Alarming river pollution endangers health and the environment – KyivPost


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Natalia Vakulenko, a resident of Kiev, had planned to take her two children to the beach to escape the heat on a summer day in July.

The family was about to leave the house when Vakulenko came across a Facebook post that changed his mind.

“It contained images of the Dnipro River so dirty that I couldn’t even look at it,” Vakulenko told the Kyiv Post.

They have never been to the beach that day and are not planning on going any time soon.

“Although my kids love to swim and there aren’t so many options in Kiev, we’d rather not swim at all than swim in these polluted waters,” she said.

The question is deeper than the simple aesthetic.

This year, more than 160 pollutants, including chemicals and metals, were found in the Dnipro, Ukraine’s longest river, according to the Ukrainian Chamber of Accounts report released on June 29. The situation poses a threat to human health and can cause ecological disaster, according to the report.

The problem of water pollution has persisted for years and is nothing new to the people of Kiev. Every summer, locals face the dilemma of swimming in the dirty Dnipro or waiting for a seaside vacation, if they can afford it.

But even traveling south to the Black and Azov Seas of Ukraine is not a solution. Waste, chemicals and other industrial wastes in Ukrainian rivers end up in both seas of the country, said Ruslan Havryliuk, director of the National Ecological Center of Ukraine.

Poor water management, industrial pollution and global climate change, which are making the situation worse, are to blame, experts say. But while the causes are known, authorities do next to nothing to remove them.

Industrial load

Climate change appears to be one of the biggest threats in the world today, and it is having a drastic effect on water pollution.

Rising temperatures are causing rivers to dry up. 2013 was the last flood year for Ukrainian rivers, according to Havryliuk, while 2020 appeared to be among the driest. The country’s second longest river, the Pivdennyi Buh (Southern Bug), for example, has seen its runoff decline two to three times over the past 10 years, according to Havryliuk.

The less water in a river, the dirtier it becomes – in high-water rivers, chemicals are diluted with clean water.

According to the State Environmental Inspectorate of Ukraine, the current concentration of toxic compounds in Ukrainian rivers is 30-40 times higher than the maximum allowable standards.

The overexploitation of water resources by large-scale production is another problem that leaves Ukrainian rivers low and, therefore, more polluted. The energy sector and agriculture are among the main industries that overexploit water resources in Ukraine.

Although official statistics show that the agricultural industry consumes only about 20% of Ukraine’s water resources, the actual figures are unknown as many farms and households are not required to report the amount of water they contain. ‘they use, reports the local NGO Ecodia.

Experts say agriculture is also one of the main pollutants, contaminating the waters with agrochemicals such as pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides.

Sébastien Truffaut, head of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program at UNICEF Ukraine, explains that most water samples contain not only industrial chemicals, but also chemicals from the agricultural sector.

In February, the National Water Resources Agency found pesticides, industrial chemicals and even drugs in the waters of the Dnipro, Don and Dniestr rivers.

Havryliuk says pharmaceutical companies are also among the big polluters. In some studies, about half of the contaminants found in Dnipro come from pharmaceuticals.

Pollution is caused not only by the production of drugs but also by their consumption. In Ukraine, where most drugs can be purchased without a recipe, many people seek treatment without a doctor’s recommendation and abuse drugs. Some of them are not broken down by people’s bodies and end up in rivers through sewage.

“And then we have pain relievers and antibiotics and other pollutants that don’t break down in the Dnipro River,” says Havryliuk.

What makes the situation even worse is the illegal hazardous waste that is regularly found in Ukrainian rivers. In winter, around 3,000 cans filled with unknown toxic chemicals were dumped in a tributary of the Irpin River in Kiev oblast which flows into the Dnipro.

These toxic chemicals plagued the local environment in the water for months before being disposed of in April.

Poor wastewater treatment

According to experts, chemicals and other wastes would not affect Ukraine’s environment as much if only the country’s sewage treatment plants had operated efficiently.

In Ukraine, these factories fail to protect people and the ecosystem from harmful and toxic elements found in sewage due to their poor condition. KyivVodokanal, a municipal company that manages water supply and drainage in the capital, and is supposed to filter dirty water, was in fact the biggest water polluter in Ukraine in 2018.

Ukrainian ecology expert Oksana Volosko-Demkiv, who is also the head of the Center for Environmental Advisory and Audit (CECA), says that around 80% of the country’s old sewage treatment plants are unable to effectively purify water. water because of their obsolescence.

A man enters the Dnipro River on the right bank of Kiev on July 28, 2021. Ukraine’s longest river, the Dnipro, is now on the brink of ecological disaster with more than 160 pollutants, including chemicals and metals, found in its waters this year. (Kostyantyn Tchernichkin)

Another problem is that many factories update their production after obtaining legal permission to dump waste of a certain composition. Later, they start using new chemicals without warning, while obsolete sewage treatment plants fail to detect them on their own, says Volosko-Demkiv.

Havryliuk says Ukraine’s sewage treatment plants cannot keep up with new technologies.

“We didn’t even know about some pollutants that are currently found in rivers,” he says. “Ukraine needs modernization.

From rivers to seas

Anything that contaminates Ukrainian rivers ends up in the country’s seas.

Recent studies carried out by the European Union, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Ukrainian Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, show that pollution of the Black Sea poses risks to marine life and the people.

“The concentrations of certain priority hazardous chemicals dangerous to marine and human life exceed their threshold values ​​of toxicity,” the report said.

The studies identified 124 hazardous chemicals in the sea that had not been previously monitored.

The report also highlighted the growing problem of litter, concluding that the Black Sea is twice as polluted with marine litter as the Mediterranean Sea. Most of it, 83%, is plastic, namely bottles, packaging and bags. Large rivers like the Danube and the Dniester bring 6 to 50 garbage to the sea per hour, according to the report.

Viktor Komorin, director of the Ukrainian Scientific Center for Marine Ecology, told Hromadske online media that estimates show that there will be more plastic than fish in the Black Sea by 2050.

Besides waste and chemicals, the Black Sea water near the southern port city of Odessa suffers from urinary pollution, according to Volosko-Demkiv. Despite being one of the country’s main travel destinations, Odessa lacks adequate infrastructure on its public beaches. With few toilets, travelers are forced to use the sea for such purposes.

“This worsens the water pollution situation and only makes it worse,” Volosko-Demkiv said.

Gastroenteritis is the most common illness that can be contracted after swimming in water polluted with sewage. You can also get staph infection and various skin diseases. Truffaut says swimming in water contaminated with chemicals can have “effects on the skin or even lead to cancer.”

Who is responsible ?

Ukraine is slowly moving towards a more sustainable treatment of water resources.

In June, the government agreed to gradually limit the number of phosphates in detergents. When released into water, these chemical compounds can cause increased growth of algae and large aquatic plants, causing toxic algae blooms that are harmful to human health and the environment.

The country is following in the footsteps of the EU in regulating single-use plastics. Parliament passed a law banning thin plastic bags.

But it is far from sufficient to alleviate water pollution in Ukraine.

In order to reduce the number of toxic chemicals and other hazardous wastes in rivers, Ukraine needs to upgrade its sewage treatment plants, Havryliuk said.

It is imperative to improve the infrastructure of beaches and ensure safe and clean territories around rivers by the authorities.

But overall responsibility for water management should be shared between private companies and the public, experts say.

Volosko-Demkiv says industrial companies should start the transition to a “circulating water supply system” to stop the overuse of water resources already drained by climate change. They should also take a sustainable approach to waste management.

The population, on the other hand, should practice conscious consumption of resources and products and sort garbage.

“We cannot constantly demand something from our government if we don’t do it ourselves,” Volosko-Demkiv says.

And while Ukraine needs urgent action to save local waters, measures to avoid future pollution – sometimes as simple as daily habits – are just as important.

“It’s much easier to prevent pollution than to fix it,” says Havryliuk.

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