Originally published in Untold Stories, The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
A little before sunrise we step into the boat. We start the engine, push off the dock, and soon we are sailing through a narrow river channel flanked by the tall green sentinels of reeds. It is mid-September and the morning fog is thick upon the water like cumulus, disorienting, ghostly. The thin strip of sky over our heads is gradually growing blue, bluer—not a single cloud visible. For a moment it feels as if the whole world has turned upside down and we are sailing through air, while the river is flowing above us.
Soon we enter a much bigger channel. A few sport fishermen, early-risers, are bobbing in the middle in tiny, inflatable boats, already reeling in the first catch. Others have set up all-inclusive camps among the reeds: barbeque chairs, tables, large umbrellas, vodka, chasers. They wave at us and we wave back. As the bubble of the sun sluggishly pops up on the horizon, the fog over the water begins to dissipate and the full majesty of the view reveals itself: the estuary of the Dniester River.
One of the great European rivers, the Dniester has its beginnings in the Carpathians of Ukraine, right on the border with Poland. It flows south for over 1,300 kilometers, through the whole of the Republic of Moldova and then back into Ukraine, where it finally empties into the wide expanse of the Black Sea. The Dniester has supported human settlements and commerce for thousands of years—the Ancient Greeks called it Tyras; the Ottomans called it Turla—but just as often it has been the site of conflict and division, the symbolic border of the Eurasian steppe. Even today the river marks an important fault line: it serves as a de facto border within Moldova, separating the main body of the country from a thin but elongated sliver of land on the right bank known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, or Transnistria, “beyond the River Dniester.” A breakaway territory with limited recognition, Transnistria—a region with largely Russian sympathies—declared its independence from Moldova when the latter made a move to split from the Soviet Union in 1990, an internal division that was further cemented after a brief war in 1992.
Seeing the Dniester simply as a geographic or political boundary, however, often loses sight of the most basic of realities: the river itself. As part of the Soviet Union for a large chunk of the twentieth century, it became one of Europe’s most heavily exploited bodies of water. Harnessed for large-scale irrigation and hydropower, commercially overfished and dredged for sand and gravel, its ecosystems were repeatedly on the verge of collapse. On September 15, 1983, the Dniester suffered one of the worst environmental accidents in this history of the USSR, shortly before Chernobyl, when a liquid-waste reservoir at a local potash plant collapsed and discharged over 4.5 million cubic meters of toxic brine directly into the river. The grim result was, as even the Soviet press at the time had to admit, “the massive destruction of fish stocks and disruption of water supply.” Since the Dniester was the main source of drinking water for both Kishinev and Odessa, the accident could not easily escape notice and several officials deemed responsible received prison terms. The environmental consequences, however, took years to heal.
Today, the estuary of the Dniester is a protected area in Ukraine, the Lower Dniester National Park, as well as part of the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for conservation and sustainability of wetlands. It covers an area of over 21,000 hectares and offers sanctuary to 80 types of fish and 300 types of birds, including pelicans, spoonbills, egrets, and glossy ibises (the park’s symbol). The fight to create the Lower Dniester National Park took almost a quarter of a century, until 2008, when Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yushchenko officially signed the decree.
My boat companion and river guide, Ivan Rusev, was one of the two people to originally take up the park’s cause in the mid-1980s. A doctor of biological sciences, an epidemiologist, and one of Odessa’s most prominent ecologists, he has dedicated the better part of his life to protecting the Dniester against all odds. With a sprightly frame, short grizzled beard and cheerful blue eyes, he exudes boundless energy and optimism, which have sustained him along the thorny road of environmental protection in Ukraine. As a board member of Ukraine’s Society for the Protection of Birds, part of Birdlife International, he has been especially active in tackling ornithological issues, and has done much for the protection of the rare red-breasted goose, which stops in the winter on the Dniester estuary.
The establishment of the national park, with the attendant restrictions, has helped recover some bird and fish populations. Dalmatian and great white pelicans have become more common; white-tail eagles have returned to nest; the crayfish, once hunted commercially almost to extinction, is making a slow comeback. There are still various problems, especially with illegal fishing, upstream industrial pollution, and hydroelectric plants that disrupt fish spawning, but overall the environmental situation has markedly improved.
“We need to have a historical perspective. We can’t only think one day ahead,” Rusev says as he steers the boat towards the large open lake, the liman, where the Dniester ends before joining the Black Sea and where many of the birds gather. “Lots of people were opposed to the creation of Yellowstone, but now it’s the pride of the US.”
Opposition to the establishing and expanding the Lower Dniester National Park has come from many quarters, including construction, fishing and logging lobbies. A few years before the park was officially inaugurated, a huge residential project commenced within its boundaries. What was initially simply a proposition to build a boat station, has since expanded into a high-end neighborhood with over 120 luxurious waterfront houses within the park’s boundaries, together with roads, gardens, gas network, and even special speed-boat garages—but, incidentally, no sewage treatment facility. Jurists, police officers, and even a few ecologists have made their homes there, despite environmental and zoning restrictions. When we pass by Boat Station, as the neighborhood is ironically called, we witness a wealthy gated community perched in the middle of the Dniester estuary, existing in a universe of its own—a parallel Ukraine of arrogance and conspicuous consumption.
Residential developments are not the only threat to the Lower Dniester National Park. An enormous power line, connecting Ukraine’s most remote western villages along the Black Sea to the central power grid of the country, is supposed to cross right through protected territories. Rusev understands the strategic importance of the project and does not oppose it in theory, but demands that it follows an alternative route, one that would not violate the country’s and the park’s environmental laws. In the charged context of Ukraine’s current military conflict, however, his activism has been often misconstrued as political betrayal.
“People today tell me that I’m an enemy of my country, and that I work for foreign governments,” Rusev says. “That’s not true. I love my country, but I’m also a scientist and have responsibility to science and the protection of nature.”
In fact, Rusev has been an enthusiastic and vocal supporter of Maydan, the revolutionary movement that ousted the corrupt president Viktor Yanukovich from power this past February. He protested in Odessa; he went to protest in Kiev. His strong political stance has alienated him from some of his closest friends. But Rusev remains firm in is convictions. “We needed change in Ukraine,” he says. “There was too much corruption, too many special interests. Both nature and society suffered because of it. And to protect our civil rights means also to protect nature.”
As he speaks, out in the distance we spot a group of pelicans. Although it is already late in the season, a few of them have not left to warmer climates yet and are still dallying on the Dniester estuary. Rusev lifts up his binoculars to examine them. “That’s interesting,” he says after a pause. “There’s a young pelican among them. We don’t have nesting pairs here, they just pass through, so that’s unusual. But maybe this time around some of them have decided to nest in the Dniester estuary. It’d be wonderful news.”