Danube delta under threat from Ukrainian canal project

European environment officials have expressed concern this week that Ukrainian plans to build a maritime canal in the Danube delta will irrevocably damage the surrounding wetland areas.

The canal project intends to create a navigation channel in the central part of the Danube delta to access the Black Sea and boost jobs in the region through opening up the Danube harbours. Currently, the only other route is the Sulina canal which, Ukraine says, has very high taxes.

However, the project has raised a lot of concern among stakeholders and environmental groups over its likely negative impacts on the unique species and habitats of the Delta, which is protected under the UNESCO 'Man and Biosphere' programme.

The Directorate-General for Environment of the European Commission published a report from an expert team which went to investigate the project and analyse the available information.

Catherine Day, Director General for Environment and President of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River said the report provided more clarity on the facts and makes a number of useful recommendations.

"I am pleased that Ukraine has made commitments to be more open and proactive in the ongoing process of finalisation of the Environmental Impact Assessment for phase II of the project. It is the legitimate right of Ukraine to develop this economically less developed region through navigation. However, I believe that such an effort can only succeed if it is sustainable," she said.

The Expert Team found there were several aspects where the situation regarding potential environmental impacts was still unclear and could not understand the reasoning for some of the decisions taken by Ukraine. In particular, the information policy for Phase I of the project was inadequate and the decision making opaque, the team found.

In addition, they criticised Ukraine for only establishing a serious dialogue with the international community after the construction of phase I of the project was largely completed.

The Expert Team said it was still not possible to establish whether the proposed option is the most sustainable solution or which kind of negative impacts the project might have. However, they recommend that phase II should only go ahead if sufficient evidence is gathered from the additional ongoing monitoring programmes about such things as whether the extension of the protective seawall and other planned measures would create long term undesirable effects.

Critics of the project say that the canal will drastically reduce the water level in surrounding ecosystems and add more pollution to existing waterways, as well as destroy the habitats for numerous species of wildlife such as in the Letea forest and Europe's largest pelican colony in the nearby Rosca-Buhaiova lakes area.

In 2003, A UNESCO team of representatives analysed the various options for a canal and concluded that the Bystroye route was the "worst possible option".

During this most recent visit of the Expert Team, Ukraine has made a number of concrete commitments including promises to make available all requested documentation including the impact assessments for the different stages of the project. In addition it will carry out a public consultation on the EIA of Phase II at national and international level before the continuation of the project is authorised.

By David Hopkins



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