EU helps protect Ukrainian rivers

As of 2018, there are 13 European-standard basin councils operating in Ukraine. They include representatives of central and local governments and at least 30% of water users, including entrepreneurs, farmers and civic activists. Together, they solve the problems of Ukrainian reservoirs. And they are assisted in this by the European Union Water Initiative Plus and the Environmental Reform Support Team under the Ecology Ministry, which is co-financed by the EU – through consultations on European legislation, training of Ukrainian civil servants, monitoring of surface and groundwater status of Ukraine, etc.

60,000 dollars for 1.25 liters: that’s the price of the most expensive bottle of water in the world. Acqua di Cristallo Tributo a Modigliani is a mix of the purest spring water from France, Fiji Islands and Iceland’s glaciers.

One should not get surprised at the fact that nowadays, a bottle of H2O may cost a fortune. While we keep a close eye on global oil prices, clean drinking water is gradually becoming a priority natural resource. The shortage of this resource has reached critical proportions: according to data by the World Health Organization, 12.6 million people are dying every year from contaminated water.

In these conditions, efficient management of water resources is worth its weight in gold, Volodymyr Bilokon, an expert of the Ecology Ministry’s Reform Support Team maintains.

Prior to September 2018, water potential of Ukrainian rivers was managed solely by public bodies, first of all, the State Water Agency. Neither citizens nor businesses had direct access to decision making in this area.

A new Water Code was adopted in Ukraine in October 2016. With the expert support from the EU’s APENA project, a new advisory body – basin council – had to be established in accordance with European legislation and Ukraine’s commitments under the Association Agreement. In the fall of last year, these councils went operational. They bring together all water users (i.e. businesses, agricultural enterprises, citizens and public bodies) to jointly solve the problems of Ukrainian bodies of water. There are 13 active basin councils presently in Ukraine, according to the number of geographic basins of large rivers.

Their work procedures have been borrowed from European experience. Since 2016, the EU Water Initiative Plus project has been helping the Ecology Ministry make these changes by providing consultations regarding European legislation, training Ukrainian civil servants, monitoring the condition of ground and underground waters in Ukraine, etc.

Below are three practical cases explaining how basin councils operate.


Case 1. Floods in the Transcarpathian region

One of the biggest problems befalling the population of Ukraine’s mountainous regions is annual spring and autumn floods. For example, in May of this year the level of water in the Uzh River basin has again exceeded the historical maximum. The region’s authorities were ready for the flooding of Uzhhorod and the surrounding villages, but were still unable to fully avert the natural disaster. Heavy rains caused not only rivers overflowing their banks but also landslides and flooding of numerous villages.

Construction of small hydroelectric power stations in the region could be a potential solution of this problem. Water reservoirs help control the level of water in rivers. On top of that, they ensure stable power supply, and therefore, businesses, investors and local authorities are all interested in their construction. For instance, Khust Raion State Administration has even issued a permit to a development company to measure the area and produce technical documentation for a cascade of mini hydroelectric power stations on the Rika River. Local functionaries explained this decision by the prospects of improving financial condition of rural communities. Say, one investor promised Berezove village community several hundreds of thousands of hryvnias in profit every month after the launch of a small hydroelectric power station, which could be used for the village’s needs.

At the same time, hydroelectric power stations may adversely affect the local flora and fauna. Water dams obstruct fish flows in the river. The interference with ecosystem also changes the composition of water. That’s why in the summer of 2017, villagers of Berezove, Horincheve, Lypchi, Koshelev and Iz rallied to oppose the planned construction of a cascade of hydroelectric power stations. The district state administration’s decision was overturned in court. Still, this issue continues to surface from time to time, and the confrontation between the two sides goes on.

“In fact, the main function of a basin council in the cases like this is conflict management,” Volodymyr Bilokon explains. “All NGOs without exception are strictly against the interference with water ecosystem. The conflict is obvious, and the basin council allows the parties to get together, hear different expert opinions and consider them together. Perhaps the losses from floods exceed environmental losses. The Tisza Basin Council has already discussed these problems at its meetings in April 2019. Presently, environmental concerns are prevailing. If the council produces some common stance, this stance is always weighted. For according to the letter of law, this body features representatives of central bodies of public administration, bodies of local self-government, and water users (at least 30%), i.e. entrepreneurs, farmers and public activists.


Case 2. Dnieper’s radioactive silt

Unlike today’s Transcarpathian residents, Soviet authorities did not care about the environment. That’s why a powerful cascade of six water reservoirs was built on the Dnieper River between 1927 and 1980, particularly for defense needs. Every dam could potentially be blown up in the event of retreat in a war, making the ground impenetrable for heavy armored vehicles due to waterlogging. It allows to blunt an enemy offensive before eastern regions of the Donbas and Kryvbas, which are rich in mineral resources.

The area of all water reservoirs on the Dnieper is 6950 – almost the same as the Chernivtsi Oblast. That’s why they are called “seas”. Such a large-scale interference with the environment disrupts ecological balance and drastically changes water exchange conditions. In the second half of summer, the thin upper layer of water turns green and begins to decay. Fish and animals suffocate and die. The river’s chemical composition changes as well. In some places, water reservoirs “eat up” as much as ten meters of river bank per year, and soon, they could reach the surrounding villages.

That’s why beginning from the 2000s, there were ideas voiced in Ukraine to drain water reservoirs and allow the river to flow its own way unobstructed by gradually dismantling the dams. However, these projects may pose certain dangers, because after the Chornobyl Nuclear Accident, radioactive silt settled down on the bottom of the river.

If the Kyiv Reservoir is drained, a large area currently under water will be opened. Soil will start to dry, and wind will blow radioactive dust in all directions. We all will be breathing it. Therefore, Dnieper’s water reservoirs still have exceptional strategic importance, Volodymyr Bilokon explains.

Secondly, there are large cities standing on the Dnieper’s banks, whose water intake system is tied to water reservoirs. If these reservoirs are dumped, many water intake points will end up on dry land and the population will be exposed to the risk of losing water supply. Is liquidation of water reservoirs worth these risks? And if so, how could it be done? The expert community has different opinions on that.

These and other global issues will be addressed in the Dnieper River Basin Management Plan (RBMP). This document would serve as a sort of a roadmap for central and local public authorities as regards the management of the river’s water resources. The State Water Agency must prepare it by 1 August 2024. But according to the legislatively-defined procedure, RBMP will have to be subsequently approved by the Cabinet of Ministers, which would not accept it for consideration without approval by the basin council. Moreover, the council as the sole body bringing together all water stakeholders of the region takes an active part in writing this document. To be sure, approval of RBMP is the most important function of a basin council. Because of that, its status transforms from an advisory to a decision-making body.

The European Union helps develop pilot plans of managing Ukrainian rivers. The EU Water Initiative Plus concerns itself with the Dnieper’s future. This is a project that provides consultations to Eastern Partnership states (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) on building an efficient water management system, running from late 2016 to 2020. The project has already helped develop a pilot RBMP for the Tisza River. Presently, this plan is in the finalization phase, but it is already available for the broad public.


Case 3. Water tariffs

In the world, water tariffs (especially for industrial enterprises) are growing by 6-7% every year on average. In Ukraine, water as a natural resource is very undervalued because of the overvaluing of extractable resources. In other words, extractable resources such as oil or gas are valued much more than water.

Businesses that use water pay the so-called environmental tax for dumping contaminants. One day, I made calculations and found out that the amount of money the government spends on water is much higher than what the government earns from it, Volodymyr Bilokon explains.

Therefore, water resources are a subsidized area for the Ukrainian society.

In Europe, basin councils may influence the tariffing process, which means that the situation like this is impossible there. Presently, the Ecology Ministry’s Reform Support Team (partially financed by the EU) is analyzing, jointly with the State Water Agency, the experience of basin councils abroad and considering the expediency of expanding their scope of powers.

In that case, decisions of basin councils will have a faster effect – something that Ukraine urgently needs. More than half of Ukrainian land experiences shortage of clean water, and 10% faces the critical lack of moisture. If no urgent action is taken, the dried area may further enlarge by one-third by 2050. Let’s forget about oil, for water is our new “liquid gold”.


By Samira Abbasova