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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 November, 2004, 13:16 GMT
Danube Delta disaster fears grow
By Mirela Rus
BBC Romanian Service, Bucharest

A Ukrainian project to build a maritime canal in the Danube Delta - an ecologically rich wetland area - has aroused international concern among environmental officials and activists.

Delta pelicans
The delta is home to a wide variety of species, including pelicans
The Bystroye canal project could have serious and irreversible effects on the Danube Delta ecosystem, says a draft report by Council of Europe rapporteur Leo Platvoet, a Dutch MP who visited the area.

The delta is under Unesco protection as a biosphere reserve - designated a Natural World Heritage Site in 1991.

It is recognised as one of the world's largest wetlands under the international Ramsar classification, providing a habitat for 312 bird species and about 90 fish species.

Ukraine says the canal is designed to offer an alternative navigational route. The only existing way for ships to sail from the Danube to the Black Sea is the Sulina canal, built on Romanian territory more than 100 years ago.

Ukraine claims that shipping taxes on the Sulina canal are high and that the creation of an alternative route would open up access to the Danube harbours, providing an important economic boost for Ukraine.

It also argues that the construction project itself would create more than 4,000 new jobs.

Environmental warnings

But environmental bodies have repeatedly warned of the likely impact of the canal on the Danube Delta.

Labyrinth of lakes, channels and islands
Total area: 626,403 hectares
Largest European wetland and reed bed
Home to 312 bird species, 90 fish species
Rare species include European mink, wildcat, freshwater otter, monk seal
Vital for local fishermen, hunters, reed harvesters

Romanian experts say that dredging the Bystroye canal could result in an acceleration of water flow in the area.

The new canal will draw some of the water flowing now via other branches of the Danube. That will disturb the natural balance of the delta, says Romulus Stiuca of the Romanian Danube Delta Institute.

Some of the unique attractions of the delta might also be harmed.

One such place is the Letea tropical forest, which is hundreds of years old and the only place in Europe where one can find lianas - climbing plants that hang from trees.

The water source for the Letea forest will be drastically reduced, affecting the trees, Romanian environmental experts warn.

They say the reduction of water levels would also affect Europe's largest pelican colony, which lives in the Rosca-Buhaiova lakes area.

'Worst solution'

In all, they say the impact could be compared to that of the Sulina canal when it was built - more pollution, fewer fish and the disappearance of various species across a 10km-wide (six-mile) area north and south of the channel.

Romanian fishermen in delta
Fishing is a vital activity for many communities in the delta
The Ukrainian plan to build a maritime canal in the Danube Biosphere Reserve was reported by the World Wide Fund for Nature at the end of 2002.

A year later, a Unesco mission of representatives from the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the "Man and Biosphere" programme analysed the three possible versions of a maritime canal and concluded that the Bystroye version "would represent the worst solution".

However, the Ukrainian authorities chose the Bystroye route and construction work on the canal began on 11 May.

Under international treaties, Ukraine should have put together an impact study to evaluate the possible effects of the construction work on the environment.

The impact study should have been presented to the Romanian authorities.

International pressure

Ukraine did not comply with this and Romania asked its neighbour repeatedly to stop the construction work.

Dredging work on Bystroye site
Work has already started on the Ukrainian canal

As it did not receive a reply, Romania notified the Secretariat of the Berne Convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats.

In July, after visiting the Bystroye construction site, a mission of the Convention and the Council of Europe called on the government of Ukraine "to immediately suspend ongoing works in the Bystroye canal estuary and abandon implementation of phase two of the project, for the purpose of preventing any significant modification of natural habitats of species" living in the delta.

At that point the Ukrainian authorities appeared to give in to international pressure and presented a report on the Bystroye project.

But despite international protests, Ukraine continued dredging and on 26 August inaugurated the first phase of the canal. Work is now taking place on the Chilia branch.

The Bystroye project is backed by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

Damage limitation

But there might be a change of direction if opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko emerges as the winner of this weekend's presidential elections in Ukraine.

He has shown an interest in forging closer ties with western Europe, so the calls for construction to be halted might well be heeded.

Meanwhile Romania, home to more than 80% of the Danube Delta, is preparing its own damage limitation plan.

According to Virgil Munteanu, governor of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, the plan will be finalised by 25 November, then the authorities and specialists will have to implement it before it is too late.

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