NATO helps Belarus and Ukraine cope with flood risks

  • 29 Nov. 2011 -
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  • Last updated: 22 Mar. 2012 10:27

The Pripyat River Basin on the border between Belarus and Ukraine is prone to severe flooding, impacting local communities and economies. The basin includes the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and one of the river’s tributaries provides a local nuclear power station with cooling water, so effective monitoring is essential.

Previously, monitoring was done by hand, which was too slow to give adequate warning and could not contribute to predicting flooding. This is changing, thanks to a NATO-sponsored project which is helping to establish an automatic, real-time monitoring system.

In early December, Belarus opened its first automatic hydrometeorological monitoring station as part of the project, which is sponsored under the NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) programme. Ukraine opened its first two automatic stations earlier this year in Lutsk, Volyns'ka Oblast, and in Hrenniki village, Rivne Oblast, to collect and send data every 15 minutes to the Volyn Hydrometeorological Centre.

The real-time monitoring system will make the data available globally and almost instantly to enable better preparations for the floods and determine ways of limiting the damage they cause,” says Susanne Michaelis, Energy Security Officer at NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Division. “It also eliminates the possibility for human error by recording the data directly electronically.”

Flooding causes economic hardship

For more than 700 kilometres, the Pripyat River flows eastward through north-western Ukraine and into Belarus before entering Ukraine again. It collects water from a number of tributaries and eventually heads towards the Dnieper River, which drains into the Black Sea.

When the ice and snow begin to melt each spring, farmers and residents in southern Belarus and north-western Ukraine brace themselves for the flooding. Sudden and heavy rainfall often exacerbates the problem.

Mariya Mosyuk, a farmer in the Ukrainian village Kopyllya near the river Styr, a Pripyat tributary, always waits to sow her potatoes and sugar beet until the end of April. When the snowmelt is followed by heavy precipitation, the land is under water for three months or more, making life difficult for farmers like Mariya.

The vulnerability of nuclear stations

The flooded water is especially problematic because it flows through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, carrying increased levels of radioactive pollution. An additional challenge is that the Styr River, an eastern tributary to the Pripyat, provides the Rivne Nuclear Power Station with cooling water that needs to be monitored for quality and temperature.

"The nuclear accident in Japan has reminded us how important cooling is for nuclear power stations," says Michaelis. On the one hand, she explains, there has to be enough cooling water. On the other hand, the river must not flood the station. "If it is known that the river level is too high, too low or too warm, the right measures can be taken in due time," she says.

Automatic data in real time

Under the project, it is foreseen that a total of seven automatic stations will have been installed and connected to the network by the end of 2012. NATO has provided the “seed money” to make these first stations a reality.

In the years to come, some 70 such stations will be needed so that floods can be identified and warnings given at an early stage. They will send information about water levels, air precipitation, and air and water temperatures to the hydrometeorological centres in Lutsk, Ukraine, and Brest, Belarus, and simultaneously publish the information online. Other measuring instruments could easily be added in the future, for example, for monitoring nuclear isotopes.

If the water rises significantly, immediate precautions can be taken and the people living in the affected areas forewarned. With the data available continuously, it also makes it much easier to uncover trends and make better predictions, as well as to find ways of minimizing the affects of the floods. “It may be found, for example, that expanding certain wetland areas to absorb more of the water may decrease overall flood levels and damage,” says Michaelis.

Cooperation is key

Flood monitoring in the Pripyat River Basin was identified as a priority issue for both Ukraine and Belarus by a 2006 survey of environmental security “hot spots” in Eastern Europe. The survey was carried out with NATO support under the Environmental Security Initiative (ENVSEC).*

The years following the collapse of the Soviet Union were hard for Ukraine,” says Mark Zheleznyak, Deputy Director of Research at the Ukraine Centre of Environmental and Water Projects. Ukraine turned to NATO for support, as the country’s hydrometeorological services lacked modern equipment.

Rivers do not have boundaries,” explains Vladimir Korneev. He is Project Co-Director at the Central Research Institute of Complex Use of Water Resources in Minsk, Belarus. “We cooperate very well with our Ukrainian colleagues on hydrological issues to implement this project successfully.”

In 2010, fifty cross-sections of the Styr, Prostyr and Pripyat rivers were established to provide information for the development of a flood forecasting model. Computers and software have been set up at both countries’ hydrometeorological centres and technicians have been trained. The Slovak Hydrometeorological Institute in Bratislava has been helping the teams in implementing the project. 

The project is carried out under the ENVSEC umbrella, a partnership of six international organizations that provides an integrated response to environment and security challenges.

This project is funded through NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Programme. For more information, visit