BRAMA, Sep 29, 2004, 11:00 am ET|
Ukraine's Danube Waterway: Putting Reality Before Myths
September 28, 2004 I have just returned from the little town of Vylkovo in the Danube Delta. It used to be called a Ukrainian Venice, and I remember that not too long ago it was full of buoyant life and trade. On this visit, though, it seemed that life had left the town, with its dried-up waterways, few tourists and lack of jobs.
And yet, I saw hope in the eyes of the people living there. The name of that hope is Danube - Black Sea waterway, which gave it life in the first place, and with its reopening will bring it back to life. By re-opening the navigable waterway through the Bystre mouth of the Danube, the Ukrainian government aims to breathe life into this depressed area. The people of Vylkovo and their neighbors welcome this timely decision.
Since 1994 the Bystre region has been closed for navigation, depressing the economy and impoverishing the people, as the livelihood of 250,000 area residents has always depended on the shipping business. The Ukrainian Delta is home to five commercial ports with a total capacity of 20m tons a year, one shipyard and two ship-repairing yards. The Danube Shipping Company was originally established to operate exclusively in the Danube - Black Sea area.
In the last ten years the local economy suffered a sharp decline as cargo shipped through the five ports dropped to a quarter of its previous level. Acute social problems resulted as unemployment soared and people began to leave the area.
Now, when I hear from some well-motivated quarters that Ukraine should suspend the work on re-opening the Bystre waterway, I recall the weathered face of an old seaman who had felt like a dead fish tossed onto the barren shore, but brightened at the prospect of a new life offered by re-opening the waterway.
Regretfully, a lot of inaccurate and biased information has made its way into the media regarding the construction of a canal. Let me make it clear from the outset that there is no canal or any other artificial structure under construction in the area. Ukraine is just making the existing natural branches (Bystre and Chilia) of the Danube River suitable for navigation.
From 1830 to 1958 this waterway was navigable. As Danube Commission data confirm, in the 1954-1957 period the annual cargo turnover through it amounted to 800-900,000 tons. Later on, until the early 1990s, the waterway was reserved for the Soviet Navy and only occasionally used by merchant vessels.
The current project has two phases. Phase 1 envisages dredging works in the bar area of the shallow sea waters adjacent to the buffer zone of the biosphere reserve, and it will have practically no adverse trans-boundary environmental impact. Phase 2, planned for 2005-2007, will be implemented only after a thorough feasibility study is conducted, including the results of close monitoring of the environmental impact of Phase 1.
Ukraine, more than any other country, is concerned with the environmental situation in the Danube Delta. It is quite a challenge to boost the economic development of the area while preserving the unique wetlands habitat, but that is exactly what Ukraine is currently doing. I could see with my own eyes this marriage of economy and ecology, and the richness of nature. I saw thousands of birds flying around serenely over a jungle of wetlands, and the dredging work in the area did not seem to disturb them at all. It is a pity one cannot interview them to ask how they feel!
Ukraine is well aware of the beauty of nature in the area. After considering ten different options, including long and heated public debates and thorough scientific and environmental studies, the current option was chosen to have the minimal impact on the environment. Taking this decision, Ukraine sought to harmonize the project with the requirements of European Union environmental policy and the principle of sustainable development.
The very fact that a well-known German company, Josef Mobius Bau A.G., which applies up-to-date, environment-friendly technologies, was selected as the main contractor for project implementation, proves that Ukraine is ready to pay a price for preservation of its natural heritage.
We have also learned from other nations' experience in operating navigation through bio-reserves, for example in the deltas of the Mississippi, Po, Rhone, Thames and Mekong. We have taken advantage of studying the Romanian practice in this regard, since its navigation along man-made canals in the Danube Delta is very intense.
On August 26 Ukraine completed the first phase of the project under strict environmental monitoring and while providing compensating mechanisms, such as expanding the core area of the biosphere reserve.
Ukraine is open for cooperation. We provide relevant information to all interested parties - first and foremost our good neighbor Romania.
We have received missions from UNESCO and the Council of Europe, as well as the secretariats of the Bern and Ramsar conventions. The Romanian Ambassador to Kiev, alongside diplomats of many other countries, recently visited the Ukrainian delta and the site of the reopened waterway.
We look forward to a visit from the European Commission to show that Ukraine is doing its utmost to preserve our common European natural heritage, which we together can be truly proud of.
Ukraine will certainly welcome recommendations of independent experts regarding the environmental aspects of the project. At the same time, we are very much concerned with the current situation in the Danube Delta as a whole. We have every reason to claim that it is due to unilateral and uncoordinated steps by Romania that the distribution of water flow in the Danube mainstream changed dramatically in favor of Romania over the last century. In 1895 Ukraine had 70 percent of total water flow, while by 2000 it was reduced to 53 percent. Currently, we keep losing 3-4 percent of water flow every year.
This redistribution occurred not because of natural processes (nature works in Ukraine's favor and tries to restore the original water course), but due to continued and systematic hydro-technical works carried out by the Romanian authorities, without notification of Ukraine. As a matter of record, Ukraine informed Romania about its intention to reopen the Danube waterway in October 2003 and received no reaction until May 2004.
In fact, over the last decade we lost much of the navigational depth in the Ukrainian part of the delta, and we were forced to search a solution that would allow us to restore previously existing navigation conditions.
Besides, Romania's activities have had an adverse impact on our ecological situation, including: silting of several arms of the river, lakes and wetlands of the Danube Basin, the worsening conditions for the delta flora and fauna and raising levels of sulfur hydrogen in the water.
The local inhabitants claim that the number of birds and fish in the area have dropped notably over the last decade, notwithstanding the suspension over that period of all navigation and industrial activities in the Ukrainian area and the establishment of the Danube Biosphere Reserve.
Concerns voiced by our neighbor are quite understandable, though the matter is economic rather than ecological in nature. Over the last few years Romania has developed an exclusive monopoly on navigation in the Danube Delta. When the alternative waterway is reopened, competition will be restored, making available less expensive shipping from Europe to the Black Sea, and vice versa. This will be done in full conformity with the highest international standards of environmental protection.
Negative emotions eagerly displayed by competing Romanian politicians to emphasize their patriotic credentials in the presidential elections serve no useful purpose. The only way for Romania and Ukraine to settle this issue is to act in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding. We are ready to find an acceptable solution based on this approach.
Minister of Foreign Affairs