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E40 waterway and Save Polesia campaign, Belarus

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


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. 

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:E40 waterway and Save Polesia campaign, Belarus
State or province:This is a regional megainfrastructure plan across Belarus, Ukraine and Poland
Accuracy of locationLOW (Country level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Infrastructure and Built Environment
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Dams and water distribution conflicts
Pollution related to transport (spills, dust, emissions)
Land acquisition conflicts
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Nuclear power plants
Ports and airport projects
Invasive species
Specific commodities:Transportation
Project Details and Actors
Project details

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.

Level of Investment:15,000,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:Up to 20 Million
Start of the conflict:01/01/2013
Relevant government actors:Polish Government
Belarus Government
Ukraine Government
International and Finance InstitutionsEuropean Bank for Reconstruction & Development (EBRD) from United Kingdom
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:“Save Polesia” is an international partnership of six civil society organisations -

APB BirdLife – Belarus -

Bahna – Belarus - and

Frankfurt Zoological Society – Germany -

National Ecological Centre of Ukraine (NECU) -

OTOP Polish Society for the Protection of Birds –

Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds –
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Social movements
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Environmental ImpactsPotential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Oil spills, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsPolesia is Europe’s Amazon. This stunning region, which straddles the borders of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, is the continent’s greatest intact floodplain region. Despite ongoing threats from climate change, hunting, logging, and mining, huge areas of Polesia remain pristine.
Natural and wild rivers lie at Polesia’s heart – the Bug in Poland, Dnieper in Ukraine, and the 750 km-long Pripyat, one of Europe’s most pristine rivers. The altitude across the remarkable 186,000 km2 region never varies by more than 150 meters. Meandering rivers, tributaries, and oxbows shape a labyrinth of wetlands, peatlands, forests, islands, swamps, bogs, marshes, and lakes that are home to some of the most biodiverse and culturally rich parts of Europe. The floodplains also mitigate floods, clean air, and are a major carbon store. Polesia has almost 27,00km2 of Protected Areas which could be impacted.
Health ImpactsPotential: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Other Health impactsPotential raised radiation risk to millions of people - 8 million people drink the water from the Dnieper and 20 million people eat food irrigated with water for the Dnieper
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Other socio-economic impacts
Other socio-economic impactsPolesia has a strong cultural heritage which is now under threat from E40. Due to their relative isolation the indigenous population of Polesia, Poleshuks, have historically had little contact with people from other regions. Deep in the heart of Polesia, the traditional way of life like the use of local herbal medicine and traditional singing has been very well preserved.
Project StatusPlanned (decision to go ahead eg EIA undertaken, etc)
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (undecided)
Application of existing regulations
Project temporarily suspended
Development of alternatives:Save Polesia is advocating for the following alternatives:

1. Investment in existing rail infrastructure
Transport of goods using the E40 waterway would be slower, more expensive, more polluting, and less reliable than electric rail. Therefore, construction of the E40 waterway makes no sense. To meet trading needs, governments should instead modernise border crossings, increase train capacities and speed, and improve logistics infrastructure to handle cross-border trade. A railway network connecting the Black Sea and the Baltic exists already and could be upgraded.

2. Strengthen local economies through nature-based tourism
The meandering rivers, unique biodiversity and cultural heritage present a huge potential for nature-based tourism in Polesia. Numbers have been steadily increasing year-on-year, and the region is particularly popular with birdwatchers. With the right roadmap, nature-based tourism has massive potential to underpin sustainable, low-impact, and profitable tourism in the region. Challenges include the coordination of stakeholders, and securing the investment needed to develop opportunities. Successful experiences elsewhere in Europe, such as Soomaa National Park in Estonia, serve as inspiring examples.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:It is too soon to say. This continental level project is being taken forward by its promotors (the Polish, Belarusian and Ukrainian Government's) in a fragmented way.
Sources & Materials
Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

EU Water Framework Directive
[click to view]

EU SEA Directive
[click to view]

UNECE Espoo Convention
[click to view]

EU Trans-European Transport Networks
[click to view]

EU Nature Directives
[click to view]

EU EIA Directive
[click to view]

UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention)
[click to view]

Ramsar Convention
[click to view]

Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention)
[click to view]

Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention)
[click to view]

The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention)
[click to view]

Save Polesia - Stop E40 Waterway

An environmental catastrophe looms over Polesia, Europe’s Amazon.
[click to view]

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[1] Por Gdansk - Etap II

Lista wariantów do uszczegółowienia na Etapie III zostanie utworzona w wyniku przeprowadzonej analizy wielokryterialnej wariantów wybranych w Etapie I do dalszej analizy. (in Polish)
[click to view]

Save Polesia - Europe's Amazon
[click to view]

Weston, P (2020) The race to save Polesia, Europe’s secret Amazon. The Guardian, March 2020.
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Polesia - Wilderness without borders
[click to view]

Stop E40 campaign
[click to view]

Radiation impacts of the E450 Waterway
[click to view]

Other documents

Save Polesia Factsheet About Polesia About Polesia – A unique wilderness of global importance

Polesia is Europe’s largest wilderness area – a vital region for rare animals and plants, with a rich cultural heritage.
[click to view]

Save Polesia Factsheet E40 could expose people to radiation E40 waterway could pose increased radiation risk for millions of people

Constructing the E40 waterway through the Chernobyl exclusion zone could disturb and distribute radioactive sludge, threatening the lives of construction workers and the wider population. It would also contravene international recommendations.
[click to view]

Map of the E40 plan Source:
[click to view]

Other comments:Location: This case has been placed over the Parque Natural Polesky State but it actually encompasses a huge area across three countries with multiple infrastructural components. Please refer to the map produced by the campaign Save Polesia for a detailed overview.
Meta information
Contributor:Dr Helen Byron, Save Polesia International Campaign Coordinator for Frankfurt Zoological Society email: [email protected]
Last update12/05/2020
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