Ukraine: Bystroye canal

Cutting through the heart of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve

The government of Ukraine started construction of a deep-water canal from the Danube Delta to the Black Sea via the Bystroye arm in 2004. Work on Phase II of the canal began in summer 2007. The canal goes through the heart of the Ukrainian Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, an area of global ecological importance, and has questionable economic benefits.

Phase I of the Canal, which began in 2004, was completed and larger, sea-going ships started using the Bystroye Canal. However, the canal quickly silted up past its previous depth, and therefore became unusable. Dredging to reopen the canal began in November 2006 and was completed in April 2007. Since then, ships have been able to use the canal. Phase II of the project, which included deepening of the canal as well as construction of a dike into the Black Sea began in summer 2007.

Interventions planned under Phase 2 are considered by WWF and other experts to be the most destructive for the fragile ecosystems of the Danube Delta. The further construction of the canal would have a severe negative impact on both the ecology and the socio-economic situation in the delta.

How to promote shipping?

The Ukrainian government has justified construction of the canal claiming that it is of geo-strategic importance to the country and that it would revive the shipping industry and increase employment in the Delta. Presently, ships have access through the Delta along the Sulina Canal in Romania and a small connecting channel in Ukraine suitable for smaller vessels. The government of Ukraine claims that the use of the Sulina through Romania route costs them billions of dollars per year in fees.

While Ukraine’s interest in developing shipping is understandable, the Bystroye Canal represents the worst solution due to the ecological destruction and questionable economic benefits. International experts from the Bern Convention and WWF have identified alternative routes for Ukraine to access the Black Sea from the Danube. These alternative routes would be less costly over the long run and help avoid destroying valuable areas of the Danube Delta.

Moreover, in pushing forward construction of the deep water channel, the Ukrainian government has consistently flouted both national and international laws and agreements.

Controversial project

The project has been dogged by controversy from the beginning. The project was initiated in 2004 under previous Ukrainian President, Leonid Kuchma, but was put on hold following the Orange Revolution and subsequent change in regime in late 2004. Since then, a criminal investigation was launched into reported mishandling of funds by Delta Lotsman, the government-controlled agency responsible for implementing the project.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that was undertaken for the second phase of the project was rejected by the Ukrainian Ministry of Environment in autumn 2005. Deputy Minister Yavorska, who rejected the EIA, was subsequently removed from her position. In early 2006, the Ukrainian government pushed through a second EIA before national elections in March. Both EIAs have been strongly criticized by international organizations and governments, including WWF, the European Commission, and the Ramsar and Bern Conventions, for their poor quality and lack of genuine public or international consultation.

In July 2006, a United Nations Inquiry Commission unanimously concluded that construction of the canal was likely to have significant adverse transboundary impacts. It further concluded that the canal contravened the requirements of the Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context. To date, no trans-border Environmental Impact Assessment has been conducted for the project, as required by the Espoo Convention.

Current cost estimates for Phase II are EUR 90 million, roughly three times the original figure. According to WWF's analysis, income provided by the completed canal will be outweighed by the cost of maintaining the waterway, especially keeping it free from silting in.

Globally important delta

According to WWF, the Danube Delta is one of the world’s 200 most important regions for biodiversity conservation. It is the second largest wetland in Europe and the largest reed bed in the world. It is a critical habitat for a number of globally threatened species. It also supports the livelihoods of numerous local communities.

Planned large-scale dredging for canal construction and maintenance and the operation of the canal itself will cause loss of habitats for globally threatened species, including red-breasted Geese, pygmy cormorants and giant beluga sturgeon. It will also affect valuable ecological services provided by the Danube Delta ecosystem for the local populations, including fishing and tourism.

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