While everyone was getting ready for presidential elections in Chișinău and parliamentary elections in Bucharest, a piece of news carried by Ukrainian media passed unnoticed in Romania, and was almost similarly ignored in the Republic of Moldova as well. Kiev has big energy plans on the Moldovan border, close to the hydroelectric power station near Novodnistrovsk. Hence the legitimate question: what does that have to do with Romania?
According to Ukraine’s official energy strategy until 2030, Kiev plans on developing its energy capacity in the area surrounding Chernivtsi to be able to export energy supplies to the Republic of Moldova and even to Romania, according to the statements of president Volodymyr Zelensky during his visit in early October at the Novodnistrovsk Hydroelectric Plant on the Dniester River. The power station is located on the border with the Republic of Moldova, downstream of Naslavcha dam in northern Moldova, and is of particular strategic importance.
The Novodnistrovsk Hydroelectric Power Station consists of two hydroelectric plants, a pumped storage power station and three reservoirs: two on the Dniester riverbed – the central reservoir and the buffer reservoir – and a third on the left bank of the river. The station contains three hydropower turbines that harness the energy of the Dniester River to produce electricity. Zelensky visited the site to oversee works on building a fourth turbine, which will be rendered operational this year. But there’s more: until 2026, Kiev set out to invest significant amounts of money in this hydropower station to increase its total turbine capacity to seven, making it the largest of its kind in Europe and the sixth in the world, according to Kiev’s estimates.
The biggest challenge to Ukraine’s ambitious plans is the environment impact on the Dniester. The river accounts for 80% of Moldova’s drinking water sources. Any change in the river’s discharge rates will impact not just the local wildlife and plant life, but also a vital resource for the Republic of Moldova – drinking water. Similarly, the situation will create a ripple effect on the Odessa region. The Dniester is a source of drinking water for approximately 3 million people in the Republic of Moldova and another 1 million in Odessa.
A vital agreement
Ukraine’s energy saga started in 2017. At the time, the Ukrainian authorities offered Chișinău an inter-government agreement, whereby the Republic of Moldova pledged to sign over to Ukraine some 20 hectares of land near the Naslavcha dam on the right bank of the Dniester, on the Ukrainian border, for a period of 99 years, which was subsequently reduced to 49 years. The Naslavcha dam had already been ceded to Ukraine under the 2010 protocol singed by the former Prime Ministers Vlad Filat and Yulia Tymoshenko. This tiny stretch of land under Moldovan ownership is therefore the last piece of the legal puzzle Ukrainian authorities need to obtain if they are to freely pursue their energy aspirations.
Kiev has turned up the diplomatic pressure on Chișinău to get its hands on this piece of land, and the negotiations of the Moldovan-Ukrainian joint commission tasked with handling the transition are kept secret. The Ukrainian side has come up with 37-year-old studies concerning the environment impact of the project, dating back to the USSR. Ukraine resorts to “whataboutism” tactics during negotiations instead of coming up with critically sound arguments regarding the actual environmental situation on the ground.
The stake is huge for Ukraine, who doesn’t have all the money it needs to build its super-construction on the Dniester, so it requires significant capital. As long as the legal issues over the Dniester station remain unsolved, Kiev may face difficulties accessing that kind of money.
Once Ukraine owns this land, one way or another, the country will have full access to the Dniester’s watercourse and will be able to operate freely in the area.
This case is reminiscent of the environmental dispute between Ukraine and Romania settled in international courts of law in the 2000s over the construction of the Bystroye Canal, which threatened the Danube Delta ecosystem in Romania. In this case as well, Ukraine’s economic ambitions disregarded the fact the country was also a signatory of the ESPOO Convention ever since 1999, and the project would possibly spell an ecological catastrophe for Romania.
In the last 10 years, the Dniester’s water flow has been systematically reduced by Ukrainian authorities by approximately a third of its normal rate. At present, Moldova calls for an inflow of 250 cubic meters of water per second, with a constant minimum debit of 100 cubic meters to ensure a constant water flow. To this day Ukraine has refused to comply, and the Moldovan section of the Dniester’s downstream course near Naslavcha looks more like a lake rather than a constantly flowing river.
This has a negative impact on the local Dniester ecosystem, wherever water levels drop too low. There’s hardly any fish left in the area due to the high variations in the volume of water, which also affects the development of flora. Besides, the temperature of water discharged downstream from the station is about 8 degrees Centigrade, and its chemical composition is also seriously impacted. Conservationists with the Moldovan Academy of Science commonly call it “dead water”, as it doesn’t favor the development of animal and vegetal lifeforms in the Dniester. By extension, coastline agriculture on the Moldovan side of the Dniester area will also pay the price, and that’s not the end of it.
Ukraine’s plans for the Novodnistrovsk power station don’t drain the Dniester, but rather degrade the quality of its water, and the high fluctuations in water levels generate micro-droughts, experts say.
According to Moldova’s estimates in its water supply strategy for 2014-2028, based on recommendations at international level, the country needs an annual 1,700 cubic meters of water per capita. The document warns that any volume below 1,000 m3 will endanger the living standards and health of the population. Yet Kiev’s plans for the Novodnistrovsk Hydroelectric Power Station, adopted in October, 2017, stipulate a water availability level of only 500 cubic meters per capita.
Although Ukraine is a country with European aspirations, this is not transparent in terms of observing the EU Energy Community Treaty and the Association Agreement with the EU. Both documents require the observance of clear standards of environment protection. Ukraine’s energy plans seem to disregard the multiple dangers that may result from such actions: drought, soil degradation, depopulation and even a humanitarian crisis. And the deal poses a particular threat to the Republic of Moldova and, inevitably, to Romania, as Moldova’s most prominent neighbor.
Moreover, experts estimate the Republic of Moldova will require a huge amount of capital to secure alternative water supplies. In case Ukraine moves ahead with the development of the Novodnistrovsk power station, Moldova has two options that will involve a great deal of funds, logistics and time. Specifically, Moldova will need to build water desalinization plants or import water from the Romanian segment of the Danube River. Experts estimate a minimum 1 billion dollars would be needed to supply clean water to 3 million consumers in the Republic of Moldova via desalinization plants.
Another option would be for Chișinău to expand its access to the Danube’s water resources, with Romania’s blessing. Even if we did admit this possibility, banking on Romania’s goodwill, the operation would entail huge costs for the purification and desalinization of water and its transportation to the large cities in the Republic of Moldova. The EU could provide the funding, but Chișinău would have a hard time accessing it, and the logistic effort would be massive.
For these reasons, it is key Chișinău does not sign Kiev’s deal, at least in its current form. It would be tantamount to Moldova giving up its share of the Dniester watercourse, with potentially devastating effects on the population and agriculture of the Republic of Moldova.
For a few years now, Moldova has already been facing serious drought and desertification issues. Under these circumstances, the Dniester becomes an extremely important objective, not just for the Republic of Moldova, but also for Romania, as the situation is bound to negatively impact the Black Sea by lowering the input of (station-discharged) freshwater on the Romanian coastal area.
Impact on the economy
At economic level, the development of an energy giant north of Moldova would also challenge Moldova’s energy supply sources.
Right now, with the construction of the Iași-Ungheni-Chișinău pipeline, Romania is carrying out an ambitious energy project. It plans to interconnect the Republic of Moldova to its energy infrastructure, and by extension, to the European energy grid, by building a number of electric lines under a Memorandum of Understanding which Bucharest and Chișinău signed in May, 2015. The project has an estimated value of 270 million Euro and is due to be finalized by 2022. The project also provides for the construction of a new high-voltage 400-kV line linking Vulcăneşti (in southern Moldova) to Chişinău, a back-to-back 600-MW power station in Vulcăneşti and increasing the capacity of the substation in Chişinău, which is currently operating at 330 Kv, by adding a new 400-kV switchyard. The Novodnistrovsk hydroelectric power plant will compete with Romania’s projects to connect Moldova to the European energy network.
Although at first glance the diversification of electric energy supply sources might seem beneficial for Moldova from the point of view of the two projects in Ukraine and Romania, it would seem reasonable to ask if Moldova still needs to buy electricity supplies from the Moldgres plant (owned by the Russian giant Inter RAO) in the breakaway region of Transnistria, which would attract a series of actions and pressure from Moscow.
To conclude, Romania must carefully monitor the development of this project, which seriously endangers the environmental security not just of the Republic of Moldova, in light of Ukraine’s plans for the Novodnistrovsk power plant.
On the other hand, the new Moldovan president, Maia Sandu, needs to keep this topic high on the agenda of her upcoming visit to Kiev in January, 2021, and to be able to have an open and honest dialogue on this matter and all its aspects. Maia Sandu needs to stop invoking “the Filat precedent” in the case of the strategic stretch of land north of the Naslavcha dam in order to preserve the Republic of Moldova’s tactical advantage of building a canal here, if necessary, that would ensure a constant flow of the Dniester on its territory.
It’s actually something Chișinău should have done a long time ago, and Romania will have to help develop the project for all the reasons already mentioned.