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Radioactivity and Biodiversity: Dredging the Pripyat River in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

Posted on December 15, 2020

Connecting the Baltic and Black Seas: Opportunities and obstacles

The Pripyat River, which flows through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) in Belarus and Ukraine, forms part of a proposed international waterway. The planned inland shipping route known as the E40 waterway seeks to connect the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea from Poland to Ukraine, along a 2000km channel via the Vistula, Bug, Pina, Pripyat and Dnieper Rivers. The waterway aims to enable maritime transport and trade and facilitate economic opportunities. It also has the potential to propel an ecological disaster leading to significant biodiversity loss and the spread of radioactive contamination, in addition to geopolitical implications.


Creating a navigation route between the Baltic and Black Seas is not a new notion; it was a former Medieval trade route in the past. During the Soviet-era, it gained little traction; however, within recent years, decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the proposed E40 waterway has the potential to revolutionize geopolitics in Eastern Europe, as well as exacerbate tensions between the East and West, fuelled by opposition from Russia. The project’s trilateral cooperation and integration between Poland, Belarus and Ukraine have garnered support from the West, including the United States. 

Landlocked Belarus is determined to gain access to the sea. The country’s controversial President, Alexander Lukashenko, has long supported maritime transport on the Pripyat and Dnieper, claiming it will improve logistics. However, E40’s perceived geopolitical impact is of even greater significance than its geo-economics. Its geopolitical and strategic military role should not be understated. The waterway could permit naval access to military vessels, undermining the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates the passage of warships to the Black Sea. Belarus is a former treaty ally of Russia, meaning the project’s development could repercussions from Russia if Belarus and Poland form a bilateral military agreement. The trade route will bypass Russia, lessening the importance of Russia’s Don-Volga route, integrating Ukraine and Belarus into the European Union’s (EU) infrastructure and economy.

In 2015, the EU provided financial support worth €500,000 to conduct a feasibility study. However, the EU is reluctant to provide additional funding due to the project’s economic, social, and environmental concerns. The limited budget has meant €335,000 has been allocated for dredging a 64.5km section of the Pripyat River in Ukraine only. In addition to the cost, the project faces several challenges, including opposition from Russia and threats of nuclear radiation in the CEZ and potential biodiversity loss and ecological damage in the Polesia region from dredging the Pripyat.

Radioactive contamination

Once a little-known region of the Soviet Union, Polesia became infamous for the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Present-day Belarus absorbed 70% of the uncontained radiation, making it one of the world’s most contaminated places. The Pripyat River flows through Polesia within a few kilometres of the remains of Chernobyl’s No. 4 Reactor. Satellite imagery shows dredging commenced between July and September 2020 in seven sites along the Pripyat in Ukraine. These sites fall within the CEZ, with five of them sitting within 10km of the nuclear power plant. At its closest, the waterway is set to pass only 2.5km from the reactor. Construction and maintenance workers risk being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

If the Pripyat dredging continues, the increased radiation risk could also affect 28 million people downstream who are dependent on the Dnieper River for food (fisheries and crops) and water. According to an independent scientific study by the French organization ACRO and commissioned by the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS). Experts believe dredging will alter wetland and riverine ecosystems and disturb radioactive sediment accumulated in the riverbed after the nuclear accident. It can disperse and contaminate reservoirs and drinking water that eight million people, including Kyiv’s population, are dependent on. Crops also risk contamination from irrigation and dredged soil used as fertilizer; this could affect 20 million Ukrainians’ food supply. The risk of radiation is prolonged with the Pripyat set to become a permanent source of radioactive contaminants because the E40 will require annual dredging to ensure the channel remains operational.

Polesia “The Amazon of Europe”

Aside from the risk of radioactive contamination, the E40 threatens to alter Polesia’s natural environment and negatively impact wildlife and the traditional livelihoods of local people, including Poleshuks, an ethnic group indigenous to Polesia. Despite the Soviet-era environmental impacts, Polesia has remained largely pristine and at its heart flows the Pripyat, one of Europe’s least modified rivers. An exclusion zone was created following the Chernobyl disaster. More than 300,000 people were evacuated from within 500 km² of the plant, including 45,000 residents from Pripyat. The Polesie State Radioecological Reserve adjoins the CEZ; this area is relatively free from human disturbance (despite the contamination), providing an unintentional experiment in rewilding and a haven for threatened wildlife.

Polesia is of high conservation value with a diverse range of rare ecosystems, including floodplain oak groves, black alder forests, and Europe’s largest intact flood plain and wetlands. It is the continent’s largest remaining wilderness, covering 18 million hectares, an area more than two-thirds the United Kingdom’s size (UK). Polesia has been described as “the Amazon of Europe,” about its rich biodiversity and unique landscapes. Dr. Helen Byron, Save Polesia campaign coordinator, refers to Polesia, “The rivers, the meanders and the marshes are all similar to those found in the Amazon. There are no other places in Europe where creatures can have so much space, and yet because it was behind the iron curtain, people just don’t know about it.” The region provides crucial habitat for endangered wildlife, including brown bears, wolves, bison, lynx, and 1.5 million migratory birds. The survival of more than 200 bird species is dependent on the wetlands and forests of Polesia, including endangered species such as the aquatic warbler and the greater spotted eagle.

Polesia’s ecosystem integrity and biodiversity are threatened by climate change, resource exploitation, fragmentation, wetland drainage, intensive forestry, illegal mining, and infrastructure development, in particular the E40 waterway. In addition to dredging, there are plans to straighten, deepen, and construct dams along Polesia’s meandering rivers. Channelisation and dredging threaten to alter the region’s hydrology. Wetland drainage will likely change the flood regime and increase droughts. Moreover, climate change is projected to reduce the water flow of rivers flowing into the Pripyat by 25% to 50%; this will limit ships’ navigation, making it uneconomical.

Ecosystem services will also be compromised, including water retention, flood mitigation, and carbon storage. If the peatlands dry out, this will turn the region from a carbon sink to a carbon source. Polesia’s wetlands are a significant carbon sink, with 2,000 square kilometres of carbon-sequestering peatland. According to FZS, if 50% of Polesia’s peatlands were converted into the forest and the other 50% to grassland, the carbon dioxide released would be equivalent to an additional one to two million cars on UK roads annually. This could diminish the role wetlands play in climate change mitigation. The river’s ecology could also be at risk from invasive introduced species spread by shipping and pollution from oil spills.

Alternative solution

Campaigners argue the limited economic benefits are not worth the environmental costs. Alexandre Vintchevski, the founder of APB-BirdLife Belarus, the country’s largest wildlife NGO, says, “For me, the E40 project is similar to a project on turning northern rivers to southern deserts: dividends to a small group of developers and builders and irreversible consequences for the wildlife in Polesia will take place. Some local inhabitants will get jobs at the E40, but most will suffer from the artificial changes in the region’s ecosystems.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the project’s 2015 feasibility study was incomplete, including little consideration for environmental issues. The project has also lacked public participation. Polesia’s unique biodiversity and cultural heritage require protection; researchers are consulting with officials in Belarus and Ukraine to declare Polesia a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Besides the environmental harm the waterway poses, the construction is expensive; it costs more than 12 billion Euros. WWF argues that maritime transport along the E40 waterway would be less efficient, more expensive and produce more pollution in comparison to electric rail; therefore, the project’s development is infeasible. A railway network connecting the Baltic and Black Seas already exists. This provides an economical, eco-friendly alternative. Government investment could improve the existing network to meet trading requirements by increasing train capacities and speed and modernizing railway infrastructure.


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