In Poland, Vital Wetlands Blaze3 min read

 In Analysis, Central Europe, News

“We are short millions of cubic meters of water”, cried out a recent TVN24 headline. Regional radio echoed the sentiment: “Biebrza wetlands dry out – National Park employees take alarm”.

Biebrza National Park is in northeastern Poland, in the Podlaskie Voivodeship, and is one of the largest wetlands in Europe. The ecological importance of the park cannot be overstated. Wetlands are essential in fighting climate change both globally and locally. The marshes in Biebrzas act as a natural reservoir, an animal shelter and carbon sink. But artificial drainage to benefit farmlands has caused critical drought in Biebrza – and not for the first time.

In the inter-war period, the Polesie region was the poorest and least-educated in Poland. It was home, however, to an abundance of marshlands, which provide extremely fertile soils.

The Polish government of the 1920s saw the marshlands as their golden ticket to developing Polesie. They planned to extend the modest pre-existing farmlands and develop the region by bringing in farmers. The project was interrupted by political turmoil and, eventually, the Second World War, during which Polesie was divided between Ukraine and Belarus. After the war, a similar mass-irrigation project was taken up and executed by the Soviet government. Their initiative devastated the landscape, and what had once been a national treasure now resembled more of a desert.

Artificial drainage kicked off in Poland in the first two decades after the Second World War. Many of the country’s largest rivers like the Vistula, the San, and the Narew were artificially irrigated without regard for the environment. Rivers and nearby wetlands were sacrificed to supply water to industry, farmlands, and nearby cities.

The reckless policies of the 20th century resulted in recurrent droughts in central Poland. Even to this day, cities and villages in Łódź Voivodeship experience severe annual droughts. This region suffers especially hard because the Bełchatów coal mine contaminates hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water each year.

The Senate of the Republic of Poland had already begun to recognize the water crisis as early as 2011, when they organized a symposium about water management. Through my own research, I have found many more recent government documents about water shortages in Poland, like Program Objectives for Water Deficiency Prevention 2021-2027 in perspective to 2030. It may be a good omen that the government has begun to recognise the issue, but it is another thing entirely to wrap your mind around the potential consequences.

Water shortages cause conflict all over the world, especially in the Middle East and Africa. A proposed dam on the Nile River which, if functional, could drastically reduce water flow to Egypt, has caused conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia. In Somalia, droughts have further destabilised an already unstable country. Happily, Poland does not have to fear any water-based conflict with its neighboring countries, as only approximately 10% of Poland’s rivers flow in from abroad. But recurrent droughts put extreme pressure on water-dependent industries such as agriculture. Some parts of Poland could become not just underdeveloped but uninhabitable due to desertification. Water would have to be extracted from the Baltic Sea and treated before consumption. Finally, conventional power plants rely on water cooling systems; with insufficient water, power plants would be prone to blackouts.

Last year, drought badly hurt Polish farmers, many of whom are still awaiting financial aid – and this year’s growing season has started off dry and rainless as well.

At the time I am writing this article, Biebrza National Park is on fire, Poland’s forests are on the verge of drought and Poland’s President, Andrzej Duda, has urged the people to save water to avoid the potential shortage that Poland could soon experience – in the midst of a global pandemic.

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