Estonia's environmental cooperation with Russia scaled back to minimum

The Narva River.
The Narva River. Source: "Osoon"

While data continues to be exchanged, cooperation years in the making on monitoring and improving Estonia and Russia's transboundary bodies of water has largely been suspended due to events of Russia's war in Ukraine.

Estonia has been chairing the UN's Water Convention since last fall, and leading the work of the Bureau of the Water Convention is Harry Liiv, special envoy for transboundary waters at the Ministry of the Environment. In a recent appearance on Vikerraadio's "Reporteritund," Liiv explained that one of the points of the convention is that countries sharing transboundary waters should cooperate, as nature itself knows no human-made boundaries.

"For example, we have a separate agreement with our biggest neighboring country, within the framework of which we have developed cooperation and discussed how to do and measure things," Liiv said. "Also involved in it are Finland and Sweden, we've jointly equipped laboratories, etc."

Cooperation stalled

As a result of such cooperation, experts on both sides by now have a shared understanding of the methodology, both sides complement one another, and the two sides have conducted measurements together as well as exchanged information with one another.

As in all fields, however, cooperation with Russia on transboundary waters has largely been suspended.

"No doubt all of us have to take the current situation into account," Liiv said. "We are monitoring precisely what is reasonable at the moment, and we have adopted guidance to cooperate at the minimum level. Monitoring is continuing, but in different parts of the body of water, in accordance with the program, i.e. on our side of the border," the special envoy explained. "The results are still shared; records need to be kept regarding dangerous substances."

Other development activities, however, have been halted for now.

The Narva River. Source: "Osoon"

When it comes to Lake Peipus, it must be borne in mind that it is a reflection of the environmental situation of a significantly larger area overall.

As physical geographer Jaan Pärn has pointed out, the lake's 48,000 square kilometer watershed is bigger than the whole of Estonian territory, and just one third of the water to reach the lake originates in Estonia. A good half of the water originates from the Velikaya River, which empties into Lake Pskov, just outside the city of the same name.

"We don't actually really know more than that regarding where the pollution in the great Velikaya river basin is coming from," Pärn said. "In theory we know that agriculture collapsed there too at the beginning of the 90s, and so pollution should have presumably been significantly reduced, but what we're seeing is that it is increasing instead."

The fact that the majority of the pollution is reaching Lakes Pskov and Peipus via the Velikaya specifically is confirmed by both measurements and algal blooms identified with the help of remote monitoring.

While the focus of Estonia and Russia's cross-border cooperation in its early years was on wastewater treatment, by now it has shifted moreso toward assessing diffuse pollution and the cumulative effects thereof.

At the same time, according to Pärn, it is entirely plausible that a single polluter is capable of causing considerable pollution in an entire river basin. This is the case with the Neva River, for example, one of the biggest polluters of which is a massive chicken farm located on the shore of Lake Ladoga.

Another suspect is the forestry industry, as clear-cutting facilitates soil runoff, which likewise introduces significant amounts of nutrients into water.

According to Pärn, in the case of Lakes Peipus, Lämmijärv and Pskov, a perceptible northward movement of water is clearly visible in the lakes as well. It is strongest in Lake Lämmijärv, where even boats gently but constantly drift in the direction of the Narva River. In a nutshell, Lake Peipus' environmental status could be described as rather mediocre and definitely unstable.

The mouth of the Narva River, with Narva-Jõesuu to the right. Source: "Osoon"

"It is clear that the lack of cooperation, monitoring and pollution reduction isn't going to make the situation any better; rather the contrary," the physical geographer warned. "The Peipus and its watershed still form a complete system, and each watershed should be managed as a whole. Coordinated activity would most certainly be the best thing — we could determine the source of the pollution, work out measures and apply our best expertise. Right now we don't know what's going on on the other side of the border; this is like in Africa already, where uncertainty prevails regarding transboundary lakes."

Narva River dry

While one of the main issues facing the border lakes is pollution, when it comes to the Narva River, which connects Lake Peipus to the Gulf of Finland, much of the riverbed is by now as far removed from its natural state as possible.

"Things there are still very much a mess," ichthyologist Meelis Tambets said. "If you start to think about it, the river's most valuable habitat — its rapids and waterfalls — are dry. Of course the Peipus could always be in better shape too, but the problem with transboundary bodies of water is that they can't be cleaned up by just one side."

Considering the fact that what is always best for bodies of water is that they are left in their most natural state, the reservoir and hydroelectric power plant built on the Narva River have largely rendered the river into a completely unnatural state, which has taken a toll on its biota as well.

"Things have been in pretty bad shape for decades already," Tambets said. "The Narva River's natural salmon population is essentially nonexistent by now. Another issue is the sturgeon, which we have especially introduced there in hopes that it would establish itself there permanently. And the construction of the hydroelectric plant has had an even worse impact on the eel, as it can no longer migrate upriver and thus it has been cut off from a very significant habitat."

This loss of fish is especially significant considering the fact that it was due to this very wealth of fish that the City of Narva's coat of arms bears the image of two silver fish. The city's oldest known seal, which dates back to 1385, likewise included the image of a sturgeon.

The Narva River. Source: "Osoon"

When it comes to assessing the state of the Narva River, one area of concern is the fact that, to date, few fish surveys have been conducted there. A survey recently completed within the framework of the LIFE IP CleanEST program is one of the first systematic efforts to paint a picture of the river's diversity.

In short, the Narva River can be described to include three separate bodies of water, as the upper reaches of the river, the dam and the river's lower course form separate ecosystems with distinct communities, the most important indicator in assessing their condition for which is their fish fauna. A total of 35 species of fish were registered in the recently completed survey, the most common of which were perch, pike, Prussian carp as well as other fish common elsewhere in Estonia as well.

Noteworthy finds included weatherfish, saberfish and asp, all of which are protected species, but also the alien Amur sleeper in the river's lower course. The three sections of the river also differed in species composition as well, with 35 fish species found in the lower course, 21 in the upper reaches and 18 around the dam of the Narva River.

Authors Mart Thalfeld and Einar Kärgenberg also noted in the study's press release that the biggest problem facing the river is the lack of stable water at its waterfalls and in its canyon, and expressed hope that this problem would be resolved in "transnational cooperation" in the near future.

The restoration of the falls would be one of the biggest cross-border environmental projects one could possibly take on, but to date, the Russian side has been against it. One cited concern is the fear of leaving the hydroelectric plant dry. According to Tambets, however, this is a problem that can be overcome.

"A simple solution for resolving hydro energy and nature conservation is to direct 15 percent of the river's water to the falls," Tambets said. "This would resolve a lot of problems already. Of course, nothing special can be done with Narva Reservoir right no, so I guess that will remain the way it is, but part of the solution should also be that eels can pass upstream of the dam. One fine day, when Russia surrenders, we should include the stipulation that they clean up the Narva River too."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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