Tourism on the Romanian coast after barely surviving the pandemic restrictions is once again threatened with collapse. The announcements made by the authorities and specialists regarding the consequences of the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine paint an apocalyptic picture, showing the future of water quality in the Black Sea in grim colours. And not only. Fish, dead animals, oil slicks, garbage from cesspools and toilets, chemicals and pesticides that ended up after the dam was blown into Ukrainian fields and the Dnieper drifted into the Black Sea. But because the Black Sea is linked to the Mediterranean, the risks can extend from Europe to the Middle East.
The huge Soviet-built Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, under Russian control since the invasion launched in February 2022, was destroyed in the early hours of June 6.
The Ukrainian environment minister’s warnings, issued immediately after the disaster in an interview with US TV network CNN, are likely to worry the whole region. According to Minister Ruslan Strilets, this is a disaster for the environment not only of Ukraine, but of the entire European continent. By blowing up the dam – says the Kiev official – Russia has made over 18 cubic kilometres of water unusable. More than 50,000 hectares of Ukrainian forests are flooded and at least half of them may die.
Among other consequences, the official listed dead fish and animals, an oil slick of at least 150 tons, garbage from cesspools and toilets, chemicals and pesticides in fields. All of this is drifting down the Dnieper River into the Black Sea, which borders Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia and Russia. As the Black Sea is linked to the Mediterranean, these environmental risks can spread.
At the same time, officials in Kiev announced that the salinity of the Black Sea has dropped sharply and the iron content has exceeded the normal permitted value. This was reported by the Ukrainian headquarters for liquidating the consequences of the incident, according to the Bulgarian news agency Novinite.
Desalination of the Black Sea can cause blooms of blue-green algae, which are very dangerous because they destroy the natural flora of the waters. In addition, toxic substances from sewage and landfills can enter the sea. The Odessa coastline – once a popular destination for both Ukrainian and foreign tourists – has become, according to the Ukrainian authorities, a “garbage dump and an animal graveyard”. Following the disaster, all beaches in Odessa have been closed.
Authorities in the southern Ukrainian region of Odessa closed the beaches because the worsening water quality – caused in part by the collapse of the Nova Kahovka dam – poses “a real threat” to the health of local residents, CNN reported.
“Odessa’s beaches have been declared unsuitable for swimming due to a significant worsening of water conditions in open water areas (sea, estuary) and a real threat to the health of the city’s residents,” the Odessa municipality announced in a Telegram post days after the disaster.
Residents of the Nikolaev region, also in southern Ukraine, have been warned not to use surface water for drinking, swimming or fishing after it was found to be contaminated with bacteria similar to the one that causes cholera.
In fact, the United Nations has warned of a consequence other than the ecological impact on the Black Sea flora. They claim that the breakage of the Dnieper River dam will have a considerable impact on global food security, leading to a rise in food prices and problems in the supply of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. At the same time, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, recently visited the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant to determine whether it is at risk from the destruction of the Nova Kahovka dam on the Dnieper River, whose waters are used to cool the plant’s six reactors.
He said the situation was “serious” but being “stabilised”, according to AFP.
“We can see, on the one hand, that the situation is serious, the consequences are here and they are real. In parallel, measures are being taken to stabilise the situation,” the IAEA director general summarised, without specifying the measures to which he referred.
Authorities in neighbouring Bulgaria, a favourite tourist destination for many Romanians, give assurances that no traces of pollution have been found on the coast and that the tourist season is not threatened for the time being, according to the Bulgarian state agency. But the focus on the problem remains, as the situation at the Black Sea is constantly monitored by health authorities.
The same is true in Romania, where the Public Health Directorate is constantly monitoring bathing water from the sea.
“We monitor bathing water and we are preparing with procedures to increase the monitoring parameters, in the sense of widening them, to monitor other parameters, so that we can have a very clear mirror,” said Cristina Mihaela Schipor, head of the Public Health Directorate of Constanta.
According to specialists, the effects of the disaster in Ukraine have already reached the Romanian Black Sea coast, in Sulina, and very soon they will be felt in Constanta.
“I estimate that such an impact could be towards Constanta sometime towards the end of the week, the25th of June. Somewhere around 20 days would last from that incident on June 6, I estimated, and Sulina should have been, let’s say, affected, potentially, somewhere around two weeks from that incident, which is somewhere (…) on June 18. Under these conditions, of course, we have to make continuous investigations, I know that the institutions in Constanta are monitoring this very well”, estimated Prof. Dr. Silviu Gurlui, from Al. I Cuza University in Iasi, in an interview with Radio România Constanța.
According to him, any disaster of this kind involves a great destruction of the environment, and “any pollution in that area, whether we are talking about oil or chemical compounds of another kind, all of this can, further on, spread to the Black Sea and, obviously, could reach our area”. Along with dead animals, water can also bring disease.
Under these circumstances, the specialist believes that one of the main concerns of the authorities should now be to estimate the danger of cholera spreading and to inform the population correctly if this risk exists.
“I will be in Constanta on June 25 to make complementary analyses and to see what chemical composition is there and if, I hope it is not so, but if there are, let’s say, conditions for a spread, even a minor one of cholera, the best measures should be taken, to know first of all what is there and then the population should be properly informed in order to take all the hygiene and safety measures,” the public health specialist said in the interview.
“The population will always have to be informed and if the conditions are very good, then, sure, we can enjoy the sea water and everything related to our coastline further, but we certainly have to be very careful, because any change in the chemical composition, we were saying about this bacteria that can further spread cholera, which also depends very much on the environmental conditions, the salinity of the water, the temperature, and unfortunately, at the moment, the conditions are optimal, in the sense that this bacterium is doing very well, so to speak, if the salinity is somewhere above 20 per thousand and the temperature somewhere above 20 degrees (… ),” said Silviu Gurlui
“There are necessary conditions of drastic hygiene, of use, of cleaning, of washing the fruit, of washing during food preparation and afterwards as well. We always have to wash our hands very well”, added the professor from Iasi.
The professor from Iasi is contradicted, in an interview with Free Europe, by marine biologist Răzvan Popescu Mirceni. He argued that there is no reason to panic and that Romania has misinterpreted the World Health Organisation’s communication, which clearly stated that cholera and other water-borne diseases are a risk only in Ukraine.
Even though some of the toxic waste carried by the floods has reached the Black Sea, several factors mitigate the harmful effects on water quality on the Romanian coast.
According to the biologist, cholera is only transmitted in freshwater contaminated with faeces or corpses, which is the case in flooded areas of Ukraine, and there may be isolated cases in the Danube Delta area.
“Before anyone tells me that there is a risk of contracting cholera from the Romanian Black Sea coast, I would like them to first answer the question of whether there has been any documented case in a statistic or scientific paper in the last hundred years of cholera contracted from seawater. Not from Black Sea water, but from anywhere in the world from sea water. They will find that there is no case,” argued biologist Răzvan Popescu Mirceni.
According to another Romanian specialist, Florin Timofte, a researcher-biologist at the Grigore Antipa National Institute for Marine Research and Development in Constanța, negative effects already exist. It will be difficult to go swimming in the Black Sea because of the residues in the water, he said.
“We’re talking about huge amounts of freshwater coming from the dam, we’re talking about sediment, we’re talking about nutrients, which are washed out by water from all over the floodplain of the Dnieper, we’re talking about dirt, trash, organic matter, twigs, wood, think about it, it’s all been washed into the path of the flood. It keeps washing away, as long as the water comes from the basin and everything is discharged into the sea,” Timofte explained.
He explained that, in only three days after the dam burst, the flood on the Dnieper reached a distance of about 50 to 60 kilometres, and the storm of the last two to three days pushed the water further south, first in the Danube mouth area, then, depending on the weather conditions, storm or currents, towards the tourist coast, Constanța, Mamaia and other resorts. In this context, many Romanians who had planned to spend their holidays on the Romanian coast cancelled their reservations and headed for neighbouring countries, especially Bulgaria and Greece.
“Also, all the flooding in Ukraine will combine with the Danube, because at the moment we have had enough rain on the mainland and the flow of the Danube will increase in the next period. Together with the storm, it will create unfavourable conditions, we will not have the clear, clear water that all tourists expect on the coast, the water will probably change colour, sediments will appear and the sea water will be a bit cloudy, the water quality will decrease”, warned biologist Florin Timofte.