Above the low banks of the Pripyat River in Belarus, purple storm clouds press down like bruised cheeks. Swarms of mosquitoes and plump, shiny flies rise from the undergrowth as a group of protesters — a coalition of environmental activists, fishermen, and locals — drag their canoes from the water. They are united in opposition to a project that could, in a few years, turn this meandering river into an international shipping route.
The route is known as the E40 waterway and its aim is an ancient one — to link the Black Sea with the Baltic, creating a navigable passage through eastern Europe. The route from Kherson in Ukraine through Belarus to Gdansk on the Baltic is 2,000 kilometers by the river. Viking longships used it on their way to Constantinople and the caravans of the Silk Road.
But conservationists believe that were the E40 project to be realized it would permanently alter the Pripyat, which is unique in Europe in still being in a near-natural state for much of its length.
“The E40 would go through 11 nature reserves in Belarus,” activist Olya Kaskevich explains as a campfire is kindled to cook dinner for 50 hungry canoe protesters. Quietly driven and more creatively dressed than most environmentalists (her background is in fine art, not ecology), Kaskevich is the director of Bahna, the non-governmental organization that organized the canoe protest and a major partner in the Stop E40 campaign.
“Birds used to use other European rivers but these have been developed,” adds Roman Khlebin, the red-haired head of the Gomel regional branch of conservation organization BirdLife Belarus.
The Pripyat is home to rare bird species, such as the greater spotted eagle, great grey owl and aquatic warbler — the latter is particularly threatened by the E40 project as BirdLife estimates that three-quarters of the world’s aquatic warbler population are directly threatened by its construction.
“The Pripyat is extremely important as a migration site,” continues Khlebin. “If this area is damaged, the birds will have to find somewhere else, and there aren’t so many suitable places left.”
Landlocked Belarus is keen to gain access to the sea. A commission was established in 2007 to investigate a route between the Black Sea and the Baltic, backed with 900,000 euros (EUR) in funding from the European Union. The secretary of the commission is Andrei Rekesh, an affable man with the build of an ex-rower.
“You have to understand, we are not trying to create some Panama Canal in Belarus,” Rekesh says with a smile as he sits in his wood-paneled office overlooking the Pripyat in the small city of Pinsk. The brass knobs on his desk are polished to a shine. A large photo of the Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, watches over our interview.
“I believe it’s totally possible to make the river navigable, but at the same time not to harm nature,” says Rekesh, adding that emissions per kilometer are lower with water transport than with road or rail, and that the project, which could transport up to 6 million tonnes of cargo a year, is in line with the EU’s aim of increasing the use of inland waterways.
I was not permitted to see the full feasibility study published by the commission, but a publicly available summary states that to make the Pripyat navigable for modern-day vessels, water levels would need to be raised and the river bed deepened. Locks and reservoirs would retain water through the summer months. Rekesh emphasises that “European practice” should be followed for the construction work, adding that “we must look to the experience the Dutch and the Germans have of such projects.”
But the German experience of river regulation has not always been positive, as Zoltan Kuhn from the Frankfurt Zoological Society explains.
“When you look at other rivers that have been channelized to allow shipping, like the Rhine or the Danube, the effect is to speed up the flow, deepen the river, and change the vegetation, surrounding habitat, climate, and groundwater,” Kuhn says.
The E40 commission argues that reservoirs would improve water retention, but experts believe the reality is more complex. The area upstream of the locks will become wetter, according to Nikolai Sheshko, a hydrologist at the University of Brest in southwestern Belarus, while downstream drainage will increase, and the area will become drier.
More dramatic still would be the impact of the work in Poland. To avoid a series of protected areas along the Bug River, a bypass canal would be built — the most expensive feature of the project. BirdLife warns that this could reduce the flow around the Bug’s winding bends and islands to a trickle.
For much of the winter, the Pripyat is bound in ice. As the snows melt, the waters rise and the river, which winds in a baroque series of oxbows and meanders from west to east before joining the Dnieper in Ukraine, breaks its banks. Belarus is a flat country — its highest point lies just 345 meters above sea level — and nowhere is flatter than Polesie, the region through which the Pripyat flows. It is a land of huge skies and endless horizons — there is little here to halt the flood waters.
“The floodplain is up to 30 kilometers wide in spring,” explains Kaskevich from Bahna as two cauldrons of kasha (porridge) bubble over the campfire on the second morning of the protest (tinned meat has been stirred into one, Haribo sweets into the other). Kaskevich points to the surrounding meadows, lush with summer vegetation and punctuated with stands of oak trees, and says it's possible to canoe across them in spring.
“It really looks like the Amazon,” she adds. This waterworld has fostered tough, independent communities used to being cut off from the outside world. Polesians used to speak their own language, and a strong local dialect remains. The architecture is singular too: brightly painted wooden churches and houses with gables adorned with elaborate wood carvings. Sun motifs are common.
Bags are loaded into the Soviet-era skin-on-frame canoes, and the protesters slip back onto the peaty river, which has the same amber color as a fine Highland whisky. Belarus has lost two-thirds of its marshes since the 1950s, explains Kaskevich, making the areas that have survived all the more precious. Preserving the country’s wetlands is a cornerstone of Kaskevich’s work at Bahna. She co-founded the NGO in 2013 with ecologist Kostja Chikalov and is now one of the most prominent conservationists in a country with little history of environmentalism. Organizing protests in a state known for its suppression of dissent also carries risks: several people were questioned by the KGB (as Belarus’ secret service is still known) following last year’s canoe protest.
But the Stop E40 campaign is gathering momentum. In April Belarus’ Business Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers published an open letter calling on the government to abandon the project. It pointed out that water transport is only suitable for heavy, bulky goods and only a small number of businesses benefit from it. As the waterway would not be wide or deep enough for ocean-going container ships, the need for costly unloading and reloading onto river vessels could limit the route’s appeal among international shipping companies.
On a cloudless morning, terns and redshank scream and wheel overhead, and the air is filled with the eery whistles and whoops of lapwing. I'm here on the banks of the Pripyat with Pavel Pinchuk, a pony-tailed ornithologist from the Belarus Academy of Science, to visit Turov meadow, one of the most important sites for wading birds in Europe.
“‘All the waders are declining,” says Pinchuk as he checks his bird traps. “Not just here in Turov — here we have management. But in other areas the meadows are declining, it’s turning to forest and scrub.”
“Last year we counted 120,000 ruff in one evening here,” Pinchuk continues. These wading birds change into their summer plumage on the meadow — the bird’s English name comes from the collar or "ruff" of feathers around the males’ necks. Pinchuk points out the flattened grass of a display site (‘lek’) where the males performed their courtship dances a few weeks earlier.
“In Europe, you only get this kind of concentration maybe in Spain or in the Azov Sea [in southern Russia],” he adds. Research by the eco-station has found that ruff and other waders, such as black-tailed godwit, gain 40 to 50 percent of their body weight over their one month stay in Turov, making the meadow a vital part of their migration route from their overwintering sites to their breeding grounds in the Arctic.
Pinchuk has witnessed first-hand the effects of a drier climate on the meadow. "Two years ago, there was a fire at the end of April," he remembers. "We came here in the evening and the ruff were still displaying in the thick smoke. The next day they were displaying again — their legs were coated in black ash."
But the ruff returned, and the abundance of wading birds is attracting intrepid groups of birders from the UK, Germany, and Scandinavia. So many that Birdlife Belarus ran out of guides to accompany visitors on their tours last year. Could eco-tourism offer an alternative way of boosting the area’s economy to the E40?
“In the future, it will be one of the main sources of income for this area,” Pinchuk believes. “But we need to change the mentality of the local people here, and the government.”
The bright orange speedboat carves through a maze of reed beds. Islands and channels stretch away to the horizon — it could be the Danube Delta or the English Norfolk Broads 200 years ago. Cattle egrets flap heavily away and over the roar of the engine I can just make out the metallic chinking of aquatic warblers in the reeds. This is the upper Dnieper river in Ukraine, 100 kilometers north of Kyiv, and we are heading for the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Ships following the E40 waterway would leave Pripyat here and join the Dnieper, Ukraine’s largest river. This sprawling area of forest and marsh has been turned into an unintentional experiment in rewilding following the 1986 nuclear disaster.
“It is a unique place on the planet,” explains Denis Vishnevskiy, an ecologist at the newly-created Chernobyl Biosphere Reserve who bristles with energy for his subject. We met back in the reserve’s Kyiv office, where the smell of fresh paint and shiny new lino still hangs in the air (it was established just last year).
The reserve presents a unique opportunity for scientific research, Vishnevskiy continues, “but our first priority is biodiversity. Nowhere else in the world can you exclude human activity in this way. Everywhere else you have conflict with landowners, with special interests.”
In Chernobyl, the 2,000-square-kilometre zone is protected by a patrolled boundary fence, and more significantly, by the invisible contamination left by the accident.
Without human interference wildlife has flourished, in spite of the radiation. Studies have found mammals to be thriving, including elk, bear, and a large population of wolves.
“From Chernobyl to the Kyiv Lake and border of exclusion zone […] is an important place for migrating birds, for fish reproduction. It is a very unique wetland,” Vishnevskiy continues. He believes the pollution and disturbance from the E40 would be “a disaster” for the area.
The potential for the E40 project to disturb the region's ecosystem is not the only controversy surrounding the waterway here. All along the Pripyat you see sweeping sandy beaches and banks that can, if you squint, almost make you think you are looking at the seashore. This course sand covers most of the riverbed, but there are finer clay particles too, and these were contaminated with a radioactive isotope, caesium-137, following the Chernobyl disaster. The Stop E40 campaigners warn that river dredging would disturb this radioactive silt and could carry it into the Kyiv reservoir — the source of drinking water for Ukraine’s capital of 2.8 million people.
Not so, says Oleg Voitsekhovych, Head of the Environment Radiation Monitoring Department at the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Institute. Most of the riverbed is covered in quartz sands, which cannot become contaminated by radiation, he explains. According to the institute’s research, contaminated particles have been washed onto the bed of the Kyiv reservoir and covered by clean deposits, which prevent contamination from spreading. The siltiest, most contaminated particles settle in the deepest parts of the river, where dredging will not take place, Voitsekhovych says.
But Jan Haverkamp, nuclear energy expert for Greenpeace in Eastern Europe who has worked extensively in the Chernobyl Zone, believes this is an oversimplification.
“The Pripyat is not […] a homogeneous stream based on sand, nor is all silt washed to the Kyiv reservoir,” he said via Skype. “During flooding season, fresh silt is washed into the Pripyat, in bends, side-pools and floodplains. Where this may not be traceable in Kyiv drinking water, it may cause concentrations [of radioactive isotopes] in local food chains,” he added.
The Ukrainian government is keen to revive the country’s water-transport system, which sunk into disrepair in the 1990s. A joint Belarusian-Ukrainian roadmap was signed last December that pledged to develop the countries’ waterways. Alexander Urbansky, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament (Rada), head of the state River and Maritime Institute and former director of Ismail shipyard, explains the importance of the E40 project.
“It is quite obvious — more trade corridors, more ships, more money,” Urbansky says.
So far, the project has not secured funding. Work on the Ukrainian part of the route would cost an estimated 31 million EUR, while the bill for the Polish section of the project would run to just under 11.9 billion EUR (work in Belarus would cost between 96 and 171 million EUR). The European Investment Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development both say that should they finance the project, it would be thoroughly assessed for environmental and social impact.
According to Urbansky, the E40 has been discussed with Chinese officials and could, he believes, form part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the New Silk Road or One Belt One Road, a billion-dollar infrastructure investment initiative to link China with Europe. Both Ukraine and Belarus have recently received significant private Chinese investment, including US $2 billion for a new line on the Kyiv metro. Yet there are doubts that state-sanctioned Chinese money (required for Belt and Road projects) will flow into Ukraine given the country’s political and economic volatility.
Ukraine also needs to get the necessary legislature in place if the E40 project is to go ahead. Draft law 2475a on Inland Water Transport proposes dredging the Dnieper to a depth of 3 meters to allow larger barges to use the river. But it has been languishing in the Rada for almost four years, mired in a disagreement over the collection of a river tax by the Ministry of Finance. The Ukrainian barge fleet is in a dilapidated state and the labor force needed to repair it has dwindled as a result of extensive emigration (mostly to Poland). But Urbansky is optimistic a compromise will be reached when the bill is resubmitted in the autumn.
Another supporter of the bill is Andrey Vadatursky, son of the director of Nibulon, one of Ukraine’s largest grain producers. Nibulon exports up to 4.65 million tons of agricultural products a year and recently completed two new terminals on the Dnieper for shipping grain overseas. Vadatursky did not respond to requests for an interview.
The canoe protest ends on a beach outside the town of Mozyr. An onion-domed Orthodox church overlooks the scene as canoes are dismantled and sopping clothes hung out to dry in the sun. I speak to a quieter member of the group, Dmitri Voityuk, who works in an agricultural factory in the city of Gomel in eastern Belarus. He likes fishing here and says he wants to do what he can to protect the Pripyat. Voityuk asks if there are rivers like this in the UK — I say no, not on this scale, and not as unspoiled. He nods.
“I’ve seen some rivers in Poland and to me they’re more like a canal than a river," Voityuk says. "These rivers are not like the Pripyat.”
With that, we leave the amber river and its beaches and pile into a stuffy minibus back to Minsk.
There I have one final interview with Alexandre Vintchevski, the director of BirdLife Belarus. We meet in a café in Minsk train station, but he is dressed for the field, wearing a birdwatcher’s waistcoat and khaki combat trousers.
“We are not radical protectionists,” he says, beaming with the air of a kindly professor rather than a hardline activist. “We understand the need for development, and that natural interests need to be balanced with economic interests. But all the information we have on this project [E40] is that it’s bad for nature and bad for the economy — both."
“It is much safer to criticize now, before the state has spent any money,” Vintchevski continues. “Most of the work [in Belarus] would be done by state companies — they are difficult to criticize, because then you are going against your government.”
And if it does go ahead? Vintchevski sinks back in his plastic chair, and his smile vanishes.
“You know, with the E40, once it’s done there is no turning back. It is forever.”