Ukraine’s “Hero River” helped save Kyiv. But what about the newly restored wetlands? | Ukraine

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TThere’s an acrid smell in the air and an unsettling crunch underfoot as we step over the metallic black and gold debris of war. Before us, framed by tree branches amputated by tank shells and mortar fire, the sky is reflected brilliantly on the shimmering waters.

After passing more than a dozen army checkpoints in the dense forests of Kyiv’s outer border, we reached the flooded village of Demydiv on the Irpin River and the long-lost wetland basin, which returned after the dam was opened by Ukrainian defense forces capital of units of the Russian army and was later hit by a missile.

The rupture of the Irpin Dam in late February held back Russian soldiers and tanks and flooded 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) of wetlands drained by the Soviets in the 1960s.

By the outbreak of war, the floodplain would become the foundation of a massive new housing development. But with the water potentially returning forever, the future of the fragile ecology – and that of local communities – is uncertain.

Interactive graphic showing how the Irpin Dam rupture changed the landscape.
Creative destruction: the flooded Irpin river basin before and after the dam collapse

Local ecologist Volodymyr Boreyko is calling for the Irpin River to be given the title of “Hero’s River” and for Ukraine to follow the precedent set by Ecuador in 2008 when it became the first country in the world to recognize nature’s rights in its constitution.

“I think the Irpin River should be given the ‘Hero River’ title and be subject to strict environmental protection measures because the Irpin this year along with the UAF [Ukrainian armed forces] and territorial defense forces, have played one of the most important roles in defending our capital over the past 1,000 years,” says Boreyko.

Water seeps from the Kiev Reservoir in Demydiv, Ukraine
Water from the broken dam near Demydiv, Ukraine.
The damaged Irpin Dam.
The village of Demydiv remains submerged, but the water is gradually receding.
  • The damaged Irpin Dam and the flooded landscape around the village of Demydiv, which remains submerged although the water is gradually receding

The previously approved major construction projects for the Irpin Floodplain should be cancelled, he adds. The Battle of Kyiv wasn’t the only time the Irpin saved the city, and without it, he says, Kyiv would be vulnerable to attack in the future.

“A thousand years ago, in the days of Kyivan Rus, the Irpin River repeatedly protected Kyiv from the attacks of the Polovtsians and Pechenegs from the north and north-west. It is 162 km (101 miles) long and its floodplain is so wide and swampy that enemy cavalry could not pass.

“If Putin attacked in a year or two, the Irpin River would not have been able to defend the capital because its entire floodplain would have been cemented and the river itself would have been hidden in a collector and would not present any obstacle whatsoever to enemy tanks .”

Russia attacked residential buildings in Hostomel, which once stood on the banks of the Irpin.
A Russian tank was destroyed in Hostomel in March.
A woman crosses a makeshift wooden bridge next to the destroyed Irpin Bridge in Hostomel.
A car destroyed by Russian troops and marked with the pro-Russian
Damage to a room in a house in Hostomel with fallen brickwork, debris and broken furniture.
  • The aftermath of the war in the town of Hostomel, occupied during the attack on Kyiv by Russian forces unable to advance further due to the floods

Before the Soviet occupation, says Bohdan Prots, head of plant ecology at the National Museum of Natural History and director of the Center for Environmental Studies and Conservation, the Irpin floodplain was a biodiversity hotspot, a sort of Ukrainian Amazon, with extensive wetland bogs, swamps and swamps covering the thrived along riverbanks with dense reeds and dunes of golden sand. “It was 5 meters deep in places and full of huge catfish and sturgeons, as well as species of marsh birds and birds of prey like the white-tailed eagle that are missing today.”

The remains of a missile in an agricultural field near Hostomel.

According to Prots, Soviet dams on the Irpin and Dnipro had disastrous effects on the ecosystems of the Irpin and its many tributaries that once thrived here. Many housing developments were built on the old floodplain, further putting pressure on the dying river ecosystem.

“Wetlands cannot be restored just like that,” says Prots. “She [the Soviets] caused huge environmental problems by damming and adding locks to the Irpin, which over the years steadily reduced the volume and flow rate of the water, which encouraged excessive algae which in turn reduced the oxygenation of the water to the point where large fish could not could breathe more.

“Just because the water has returned doesn’t mean we’re dealing with a new wetland rich in biodiversity. The ecology has been very badly degraded over many, many years. It would take many years for environmental improvements to be felt,” he adds.

The irrigation canals and canals of the flooded River Irpin, with treetops seen above the water.

The sudden reflooding of the ancient Kyiv-Irpin wetland, which was also used by the Ukrainians as a first line of defense against the Germans in 1941, most likely doesn’t have the kind of ecological benefits that a carefully managed rewilding project would produce, he says.

“War doesn’t lead to rewilding – there was no research, there was no planning or mitigation. It may have helped us defend our capital, but soon there will be pressure to drain this area. Can you imagine how many trillions of mosquitoes will be here this summer?”

The flooded village of Demydiv was mainly swamp and marshland until dams were built in Soviet times.
Water is pumped from the village of Demydiv.
Local community workers remove containers - possibly containing oil or chemicals.
The village of Rakivka is still without electricity, weeks after the power cut due to the floods.
  • Clockwise from top left: The flooded village of Demydiv was mostly swamp and marshland until dams were built in Soviet times; Water is pumped from Demydiv village; the village of Rakivka is still without electricity; Local community workers remove containers that may contain oil or chemicals

Prots says he believes local government will come under pressure to rebuild the Irpin dam. But with the war still raging and the Kyiv region still riddled with mines, it could be some time before an attempt can be made.

“I think the chances are good [the dam] to be rebuilt at some point, but for now all our energies and thoughts are focused on defeating the invaders because this is an existential matter for us. Until it is resolved and the Russians are expelled from our country, we cannot properly address this issue.”

A black-headed gull searches for food in deadwood next to the Dnipro River in Ukraine.

Alexey Vasilyuk, biologist and founder and chairman of the Ukraine Conservation Group (UNCG), says he is confident the re-flooded Irpin wetlands would be preserved. “First of all, these waters are now for the defense of Kyiv. So until we are sure that Russia will not try to capture Kyiv again, I don’t see how we can justify completely draining that area again. Second, I think it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to undo what happened.

“Hypothetically, it could become a very good spawning ground for fish, which have declined dramatically here in recent decades, and also an important breeding ground for many species of rare wetland birds,” he says.

A flooded area near the town of Kozarovychi, north of Kyiv.

But, says Vasilyuk, the return of the water could bring as many problems as opportunities. “The local ecosystem of the Irpin River Basin was in poor condition before the dam broke,” he says. “And now there are a lot of Russian tanks and military equipment under the water here. Mixing chemicals and oils from fuel tanks with pollution from flooded landfills is a major threat,” he says.

“Right before the war, many parts of the country were sprayed with pesticides and fertilizers, so there are many threats to people and wildlife that should be resolved.”

Despite the risks and dangers, Vasilyuk remains optimistic that solutions can be found and that Kiev’s ancient wetlands could be back forever. “While the soldiers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are fighting to stop the genocide of the Ukrainian people, we think that the environmental front should take care of preventing ecocide,” says Vasilyuk.

“This is possibly Ukraine’s most valuable and important wetland, not because of its fragile or unique biodiversity, but because the battle for Kyiv might have had a very different outcome without this swampy barrier.”

A bird of prey flies over the Irpin floodplain.

For more coverage of the Age of Extinctions, click here and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Gruenfeld on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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