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Saving the Black Sea amid Russian War
Anna Romandash talks to an environmentalist assessing the damage done in the wake of the Kakhovka Dam explosion
“The Black Sea has always been vulnerable, but more so because of the war,” says Olena Marushevska, an environmental expert at the National Marine Hub of Ukraine. “So it will take Ukraine a lot of time and resources to restore its waters after the victory.”
“We’re already starting to assess the damage done by the Russians in the last year and half,” she adds, “It is difficult to put a price on the loss of biodiversity or dolphins killed, but we’ve got economic and legal instruments for that. The bottom line is that we’ll need to do a thorough analysis of all the war impacts to bring the sea back to normal.”
Originally from Kyiv, Olena Marushevska now spends half her time in Odesa, Ukraine’s largest port city, where she works on environmental and educational projects. Prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Olena’s work included research and outreach events on biodiversity and sea protection. Now, her team is focusing on war-related issues such as mining safety – and understanding the impact of military-induced pollution on the coastal waters.
“The Russian war has had a negative impact on the Black Sea on many different levels,” Olena explains. “We have not been able to do a full screening of its waters yet due to the war, but once it’s over, we plan to do a large international expedition on that. This will help determine how we can get rid of the marine pollution and waste and what to do with the trash that we cannot get rid of – such as Russia’s battleship Moscow which sunk a year ago.”
“Plus, we’re already seeing the long-term impacts of the Kakhovka dam explosion,” she adds. “While there are some consequences that we can address now, there are bigger issues that are difficult to solve – such as removing all the mines that got into the Black Sea after the catastrophe.”
The Black Sea stands out from other European seas because it is semi-closed. It has only a small connection with the Mediterranean and Aegean seas via the Turkish Straits and the tiny Sea of Mamara, which means that most of the pollution that goes into the Black Sea stays there.
“The sea also receives water from many large rivers such as the Dnipro and the Danube, which used to be considered ‘a sewage system’ for the entirety of Europe,” Olena says. “So, the discharge of large rivers is a lot for this relatively small sea. It is very vulnerable in comparison to other seas – given that it depends on the water quality from many rivers.”
There are positives in these characteristics, however – such as richer biodiversity due to the mixture of freshwater and salt water.
“Even in ancient times, the Greeks used to fish on the Black Sea because they considered it to be richer in fish and tastier than the Mediterranean or Aegean,” Olena smiles. “This is also because the Black Sea is less salty in comparison to other seas.”
The sea is shared by six countries: Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, and Russia. While the pollution levels are similar across different coasts, the shelf area – which is shallower – tends to be more polluted. This covers Ukrainian and Romanian parts.
From 2016 to 2019, Ukraine and the EU implemented the ‘Improving Environmental Monitoring in the Black Sea’ project. The latter classified the waters according to their environmental status and pollution levels, with blue and green as clean and almost clean, and yellow, orange, and red as those with higher levels of pollution.
“Near Odesa, we had a lot of yellow because there was not enough wastewater treatment and marine litter management,” Olena explains. “It was also yellow and orange where Danube enters the Black Sea. In addition, we classified 124 priority substances in the sea water, but back then, it was pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and plasticisers, and others. There were no war-related substances. I think if we were to do this analysis again, we'd find a lot of missile fuel-related substances, and so on. So, after the victory, we'd need to do a broad analysis of the Black Sea to see what new polluting substances should be added to the list.”
The Black Sea is also the only one that is linked with the Sea of Azov, a much smaller and shallower sea in the South of Ukraine. Pre-war, it used to be a sanctuary for dolphins, but it’s been under Russian occupation since March 2022.
“We know that the wastewater infrastructure is completely destroyed there, so all the trash and sewage go directly into the sea,” Olena says. “It is even more vulnerable than the Black Sea, and it carries its pollution there, too.”
War and its Consequences
When the Russians blew up the Kakhovka dam in June, they only made the matters worse. Primarily, the huge water wave after the explosion brought in a large quantity of waste. It covers the sea surface, which prevents a lot of species from living there.
“Another problem is that we have an increased risk of mine explosions,” Olena stresses. “There are lots of sea mines, anti-tank mines, and so on, which were brought into the sea when the dam blew up. Over time, these mines will get harder to detect and remove, so we don’t know how to solve this problem for now.”
Besides, the sea suffered a huge influx of chemical and organic waste, and is now covered in phytoplankton blooms that change the water’s colour – unusual for early summer. Plus, there is a lot of toxic algae, which has another negative impact on sea inhabitants.
Many coastal areas have also been badly damaged – such as the Kinburn Spit, in Mykolaiv Oblast, which used to be a sanctuary for many birds, and which is of international importance under the Ramsar Convention for wetland conservation. It was burned in a 4000-hectare wildfire caused by rockets and then mined by Russia. Restoring these areas is difficult if not impossible given the impact that the war has had on them.
“The good thing about the Black Sea is that it is not fully in a state of war, so fish and dolphins can escape from our territory and come back when the war is over,” Olena explains. “For example, Georgian and Romanian coasts now have many more dolphins than before. I hope that when the war is over, these species will return.”
Thinking of Recovery
Saving the Black Sea will be a step-by-step process – and it will have to be implemented alongside Ukraine’s general reconstruction.
“Think of it like a doctor’s visit,” Olena explains. “First the medic gives you a diagnosis and some meds. After you take them, the doctor inspects you again to see what’s working in this treatment, and what doesn’t. Sea analysis will be somewhat similar. There will be a preliminary screening, which will lead to a development of a five-year-long program to improve the quality of the Black Sea. Afterwards, there will be another big monitoring mission which will analyse the implementation and introduce new solutions for new problems.”
The fact that Ukraine is an EU candidate country can help it in restoration of the Black Sea. The EU demands that every country implements its Marine Strategy Framework Directive, which will require Ukraine to analyse and classify the sea in different colours according to its environmental status and pollution levels, and come up with an action plan for every area of the sea that is yellow, orange, or red. Ukraine’s Reconstruction Plan already includes various measures that are related to the sea restoration, including construction of wastewater treatment facilities.
“We have a unique chance to restore our sea based on innovative practices,” Olena highlights. “Replacing wastewater infrastructure is expensive and time-consuming. However, now that it is gone, we must install a new one that meets the EU requirements. So, the sea would be treated in a better and more innovative way according to the EU directives.”
The same applies to sea-related human activity – such as fishing or tourism – which would require more sustainable policymaking to reduce waste, for instance. In addition, Ukraine would need to analyse new polluting substances that may have appeared in the sea after the war – and whose characteristics are yet unknown. Furthermore, the assessing and analysis part would have to take place together with the EU – which would simplify the process of getting the funds for renovation.
“We have to do all reconstruction together, like working on sea pollution and general pollution reduction at the same time,” Olena says. “This process has to be all-inclusive, and it will need to include our international partners to make it as efficient and sustainable as possible.”
“One year after the victory, we’ll be able to see the first results, such as the return of disturbed sea creatures,” she concludes. “Those sea refugees will come back – just like the people who had to escape because of the war. This is the first step. The second step – full renovation – will take longer.”