An environmental catastrophe looms over Polesia, Europe’s largest wilderness. Governments want to create a 2,000 km long navigable waterway connecting the Black Sea and the Baltic, which will cut through the heart of the region.
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 the Baltic. They propose the creation of the longest waterway in Europe, stretching 2,000 km – more than 25 times the length of the Panama Canal. It would be designed for ships more than 80 meters in length. To accommodate them the channel must be at least 2.5 meters deep. And constructing it would destroy the heart of Polesia.
Constructing the so-called ‘E40’ waterway requires in fact dredging, damming, straightening, and deepening of pristine rivers in some of the most environmentally sensitive parts of the region. This will lead to the destruction of enormous floodplains and wetlands, home to rare animals and plants, including eagles, bison, bears, wolves and lynx.
The construction work could dry up rivers, directly impact 38 internationally protected areas, and potentially disturb radioactive pollution in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Air pollution from ships would afflict major cities on the route, while accidents and oil spills are a major risk. The E40 waterway would undermine ecosystem services such as water retention, flood mitigation, clean air, and carbon storage. And it would destroy the fabric of local Polesian communities and their unique way of life.
Following an International Feasibility Study published in 2015 which highlighted the serious potential environmental impacts, this continental level project is being taken forward by its promotors (the Polish, Belarusian and Ukrainian Government's) in a fragmented way.
The current status of the project in each country is as follows (as per June 2020):
- Poland. A Polish feasibility study is underway to inform route selection. Although the process is still underway initial available results show that they are focusing on variants of the ‘worst’ route from an environmental perspective ; alongside this, the government are proceeding with planning for Siarzewo dam (treating it as a standalone project, although it will be part of E40).
- Belarus. Authorities are focusing on planned river port at Nijniye Zary (near the Ukrainian border) and have issued eviction notices for people in this village, despite very little info about the project plans, EIA etc. The main planning process at present is the development of the land use plan for the relevant area and its Strategic Environmental Assessment.
- Ukraine. The focus is on river dredging (to make the channel deep enough). A tender has been awarded despite no detail of the project or EIA. The Save Polesia partners have lodged a court appeal.
It is not too late to change course and preserve the last remaining wetland wilderness in Europe. Help save Polesia and stop the construction of the E40 waterway. Save Polesia – Europe’s Amazon.