Still, Ukraine's Transport Minister Georgiy Kirpa was scheduled to formally launch the Bystroye Canal project on Tuesday. The ministry has contracted the Josef Moebius Building Corporation of Hamburg, Germany to construct the channel.


The majority of the world's white pelican population lives in the Danube Biosphere Reserve. (Photo courtesy Socio-Ecological Union)
Environmental NGOs across the region have been registering their objections to the Bystroye Canal for years. From its headquarters in Gland, WWF this week again called on the Ukrainian government to protect the Danube Delta by immediately halting canal construction and chosing another route for the channel.

"The building of this canal flouts several international agreements and goes against the concept of international management of shared rivers," said Jamie Pittock, director of WWF's Living Waters Programme.

"Ukraine has failed to honor commitments made at a heads-of-state summit organized three years ago in Romania," said Michael Baltzer, conservation director of the WWF Danube Carpathian Programme. "Nine countries in the region signed a joint declaration on restoring the Danube. If Ukraine constructs the Bystroye canal they will be reneging on those pledges."

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma Tuesday met with members of the Ukrainian National Commission for UNESCO on to mark the 50th anniversary of Ukraine's entry into the organization. He emphasized the need to "brisk up Ukraine's involvement in UNESCO geological correlation and hydrologic international projects, as well as the Man and the Biosphere program."


President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma supports his country's involvement in the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program. (Photo courtesy Office of the President)
"It is necessary to come forward with initiatives for regional cooperation, as none of the countries will be able to tackle environment protection issues on its own," said Kuchma. "I hope that the international events, which will take place under the auspices of UNESCO in Ukraine this year, will contribute to Ukrainian institutions' playing larger role in this field."

But Kuchma did not mention the UNESCO Danube Biosphere Reserve or the controversial Bystroye Canal.

The Danube Delta is inhabited by some 280 bird species, 70 percent of the world's white pelican population, and 50 percent of the world's pygmy cormorants. WWF and other environmental organizations are concerned that the Bystroye Canal will change the natural flow of the delta, which in turn affects breeding areas that support local fisheries in the Black Sea.

The local fishing industry has expressed its opposition to the route chosen for the canal. In April 2003, the head of Odessarybvod, the state fishing enterprise in Odessa, as well as the director of the Odessa branch of the Fishing Industry Institute declared themselves against construction of the channel through Bystroye. They sent an official letter to the parliament saying that the construction would harm the fishing industry.

Through 2003 and up to the present, letters in support of the Danube Biosphere Reserve have arrived at the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, according to the Socio-Ecological Union, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations in Russia and Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the Bystroye Canal project is at the center of a host of legal actions before various levels of Ukrainian courts and intergovernmental bodies.

On March 22, the nonprofit legal environmental foundation Ecopravo-Lviv filed a lawsuit against the Ukrainian Ministry of Environment alleging the violation of its right to information and right to participate in the process of planning and decision making for the canal. The Business Court of Kiev city has scheduled a court hearing in the case for May 25.


A view of the Danube Delta (Photo courtesy Socio-Ecological Union)
On April 26, Ecopravo-Lviv sent a Letter of Emergency Notification to the Secretariat of the Convention on the Migratory Species and African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement. The foundation is asking for an immediate investigation of the canal construction. "Our action seeks to protect Slender-billed Curlew, Numenius tenuirostris, a critically endangered species that is estimated to have declined in number to as few as 50 individuals," the foundation said.

On May 6, Ecopravo-Lviv filed a complaint to the Compliance Committee of the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters - the Aarhus Convention - alleging violation of the convention's provisions by Ukraine over construction of the Danube-Black Sea channel through the UNESCO Danube Biosphere Reserve.

On June 30, the Supreme Commercial Court of Ukraine is scheduled to hear an appeal by the Kilijska Region Council of a regional court decision nullifying the State law on the right to permanent land use that was issued to the Danube Biosphere Reserve.

One court judgement has already gone against the project. The Commercial Court of Kiev in a February 10 ruling invalidated the state ecological expertise decision N105 concerning the Danube-Black Sea canal.

The February 10 ruling established violation of the right of Ecopravo-Lviv to participate in the state ecological expertise by the Environment Ministry, violation of the legislation on state ecological expertise by the ministry, absence of the names of experts in the expertise decision, absence of clear evaluation - positive or negative - of the Environmental Impact Assessment documentation by the ministry, and absence of a determination of the conformity of the channel construction with Ukraine's national legislation.

The Environment Ministry appealed on March 30, and the lower court ruling was overturned.

Kyliiske Mouth Ramsar Site, listed in 1995 as a Wetland of International Importance, was the subject of a Ramsar Advisory Mission in October 2003. The Convention gives special assistance to Parties in the management and conservation of listed sites whose ecological character is likely to change as a result of technological development, pollution or other human interference.

In a rare critical statement on the activities of a Party to the Convention, the Ramsar Secretariat says that of three possible routes for the channel, the ministry has chosen the most damaging, bypassing two other solutions which would allow conservation and development to co-exist and fulfill the spirit of the Convention's wise use principle.


Ship on the Danube Delta. (Photo courtesy Socio-Ecological Union)
The report of the Advisory Mission outlines the three choices of route for the canal. Of the three, the Transport Ministry has chosen the route that cuts through the core of the Danube Biosphere Reserve.

The Ministry of Transport and the state enterprise Delta Pilot consider this choice as the most feasible and most economic solution, claiming that its environmental impact would be minimal. Their view is supported by a State Ecological Expertise, approved by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources on July 10, 2003, by statements of some scientists from Odesas and Kiev universities, says the Ramsar Advisory Mission report.

This view is also supported by the conclusions of a workshop, convened in Odesa on October 16 to 20, 2003, with scientists from the Ukraine and other countries, invited by the advocates of this route.

The second choice - favored by the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences, the management office of the reserve and many nongovernmental organizations as a quick, easy and low cost solution - is conceived of either as permanent or temporary until the third choice route is constructed.

The second choice proposes the renewal and modernization of the waterway along the Ochakivsky Rukav Danube branch and Prorva canal in the northernmost part of the delta, along the northern boundary of the core zone of the reserve.

This second route would require the construction of a short "technical canal" linking these Danube branches with the Ust'-Dunaysk port on the Black Sea's Zhebryanskaya Bay.

The third choice - construction of a sluiced canal in the northern part of the reserve linking the Solomonov Rukav branch of the Danube with Zhebryanskaya Bay - is seen as feasible and sustainable in the long term by the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences, the management office of the reserve, and numerous NGOs.

The high construction costs would be financed from private sources, the Advisory Mission report says, and the durability of this canal would, in the opinion of proponents, justify the high cost.

Odessa University geologists and geographers criticize this third choice, the Advisory Mission states, because of its environmental impact on the only ancient dune system in the Ukrainian part of the Danube delta.

"As the canal would cut only through the edge of the ancient dune system, and as most of the old dunes are planted with non-native black pine," biologists from the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences and the reserve management office view this choice as "marginal," the mission said.

With all of these impediments to construction of the Bystroye Canal, the global conservation organization WWF and others are calling for an independentenvironmental impact assessment that examines the less damaging alternatives and respects international agreements and the rights of other countries to a healthy and sustainable Danube.

WWF is urging the government of Ukraine to discuss alternatives with representatives of the Ramsar Convention, UNESCO and the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River.