by Ilya Trombitskiy
Translated by Nick Müller & Jennifer Castner
Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a series focusing on management of water resources (in peacetime and wartime). In UWEC Work Group’s first article on the management of transboundary basins during the war, the authors insisted that future interstate relations would need to be built according to European standards. The article focused mainly on the Dnipro and Don river basins.
Our next article on shared rivers focused on issues facing the transboundary Danube River delta, and described how, in the past, Ukraine’s ill-advised steps to implement the Danube-Black Sea shipping route project led to a multi-year investigation under the ESPOO Convention initiated by Romania.
This new article, focuses on the joint management in both peacetime and wartime of another major river: the Dniester River is important for biodiversity, energy, transport, and tourism. It was here that, on the initiative and with the help of NGOs, a modern European cooperation agreement for the protection and sustainable development of that river basin was signed. In the lower reaches of the Dniester, the river forms vast floodplains, where migratory accumulations of important wetland bird species concentrate. These important floodplains prompted the creation of two national parks here: Nizhnedniestrovsky (“Lower Dniester”) in Ukraine and “Nistrul de Jos” (‘Lower Dniester’) in Moldova and three Ramsar sites and Emerald Network sites.
Opinions of the author may not coincide with that of the UWEC Work Group editorial board.
In terms of economic importance, the Dniester is Moldova’s main river, while it occupies third place in economic terms for Ukraine. Its basin is home to almost 8 million people – 5 million in Ukraine and 2.74 million in Moldova – with a total basin area of 72,100 km2. One interesting feature of the river is that its upper and lower reaches lie within Ukraine, while the middle reach is located in Moldova. Water runoff is formed mainly in Ukraine’s upper Carpathian part of the basin (70-80%), while runoff contributions from the middle and especially the lower parts of the basin are extremely small and continue to decrease as a result of climate change.
Annual runoff of the Dniester in 2016–2019 decreased to 8.72 km3 at the city of Bender. Between 2010–2019, average annual discharge was 7.64 km3 compared to 10.22 km3 in 1951–1980 and 9.15 km3 in 1991–2015. As has recently been demonstrated by analyzing flow rate in different sections of the river, this decrease in recent decades is associated not only with climate change, but also with the influence of hydropower.
River flow and regulation
There are currently three dams on the main channel of the Dniester, each of which spans the entire width of the river. In Moldova, the Dubasari hydroelectric power plant (46 MW capacity, built in the mid-1950s) is presently managed by Transnistria’s self-proclaimed authorities and exports energy throughout Moldova. Upstream in Ukraine, is the Dniester hydropower complex (DHPC),built in the 1980s just before the fall of the Soviet Union. This complex includes the Dnestrovsky reservoir containing about 3 km3 of water, the Dniester hydroelectric power station (HPP-1, 700 MW capacity) in Novodnestrovsk, Chernivtsi Oblast, and further downstream a 20 km-long buffer reservoir ending at HPP-2 dam (27 MW) located in the transboundary Ukrainian-Moldovan section of the Dniester River. A pumped storage hydropower plant was built on the right bank of this lower buffer reservoir, with the main purpose of accumulating energy produced by Ukrainian nuclear power plants to use it when energy consumption is low. To do this, generators pump water upward into a hillside storage reservoir on the right bank. During periods of high energy demand, these same generators produce energy by passing this water downstream through the generators into a buffer reservoir. Currently, there are four generators in operation, out of the seven planned in the original design. Work is underway to increase the buffer reservoir’s capacity, including strengthening the river’s banks and raising the level of the buffer reservoir by 7-8 meters, in order to put in operation the remaining three generators.
Because approximately 2.5 km of the right bank of the buffer reservoir belongs to Moldova, and the DHPC’s negative impact on the downstream Dniester ecosystem is significant, Moldova constantly seeks to adjust DHPC operations in such a way as to minimize its negative impact on the Dniester ecosystem.
There are several negative factors involved. HPP-1 discharges water from its bottom water layers year round, and these deep waters maintain a steady temperature of roughly 6°C. These waters are also very transparent, both atypical characteristics for waters in such latitudes, signifying that the river ecosystem downstream has changed quite a bit. There is also strong overgrowth of algae and macrophytes on the pebbly bottom. In autumn, the vegetation dies off, forming sludge and causing secondary river pollution. There have also been changes to ichthyofauna, with short-cyclic fish species (including invasive species), replacing warm-water commercially harvested fish species.As a result, several sandy beaches have been lost, and the river and the downstream Dubasari reservoir are heavily silted. This has subsequently significantly reduced its recreational value. The loss of ecosystem services and damage caused by DHPC operations is estimated in millions of US dollars.
History of Cooperation
Bilateral water cooperation between Moldova and Ukraine along the Dniester was a continuation of Soviet-era relations. In 1994, Moldova and Ukraine signed an intergovernmental agreement on boundary waters, an agreement that was typical of the early post-Soviet period. The agreement addresses only shared sections of the river that form the border; the agreement considers neither the river basin as a whole, nor activities on it, nor the state of its ecosystems.
As might be expected, the agreement does not provide for stakeholder or public participation. Today, this old agreement about the Dniester remains in effect in parallel with a new treaty signed in 2012, in part due to a compromise with water management authorities that ensured signing of the new treaty.
Signs of degradation in the Dniester ecosystem became more pronounced by the mid-1990s, i.e., ten years after DHPC commenced operations. By that time, Moldova had already ratified the Helsinki (Water) Convention (1992), which proclaimed integrated river basin management as the main objective of its transboundary water cooperation. At the same time, river management in both Ukraine and Moldova remained in the hands of water departments, following Soviet models (commissioners generally only discussing water allocation and management of transboundary sections of rivers). Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) Biotica Ecological Society and, later, Eco-Tiras International Association of River Keepers, set out to modernize the attitude of the Moldovan and Ukrainian governments with regard to co-management of its common river, the Dniester, on the basis of principles of integrated river basin management.
According to the Water Convention, countries should sign basin-wide agreements for watersheds of shared transboundary rivers. A draft of such a document, then called the “Dniester Convention”, was developed by these NGOs in 1999 and presented at the second river basin conference in Chisinau. At that time, the Moldovan Ministry of the Environment sent the text of the draft convention to the Ukrainian Ministry.
There was no response. A few years later, the Ukrainian side answered through diplomatic channels that it was not interested in creating a basin-wide agreement. Eco-Tiras environmentalists realized that without international support and using only the requirements of the multilateral Water Convention, a Dniester basin agreement could not be created. In response, Eco-Tiras drew the attention of two international organizations – Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) – to the appeal for creating a positive example for transboundary basin cooperation in the Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia (EECCA) region. Together with these organizations, Eco-Tiras developed an international project and worked from 2004 to 2012 to finalize and lobby for the concept and document text.
It is noteworthy that NGOs were the primary driving force behind the process. During that period, the Ukrainian side rejected the possibility of even the existence of such an agreement for a very long time.
Finally at a Meeting of the Parties to the Water Convention in Rome in 2012, the Ministers of Moldova and Ukraine signed an agreement between the government of the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers on cooperation for the protection and sustainable development of the Dniester River basin.
Features and achievements of the new treaty
What are the details of this agreement and how does it differ from other similar documents?
Because it was recently refined with significant involvement by environmental NGOs, it is a very versatile document. In other words, it includes a wide variety of areas for cooperation. A significant number of articles deal with conservation of the river’s ecosystem. As in many other similar agreements, it provides for the establishment and operation of a bilateral basin commission which includes the participation of representatives from central authorities, scientific community, and regional authorities. The last component is included in response to the existence of the Transnistrian region of Moldova in the Dniester basin.
Relative to others of its kind, this bilateral agreement is unique in that it provides for the participation of environmental NGO representatives as full members of the commission, a fact reflected in their invaluable contribution to the initiation and development of the agreement.
Other important elements of the document are clauses that ensure transparency of the commission’s work process, items detailed in river commission documents. Scheduled commission meetings are announced on its website at least a month in advance, and anyone can apply to participate in the commission’s work as an observer. The site publishes draft agendas, draft decisions for discussion, and meeting minutes. The treaty also provides for three working languages on the commission, although in reality, previous meetings were held exclusively in Russian. Among treaties on transboundary waters drawn up in post-Soviet countries, this one is probably the most transparent and open to participation by any interested parties.
The agreement stipulates that the commission should meet at least once a year, rotating between the countries. In reality, however, in just over five years the commission has held three meetings: two in Moldova (in September 2018 and October 2021) and one in Ukraine (in April 2019).
Failure to comply with this provision was due to political instability in both states (change of governments, etc.) and when one state was unable to send its authorized delegates to commission negotiations. Still, most of the working groups established under the commission’s auspices continued to operate during this period, using existing work plans and holding periodic joint meetings.
As already mentioned, while the commission stipulates the participation of representatives of the regions in its composition, this requirement is not observed for Transnistria, even at the level of non-governmental organizations. The prevailing position of the Moldovan government is the following: until the region’s status is resolved, its participation within the Moldovan part of the commission is unacceptable. This approach does not quite coincide with the opinion of specialized international organizations, for example, the OSCE, whose mission in Moldova is laser-focused on the Transnistrian conflict, would prefer to use management of the Dniester basin as a non-political issue, an approach that would be acceptable for the “baby steps policy” that has so far dominated the Transnistrian settlement. In practice, Transnistrians have thus far participated in Dniester Commission meetings as observers, with the assistance and at the insistence of the international Global Environment Facility (GEF) project on the Dniester and managed by OSCE (2017-2021).
During the formation of the Dniester Commission, both parties agreed to each be represented by 19 members. The composition of the Moldovan part of the Dniester Commission was approved by government decree and has since undergone minor changes. The Ukrainian part of the commission is usually formed ad hoc on the eve of the meeting while representatives of Moldovan NGOs were delegated by the NGO community. In Ukraine, representatives of NGOs changed, and at the last meeting the NGOs officially included in it did not participate, due to insufficient financial support. At the same time, interested Ukrainian and Transnistrian NGOs participated at their own expense as observers and without financial support.
The main results of cooperation within the framework of the Dniester Commission include:
- Transboundary diagnostic analysis of the Dniester basin;
- Adoption of a strategic action program with a plan for the Dniester basin until 2035;
- Completed inventory of tailing ponds in the Dniester basin in Ukraine;
- Ongoing work within the working groups’ frameworks; and
- Developing new “Rules for reservoir operations in the Dniester Hydropower Plant Complex”.
The first version of the rules for operation of the reservoirs was approved in 1987 and was in effect until recently. Negotiation of a new version began in the late 2000s and has continued within the Commission’s framework. Unfortunately, at the final stage, the Ukrainian side rejected most proposals related to environmental optimization and instead unilaterally approved its version of the rules in the spring of 2022. The Moldovan side continues to insist on revision of the document.
A significant disadvantage of the cooperation process is the implicit disregard for the treaty’s Annex V, dedicated to cooperation in the conservation of biological resources, particularly fish resources. While Moldova (including Transnistria) introduced a moratorium on commercial fishing in the Dniester beginning in 2016, Ukraine does not wish to join it, although only a small section of the river not including the estuary is affected. The parties are also not cooperating on the issue of combating poaching.
War and basin management
To what extent did Russian aggression influence the course of cooperation on the Dniester river? Given that the Dniester basin is located in southwest Ukraine, military operations have only a very limited impact on this region, and the war has almost no direct effect on its ecological state.
There is, of course, indirect influence, and it is expressed through a reduction in state funding to solve existing environmental problems (modernization of treatment facilities, etc.). At present, evidently the Russian side lacks opportunity or a plan to destroy hydroelectric dams on the Dniester, seeking only to weaken the hydropower industry. To achieve this, on 31 October 2022, Russian missiles destroyed some transformers at DHPC, complicating the supply of electricity in Ukraine in winter months. Hasty unilateral adoption of rules for the operation of reservoirs could also be due to, or, rather, justified by “wartime requirements”.
The change in leadership of the Ukrainian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources and formation of the State Agency for Land Reclamation and Fisheries in 2022 and a separate water agency that replaced the previous fishery and water management committees have significantly disrupted existing cooperation and dialogue. Cases of increased water discharges from the Dniester reservoir occurred, taking the Moldovan side by surprise, including discharges of water via the spillway (as opposed to turbines) during unusually low water levels in winter months. This despite the fact that a high water level would certainly be needed in April-May to ensure a full-fledged spring environmental water release. However, at the beginning of April, the Ukrainian side partially rehabilitated itself by accepting Moldovan proposals on scheduling the spring environmental release. The weather also helped its successful implementation, given rainy weather throughout April across the entire river basin.
In wartime, the role of international organizations and agreements related to cooperation on the Dniester is less clear. For example, the response to an appeal by Eco-Tiras representatives submitted personally to the European Commissioner for Environment, Energy and Fisheries during a meeting in Chisinau with environmental NGOs regarding the two countries’ relations regarding the Dniester (including new rules for managing DHPC) contains only very general assurances:
The European Commission will continue to support both parties in reaching a solution, but both parties should find satisfactory and mutually acceptable solutions. At the same time, the ability to resolve even the most complex bilateral issues peacefully and in the spirit of good neighborly cooperation will be an indicator of the readiness of both countries to assume the obligations of EU membership.
What will cooperation be like after the war ends? This is a complex issue, which depends on many political, economic, and cultural factors. If the trajectory of European integration continues for both states, then the role of the European Union (EU) as a referee in bilateral disputes will also increase. To do this, the EU usually becomes a party to multilateral basin agreements, where member countries participate.
However, the European Commission’s interests are also contradictory. The goal should be, from one point of view, to ensure an acceptable environmental status for the river in connection with the influence of Ukrainian hydropower. (The EU will push for compliance with requirements for rendering the DHPC’s operating rules acceptable for the needs of the ecosystem.) From another viewpoint, the same EU will be interested in importing cheap electricity from Ukraine.
It is also important to consider the significant role that oligarchs have played and continue to play in Ukraine as it relates to setting priorities and budgetary policy. This includes hydropower (where there is budgetary favoritism for hydropower as “green”, etc.).
Lastly, as the larger country that controls the upper stretches of the river, Ukraine has unfortunately been reluctant in recent decades to cooperate equally with the small, downstream nation of Moldova, and this attitude is only likely to increase if its influence in the international arena continues to grow in the future. This political trend is called “hydro-hegemony”, and it is typical for many large countries controlling river headwaters (e.g., China, Turkey, and the United States). There is little room for maneuver, although cooperation will continue, for all its complexities.
On the other hand, expected investments in Ukraine’s recovery could assist in implementing measures to rehabilitate the river basin, such as liquidation of tailings, reconstruction of wastewater treatment facilities, etc.
Transnistria’s environmental challenges
From the Editors: A natural question arose when analyzing management of the Dniester basin. How will its management be affected by the three-decade existence of the unrecognized Transnistrian republic, protected by the Russian military on the left bank of the river?
In accordance with Moldova’s constitution, Transnistria has a special status within the Republic of Moldova. For geographic reasons, Transnistria (left bank of the Dniester) has the same interests in relation to the Dniester River as does the right bank of Moldova, so there is no divergence in policy positions between the two riverbanks. They could also work together to form a shared position on water relations with Ukraine, and this type of joint work would definitely benefit the river.
Industrial enterprises located in Transnistria (particularly for metallurgy and cement plants in the north in Rybnitsa and Moldavskaya State Regional Power Plant (MSRPP)) in Dnestrovsk in the south) operate thanks to Russian gas that is practically free of cost. At the same time, Dubasari HPP, as well as MSRPP) sell electricity to Moldova at lower than the market prices offered by EU countries. It forces Moldova, in the throes of an energy crisis, to allow the import of scrap metal for the Rybnitsa Metallurgical Plant. That company’s products are exported mainly to the EU despite environmental criticism. Today, since the start of the war, all of Transnistria’s commodities go exclusively through Moldova’s customs.
It is also worth noting that fish dieoffs with signs of poisoning have been occurring sporadically in the Dniester River for many years, specifically in the Dubasari Reservoir and upstream from it, especially in spring and summer. The causes of these dieoffs remain unknown, but are presumably a consequence of discharges from upstream activities on the left or right bank of the river.
Today, it seems likely that war in the region, armed forces in Transnistria, and enormous weapons depots and ammunition in the village of Kolbasna near the border with Ukraine do not have any serious impact on the environmental state of the Dniester River. At the same time, the war enables government and business to become distracted from the environmental component of bilateral basin cooperation and to act in ways that are contrary to the interests of the basin’s sustainable management.
Ilya Trombitskiy is the director of Eco-Tiras International Association of River Keepers in Chisinau, Moldova.
Eco-Tiras International Association of River Keepers brings together Moldovan (including Transnistrian) and Ukrainian environmental NGOs in the Dniester River basin. They collaborate with the goal of informing and influencing the work of the authorities, including the Commission. NGO members participate in scientific conferences focusing on the Dniester River basin. Twelve such have already taken place, the last of which was in October 2022 in Chisinau, and conference materials are publicly available.
Every year Eco-Tiras conducts a ten-day youth summer program attended by young people from both sides of the river and dedicated to the challenges facing the Dniester River. Whenever necessary, the Association collects signatures from its NGO members for petitions seeking to influence government decisions related to the Dniester. The most recent of these were recommendations to the Dniester Conference and a negative evaluation of a draft bill seeking to facilitate extraction of sand and gravel from the river under the pretext of developing river navigation.
Main image: Dniester River at the northern Moldova-Ukraine border. Source: Ilya Trombitskiy.