2. State of play

The Republic of Belarus (hereafter “Belarus”) straddles a watershed. Some of its river basins drain into the Baltic Sea to the north-northwest (e.g. West Dvina/Daugava, Neman and Western Bug river basins). Others flow to the Black Sea in the south-southeast (e.g. Dnieper and Pripyat river basins). About 55% of surface water runoff in Belarus drains into the Black Sea, while the remainder flows into the Baltic Sea.

A network of large and medium-sized rivers combined with some 10 000 lakes ensures that Belarus enjoys relatively high levels of fresh water availability. Out of 57.9 billion cubic metres (m3) of water that flows through Belarus, 58% is formed locally (Minprirody, 2018[1]). On average, Belarus’s large and medium-sized rivers carry about 57.9 cubic kilometres (km3) of fresh water through the country. The flow can reach up to 92.4 km3 and can drop as low as 37.2 km3 (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]).

Given the relative abundance of surface water runoff and the country’s modestly sized population of 9.5 million, the per capita water availability in Belarus is 3 590 m3/year (UNECE, 2016[3]). Belarus benefits from more water resources in per capita terms than its larger neighbours (Poland and Ukraine), but benefits from slightly less than smaller ones (Latvia and Lithuania) (Figure 2.1).

The last large-scale evaluation of Belarus’s confined groundwater resources took place in the early 1980s, but their actual capacity is estimated at 49.6 million m3 per day. Much of this water naturally contains geogenic dissolved minerals, such as boron, iron, silica and hydrogen sulphide. It is already exploited for drinking water, bottled mineral water and curative bathing complexes (sanatoria) (Minprirody, 2018[1]). The Strategy of Water Resources Management in the Context of Climate Change for the Period until 2030 recommended further study of particularities and potential uses of Belarus’s groundwater resources.

Fresh groundwater in Belarus, as in many countries of Eastern Europe, often naturally contains high concentrations of iron. Other dissolved minerals typically found in relatively high concentrations in its groundwater include manganese, boron and fluorine. In the best-case scenario, fresh groundwater is unpalatable. In the worst-case scenario, it is unfit for human consumption without appropriate treatment.

Due to natural geogenic background conditions, iron levels exceed the maximum allowable concentration of 0.3 milligrams per litre (mg/L) in water from 70% of Belarus’s boreholes nationwide, and from 90-95% in the southern border region of Polesia. Such sources require iron removal treatment facilities to satisfy guidelines for drinking water quality (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]).

In addition to the dissolved minerals naturally occurring in most of the country’s groundwater, shallow groundwater horizons also suffer from considerable anthropogenic pollution. This is predominantly caused by the storage and disposal of agricultural chemicals, from both diffuse and point sources. For these substances, prevention at the source is better than treatment at the tap. Belarus needs to strengthen monitoring to define the natural background concentrations and identify which groundwater and surface waters suffer from anthropogenic pollution. These data would help Belarus accurately account for both underlying geogenic conditions and pressures from human activity. This, in turn, would serve as a reliable way to verify information about its water resources and to set priorities for improving and maintaining water quality.

The country’s water resources, though abundant, are not evenly distributed and are vulnerable to climatic impacts and threats from human activities. Its numerous springs, for example, play an essential role in maintaining the stability of hydrological systems. However, many were destroyed in the second half of the 20th century due to poorly planned and executed irrigation and construction projects (Minprirody, 2018[1]).

The average annual flow in most river basins in Belarus has increased. According to time series data between 1880 and 2015, 85% of the average flow of Belarusian rivers rose in the summer and autumn months. Average flow increased on 49% of the country’s rivers in a statistically significant manner and more than doubled on 18% of rivers. The base flow decreased on 15% of rivers. However, the shifts were only statistically significant on the Sluch and Viliya rivers. The construction of the Soligorsk reservoir in 1967 and the Vileyka-Minsk water conveyance system in 1976 had dramatic impacts on the two rivers.

The increased flow recorded in the summer and autumn is believed to stem from drainage works. Whereas it previously accumulated in peat bogs and gradually evaporated, water now runs more quickly into drainage canals (Volchek et al., 2017[4]). Irrigation works throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s led to the drying of 20 000 km2 of wetlands (primarily peat bogs). This occurred particularly along the southern edge of the country in the Belarusian part of Polesia.

Due to the drying wetlands, an estimated 5.6 km3 of water was lost, leading to a decrease in groundwater levels reaching 1-1.5 m in the central and southern parts of Belarus (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]). Total mineralisation of groundwater, including concentrations of sulphates, iron and calcium, increased over this period. Meanwhile, the concentration of organic substances decreased. Increased mineralisation also occurred in surface waters. This was compounded by the intensive use of fertilisers on the drained land, which increased the concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous from runoff.

The country’s water resources have shifted due to climate change over the past century, with seasonal phenomena changing significantly. The peak of the spring runoff, for instance, has occurred earlier in the year since the 1980s. It has shifted from the middle of March (in the southwest) and mid- to late April (in the northeast) to March throughout the entire country. Maximum flow rates of spring floods decreased noticeably between 1966-2005 compared to 1877-1965. Increasing average temperatures led to more thawing episodes over the winter, which led to reduced snow reserves by the end of the low-water winter season. As with all climate change-related shifts, the effect was not uniform throughout the country (see Section 2.2). Some oblasts such as Grodno, for example, were more impacted than others (e.g. Brest). Overall, the maximum spring runoff decreased by 43% on average across the country between the two periods (Volchek et al., 2017[4]).

Flash floods, particularly in the summer and autumn when most crops are either growing or being harvested, are often more economically damaging than springtime thaw floods. Overall, the intensity of rainwater floods and the amplitude of their variation have decreased over time in most river basins. The most notable exception is the Pripyat river basin (Volchek et al., 2017[4]).

In winter, conversely, base flow increased on 90% of rivers in Belarus. In all, 53% experienced statistically significant changes and 20% of rivers more than doubled in flow volume. The increase in winter base-flow volumes, is linked primarily to climatic factors since higher average temperatures in winter lead to more regular thaws (Volchek et al., 2017[4]).

Human activity had and continues to have a considerable impact on water quality. The drainage of swampland led to an increase in groundwater’s apparent colour due to contamination of water-soluble humic substances. Ammonium and nitrate compounds, which are by-products of peat mineralisation, have also seeped into groundwater. An estimated 1.5 million tonnes (t) of minerals and 700 000 t of water-soluble organic substances drain into the Black Sea via the Pripyat and Dnieper rivers running through dried wetlands (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]).

Wastewater discharges from households and industry, as well as non-point sources such as runoff from urban and agricultural areas, also deteriorate water quality. Major sources of water pollution include leachate from municipal waste sites, sludge disposal, filtration fields and fertiliser storage. Equally important sources are untreated water discharges from livestock farms and flows of wastewater and storm water from major cities (e.g. runoff from Minsk into the Svisloch river). The wastewater treatment plants built in many medium and small cities in the 1970s and 1980s require modernisation or rehabilitation. They cannot meet the modern wastewater quality requirements of the EU’s Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, especially in terms of nitrogen and phosphorous concentrations (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]).

Agricultural pollution, both diffuse and point source, can lead to excessive levels of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and sodium through runoff. This can find its way into rivers, watercourses and groundwater. In Belarus, some rural populations in small settlements rely on non-centralised water supply systems such as shallow wells without sufficient oversight of water quality. As a result, agriculture-linked nitrate pollution of drinking water supplies is a health risk. Tests have confirmed that nitrate levels occasionally exceed maximum acceptable concentrations several times over. Furthermore, water drawn from wells near agricultural areas often does not satisfy drinking water norms in terms of chemical content and microbiological indicators (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]). Pesticides are also a freshwater quality issue in some areas (e.g. Minsk oblast).

Belarus’s water resources are valuable not only for human use, but also for their role in supporting biodiversity and precious ecosystems. Belarus is home to swamps, lake complexes and other bodies of water that support fragile ecosystems that are relatively rare in Europe. Populations of wetland flora and fauna have decreased due to climate change-linked pressures. These have been compounded by other anthropogenic factors, including habitat fragmentation and degradation (UNECE, 2016[3]).

The primary challenge for ensuring water security is balancing economic needs and environmental considerations for water use. Worldwide, the biggest issues include the lack of fresh water compared to present or projected needs and the inefficient use of water for irrigation in agriculture. In addition, many regions – including the EU due to its high concentration of industrial activity – face a further challenge: the need to reduce the negative impacts of industrial wastewater discharges on the environment. Belarus has high levels of per capita water availability compared to the worldwide average and less intensive industrial activity compared to the EU. Its greatest challenge is improving the effective use of water by end-users, particularly households and water-intensive industries such as food processing (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]).

Agriculture accounts for a smaller share of Belarus’s water use (36%) than the global average (69%), but more than in Europe on average (25%) (Figure 2.2). While industry uses a larger share of water in Belarus (25%) than elsewhere in the world (19%), in Europe industry uses more than twice as much (54%). In Belarus, households use the most water (39%), accounting for a much larger share of water use than the European and global averages (21% and 12%, respectively).

Belarus’s water resources offer untapped potential on several levels. The proposed 33 megawatt (MW) Beshenkovichi hydroelectric power station on the Daugava/West Dvina river, for example, could develop renewable energies. Inland water transport and lakeside and river tourism and recreation are other examples. In Belarus, the potential exploitable flow for hydroelectricity power generation – particularly prevalent in the Neman, West Dvina/Daugava and Dnieper river basins – could reach 850 MW, with 520 MW technically available, and 250 MW – economically feasible (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]).

Although households are the largest end-users of Belarus’s water, it has a significantly oversized centralised domestic water supply system given the country’s population. It has installed capacity sufficient to deliver 4.3 million m3 of water per day. However, it operates at just over a third of this capacity, supplying 1.6 million m3 per day on average. The system consists of 10 197 boreholes, 598 iron removal stations and 38 200 km of distribution network. Much of this system contributes to poor tap water quality due to the level of physical deterioration (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]).

Despite an overall national overcapacity of centralised water supply system, many small settlements are not connected to centralised drinking water supply systems.

Overall, relative to the country’s vast renewable fresh water resources and compared to other European countries, annual water usage rates are low in Belarus. Freshwater withdrawals amount to only 4.8% of total available freshwater resources, far below the 25% threshold defining initial water stress (Figure 2.3). Water abstractions in 2016 were 1 405 million m3. Of this amount, 365 million m3 was from surface water sources and 819 million m3 was from subterranean sources (Minprirody, 2018[1]).

Belarus, like many countries in Eastern Europe1, is experiencing a gradual decrease in its population. Its national water usage rates follow a similar downward trend (Figure 2.4). In particular, as shown Figure 2.4(b), water use for domestic needs has declined over the past two decades, while the amount of water used for other purposes has remained more stable. Figure 2.4(a) shows that population decline is primarily in rural areas (particularly outside the Minsk region), whereas urban areas have grown slightly (particularly in the city of Minsk itself). If these trends continue, water usage rates could continue to decline in Belarus overall, and particularly in rural areas in peripheral regions. At the same time, Minsk and other growing urban areas may add stress to local water resources.

As shown in Figure 2.4(b), households account for the largest share of Belarus’s water use, followed by industry and agriculture, where pond fish farming uses several times more water than the rest of agriculture. In 2014, however, fishing and fish farming represented only a small share of the country’s GDP (approximately 0.1%), while agriculture represented 7.7% of GDP (UNITER, 2016[6]). Examples of particularly water-intensive industries in Belarus include cellulose and paper products, petroleum refining and plastics production, and food processing industry (CRICUWR, 2019[7]).

While water usage rates have declined, Belarus’s economy has continued to grow. This decoupling has contributed to the improved water efficiency of the economy, with smaller volumes of water required for each unit of output (Figure 2.5). While 52.1 m3 of water was needed per USD 1 000 of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1990, the same output was achieved with only 31.3 m3 of water in 2000 and 7.3 m3 of water in 2018. This dramatic increase in water efficiency was achieved due to several factors. Belarus introduced water-saving technologies. It also developed and implemented technological standards for water use by water-intensive enterprises. In addition, it increased water abstractions fees and water supply tariffs and introduced better water accounting measures in enterprises and households. As a result, the economy in Belarus is less water-intensive than other EaP countries and even some EU countries like Lithuania, Poland and France. However, it is slightly more water-intensive than Germany and Latvia (Figure 2.6).

Belarus’s six administrative regions, known as oblasts (voblast in Belarusian), and their 118 subdivisions, known as rayons, differ widely in terms of their water resources (Figure 2.7). The country’s population and economy are concentrated in the central region, Minsk oblast. However, this oblast benefits from less surface water (7.6 km3/year on average) than surrounding regions and especially the eastern oblasts of Mogilev (14.6 km3/year), Vitebsk (18.1 km3/year) and Gomel (31.5 km3/year). Water resources in Gomel oblast are also notable for the much wider variation between recorded high and low annual flows. In terms of groundwater, however, Minsk oblast has the most resources on average (10 700 m3/day) along with Vitebsk oblast (10 260 m3/day). Other oblasts have considerably less proven groundwater reserves.

Five transboundary river basins cross parts of Belarus’s territory (Figure 2.8).

Two drain into the Black Sea:

  • the Dnieper river basin – in the east of Belarus, covering most of Mogilev region and portions of the Gomel, Vitebsk and Minsk oblasts

  • the Pripyat river basin – in the south of Belarus, including parts of the Gomel, Minsk and Brest oblasts.

The remaining three drain into the Baltic Sea:

  • the West Bug river basin – the southwest corner of the country, primarily in the Brest oblast

  • the Neman river basin – in the west, mostly in the Grodno oblast, but also in the Minsk and Brest oblasts

  • the West Dvina/Daugava river basin – in the north, primarily in the Vitebsk oblast.

The volumes flowing through Belarus’s river basins have shifted over time. Specialists from the Central Research Institute for Complex Use of Water Resources (CRICUWR) and Brest State Technical University predict they will differ considerably in the future. Between 1961-1984 and 1985-2009, water volumes in the Dnieper and especially the West Dvina/Daugava river basins increased in the autumn and winter, and decreased in the spring and beginning of the summer, compared to the runoff profile in 1961–1984 (Figure 2.9a). The Neman and Pripyat river basins exhibited similar shifts in the first half of each calendar year, though in October-December the Pripyat’s volumes decreased while the Neman basin maintained broadly stable volumes in the second half of the year (Volchek et al., 2017[4]).

Average annual volumes in the West Dvina/Daugava and Neman river basins (broadly corresponding to the northern and western parts of the country) are predicted to increase by 2035. Meanwhile, lower than average volumes are expected in the West Bug, Dnieper and especially the Pripyat river basins are expected (Figure 2.9b).

These diverging patterns are most evident in the summer. During those months, run-off in the West Dvina/Daugava river basin are expected to increase by 21% compared to current levels. Meanwhile, run-off in the West Bug and Pripyat river basins is expected to drop by 23% and 25%, respectively.

All river basins will have higher volumes in the winter months (Neman, +20%; West Dvina/Daugava, +11%; West Bug, +8%; Dnieper +4%) except the Pripyat river basin (-1%). In the spring and autumn, run-off in the West Dvina/Daugava and West Bug river basins will increase in volume, while in the Pripyat and the Dnieper run-off will decline. In the Neman river basin the run-off is projected to increase slightly in the summer months, but decrease in the autumn (Volchek et al., 2017[4]).

Sections 2.2.1-4 offer four brief profiles to illustrate the various challenges facing Belarus’s oblasts. They will cover (1) Vitebsk oblast, a comparatively water-rich region; (2) Minsk city, facing water stress due to demographic pressures; (3) Gomel oblast, confronted with seasonal water stress; and (4) rural areas, exemplified by the Kopyl rayon in the Minsk oblast.

The Vitebsk oblast, in northern Belarus, borders Lithuania to the west, Latvia to the northwest and the Russian Federation (hereafter “Russia”) to the east and northeast. One of the most water-rich oblasts of the country, it lies almost entirely in the West Dvina/Daugava river basin. This basin has experienced, and is projected to continue to experience, increasing volumes of water (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]; Volchek et al., 2017[4]). The West Dvina/Daugava river basin covers 87 900 km2 of territory primarily in Belarus (38%), but also in Latvia (27%) and Russia (21%), as well as in Estonia and Lithuania (14%). Winter floods during 1988-2010 increased by 20-40% on the rivers of the West Dvina/Daugava river basin compared to 1966-1987. However, the magnitude of rainwater and springtime floods decreased between the two periods (Volchek et al., 2017[4]).

The West Dvina/Daugava river basin in Belarus experiences intensive water use by industrial, agricultural and energy facilities. The West Dvina/Daugava is one of the main navigable arteries of the country with a length of 108.9 km of waterways in service within the basin. The West Dvina/Daugava river in the Vitebsk oblast hosts two of the largest hydroelectric power plants (HEPPs) in Belarus: Vitebsk HEPP (40 MW) and Polotsk HEPP (21.7 MW). The two HEPPs jointly account for about two-thirds of the country’s installed hydropower generation capacity of 95.8 MW. A third major power plant, the 33-MW Beshenkovichsky HEPP, was also planned in the Vitebsk portion of the West Dvina/Daugava basin (Minprirody, 2018[1]). The country’s largest power station, the gas-fired Lukomlskaya State District Power Station, with 2 889.5-MW capacity, is located on the river’s banks.

Lakes and wetlands are an integral part of the landscapes and the natural environment of the West Dvina/Daugava river basin. They play a key role in the regulation and formation of river flow and water self-purification. The global importance of the basin’s wetland ecosystems derives from its unique biodiversity. The quality and quantity of the water resources of the West Dvina/Daugava river basin depend on effective water management in the drainage area. Effective water management, in turn, has large impacts on the ecological status of the Baltic Sea.

Unlike Vitebsk oblast, where total water withdrawals in 2018 only amounted to about 1% of the average annual volume of water in the region, the capital Minsk and the surrounding Minsk oblast have fewer resources and use them more intensively (Figure 2.10). Together, they abstracted 7% of the Minsk oblast’s average annual water resources, making it the most water-intensive oblast of Belarus relative to its resources by far. The city of Minsk, which is home to over 20% of Belarus’s population and over 30% of the country’s GDP, applies considerable pressure on the surrounding region’s water resources: it has the second highest per capita daily water usage rate after Mogilev city (Figure 2.11). Since the city and region of Minsk are the only parts of Belarus that have enjoyed positive demographic growth over the past two decades (Belstat, 2019[18]), pressures on regional water resources will likely continue to grow.

While the rest of Belarus relies exclusively on groundwater resources for drinking water, the city of Minsk also draws from surface sources for its drinking water due to the density of water users. A major 62.5-km canal, the Vileysko-Minsk water system, was built in 1968-76. It brings water from the Viliya water reservoir (Neman river basin) to the Svisloch river (Dnieper river basin) for the growing capital city (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]). As much as this canal may benefit local water supply security, mixing waters of the Baltic Sea and Black Sea basins may trigger the spread of invasive species. This, in turn, would alter water ecosystems and their economic use.

Some parts of the Gomel oblast face water shortages of a seasonal nature. Located in the southeast corner of Belarus, it borders Ukraine to the south and Russia to the east. Along with Brest oblast, Gomel is one of the oblasts with the least abundant ground water resources in Belarus. However, it is home to the most bountiful and yet most variable surface water resources in the country (CRICUWR, 2019[7]). The runoff in the vegetation period of the region’s primary river, the Pripyat, is projected to decrease by up to 25% by 2035 compared to current levels. This is due, in part, to a climate change-linked reduction in precipitation. These projected trends could exacerbate the variable quantity of Gomel’s surface water resources during a key period for its economy, given the importance of the agricultural sector in Gomel. Agriculture, forestry and commercial fishing and fish farming account for 12.2% of Gomel oblast‘s gross regional product. This makes it the second most agriculture-oriented region of Belarus after Brest (13.5% of its gross regional product) (Belstat, 2019[19]). Certain agricultural districts of the Gomel region have already reported that reduced runoff and precipitation rates have had an adverse effect on crop yields.

By the 1980s, irrigation systems were already well developed and operational; irrigated agriculture was a large water user. However, over the past three decades, the use of irrigation for agriculture has dropped dramatically (Figure 2.12). Consequently, the country’s irrigation infrastructure has been neglected and fallen into disrepair. Given its seasonal water shortages, Gomel oblast could benefit from the rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure to support water security and agricultural productivity. Alternatively, it could change land use away from agriculture or to less water-intensive crops in response to climate change’s impact on water resources. An assessment of the economic feasibility and water security impacts and trade-offs of rehabilitating or adapting the region’s irrigation infrastructure started under EUWI+ in May 2020.

Belarus has achieved near-universal access to centralised water supply systems in its urban areas (98.5%) and to centralised sanitation (92.8%). However, the country’s rural areas have considerably worse access to these services. Only 65.9% of rural inhabitants have access to centralised water systems, while only 37.9% are connected to centralised sanitation systems. Some 1.5 million Belarusians (over 15% of the population), primarily in rural areas, rely on non-centralised water sources such as shallow dug wells. These wells often do not benefit from regular maintenance, cleaning or water quality checks to ensure safety for human consumption (Minprirody, 2018[1]).

In this regard, the Kopyl rayon of the Minsk oblast exemplifies the country’s urban-rural disparities. In the town of Kopyl, the rayon’s largest settlement, 98% of the population enjoys access to centralised water supply systems, while only 27% of the population of the rayon’s rural settlements has such access (Figure 2.13). Kopyl rayon, is home to several agricultural settlements (“agrotowns”) with 70% access on average. Out of Kopyl rayon’s ten village councils, which are the rayon’s administrative subdivisions, only two village councils achieve over 50% access (Figure 2.14).

A peculiarity of centralised water supply systems in the Kopyl rayon is the involvement of non-traditional operators. Kopyl Housing and Municipal Utilities (Копыльское ЖКХ), a communal unitary enterprise, provides such services. In addition, agricultural firms and even state education facilities (schools) supply water to parts of Kopyl district’s population (Section

Lack of centralised water supply systems in Kopyl rayon’s rural areas leads to unmonitored water abstractions by individuals from decentralised water supply systems (e.g. shaft wells, pipe wells). Only a small proportion of such wells are checked regularly by sanitary service. Since they lack clear ownership contracts, they are not regularly maintained and hygiene rules for potable water supply sources are often neglected (CRICUWR, 2019[20]).

Due to Kopyl rayon’s low population density, to extend centralised drinking water supply systems to many of its rural settlements. There, continued reliance on decentralised systems is inevitable. Half of the 208 settlements in the rayon have populations of 30 people or fewer, while 58 have populations of no more than 10. These smaller settlements will continue to rely on decentralised water supply systems. However, more oversight of water quality will be required to reduce health risks. For example, the water supply company should clean and maintain wells, and relevant state health authorities assure water quality control, at least once a year (CRICUWR, 2019[20]). The draft Water Strategy to 2030 includes these recommendations and mechanisms to monitor their implementation.

Water extracted from shallow wells is more likely to be contaminated by agricultural pollutants, particularly nitrates, which could make water unfit for human consumption. This led to a recommendation that boreholes reach depths of 70-90 m (CRICUWR, 2019[20]).

Kopyl’s centralised water supply infrastructure does not serve the entire population of the district. However, it has significant overcapacity in terms of its water supply stations and borehole pumps. Its water supply stations have installed capacity of 10 000 m3/day, but supply less than one-tenth of this amount on average (800 m3/day). Its boreholes can also supply much higher volumes of water than required by the populations connected to them. For instance, the village of Lesnoye has a pump that can produce 18 480 m3/month. However, its actual usage rate in 2017 was 12 times lower – just 1 500 m3/month at most. Such overcapacity requires intermittent operation of the pumps, which increases operational costs and, unless proper maintenance is provided, contributes to their deterioration (Bordeniuc, 2018[21]).

The groundwater of Kopyl rayon, as is typical in Belarus, has high concentrations of iron. Outside of Kopyl city, the rayon only has two iron removal stations. Both belong to Kopyl Housing and Public Utilities and function far below their maximum capacity (2 000 m3/day compared to 10 000 m3/day) (Bordeniuc, 2018[21]). Given the high concentrations of iron in the groundwater withdrawn from all of Kopyl rayon’s boreholes (Figure 2.15), it is not using sufficient infrastructure to supply its population with quality drinking water.

Belarus has adopted a series of policy documents that articulate its priorities for water resource management and water security.

It adopted the Water Strategy of the Republic of Belarus to 2020 (hereafter “Water Strategy 2020)” in 2011. This was the predecessor of the draft Strategy of Water Resource Management in the Context of Climate Change for the Period until 2030 (hereafter “Water Strategy 2030”). It is the country’s main sectoral strategic document for water conservation and use, focusing primarily on the following:

  • development of a pricing system for water resources

  • progressive adoption of energy- and resource-saving technological processes

  • creation of an integrated system of permits for nature users

  • adoption of best available techniques to avoid and monitor pollution

  • analysis and account of the impact of natural hydrometeorological occurrences and climate change on water resources

  • introduction of technologies to improve the quality of wastewater flows (Minprirody, 2011[9]).

The National Sustainable Development Strategy of the Republic of Belarus to 2030, as its name implies, has a broader aim of supporting sustainable development. One priority relevant to water resource management is the improvement of legislation and regulatory legal acts (sub-law regulations) for the protection of nature, as well as for the ownership, use and management of natural resources. Other key broader development planning documents include the Socio-economic Development Programme of the Republic of Belarus for 2016-2020 and its forthcoming update Socio-economic Development Programme of the Republic of Belarus for 2021-2025.

The draft Water Strategy 2030 builds on Water Strategy 2020. It was developed in accordance with the Water Code, the National Security Concept and the National Sustainable Development Strategy to 2030. In compliance with the UNECE Protocol on SEA, and the EU SEA and Environmental Impact Assessment s, the draft Water Strategy 2030 underwent a complete SEA process supported by EUWI+. The draft strategy sets the achievement of long-term water security for current and future generations as its main strategic goal. In terms of international commitments, its objectives are linked directly to the relevant Sustainable Development Goals (Minprirody, 2018[1]).

Environment-focused documents include the Environmental Protection Strategy of the Republic of Belarus until 2025, the Strategy for the Protection and Sustainable Use of Biological Diversity for 2011-2020 and the Strategy for the Development of Scientific, Technical and Innovative Activities in the field of Environmental and the Rational Use of Natural Resources for 2014-2015 and until 2025 (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]).

Nine national ministries participate to varying degrees in the governance of water resource protection, use and management in Belarus. This work is in addition to provincial (oblast-level) and local bodies (i.e. territorial bodies of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, oblast- and rayon-level administrations). Although ministries’ roles are clearly defined (Table 2.1), there is currently insufficient coordination between state bodies to ensure effective policy development and implementation on water protection and use. Both horizontal co-ordination (i.e. between national-level state bodies) and vertical co-ordination (i.e. between national and local structures) could be improved. The goals of different ministries in water use often conflict with one another and need to be aligned with an overarching objective (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]).

In principle, basin-level management through river basin administrations, councils and implementation of river basin management plans can improve co-ordination between government bodies to manage the use and protection of the whole basin ecosystem both ecologically and economically. On this count, Belarus has made considerable progress, especially institutionally and scientifically. Specifically, it has acted to collect qualitative and quantitative indicators; monitor and control water quality; and evaluate the condition of surface water resources. However, the role of river basin management councils needs to be expanded in the development and implementation of river basin management plans (RBMPs) (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]). See for more information on sound basin management.

The introduction of “polluter pays” and “user pays” principles are prerequisites for effective river basin management. By shifting the burden onto polluters and end-users, pricing mechanisms would incentivise more efficient water use and reduced pollution.

Tariff policy is an important lever for policy makers to manage water use, but cross-subsidies in tariffs for water supply and sanitation persist, distorting price signals and economic stimuli. Policy makers should seek to gradually phase out these cross-subsidies. As real income levels rise, they should replace tariffs with targeted subsidies for particular categories of vulnerable households. These tariff adjustments go hand in hand with similar reforms in the power sector.

Belarus levies an environmental tax on discharges of wastewater into the environment: into recipient surface and subsoil water bodies, both wastewater that meets non-contamination standards and wastewater purified by applying various treatment methods. The tax is based exclusively on the volume of discharged wastewater (with tax rate set in Belarusian roubles per m3) rather than its content. In other words, the tax due does not depend on the mass of specific pollutants discharged. According to the Tax Code of Belarus, the tax rates are differentiated. They depend on whether the wastewater (treated or meeting non-contamination standards) is discharged into a surface water body, watercourse or lake (further differentiated by river basin) or into subsoil after treatment applying nature-based biological treatment methods (at disposal/filtration fields etc.). Discharges of storm and melted waters are tax-free.

Since independence, Belarus has deviated from the Soviet pollution charge system. Under that system, polluters paid for the volume of discharged wastewaters, as well as for their composition in terms of concentrations and mass of specific pollutants. The system taxed specific water pollutants, with the rate depending on the toxicity or hazard class of the pollutant.

The present taxation of water pollution in Belarus is not optimal. First, it does not provide any economic incentives for reducing overall load of pollutants discharged into the environment. Second, it does not provide for shifting from more hazardous or toxic pollutants to less hazardous or toxic alternatives. Finally, it does not provide for applying more environmentally friendly wastewater treatment methods. A body of work was commissioned in Belarus in 2020 under the EUWI+ project to identify and assess alternative approaches to taxation of wastewater discharges.

Belarus’s water governance system does not yet feature a robust, real-time information management system. In addition to presenting ecological and water-related data, such a system would provide policy makers with the full range of information necessary to make effective decisions on water resource management. Ideally, it would present regularly updated information. To that end, it would rely on a network of institutions producing and sharing relevant data among themselves through automatic processes. It would also benefit from a platform allowing the integration and compilation of data into user-friendly information for decision makers on water resources management. Such a platform would take the form of visualisation tools and models of the country’s river basins predicting their ecological status. The absence of this platform is considered a weakness in the integrated approach to data management (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]).

Such a platform would promote stronger collaboration and knowledge exchange between different actors in the water governance sphere. The research-focused CRICUWR that works on RBMPs, operates and maintain the State Water Cadastre, for example, could work more closely with Belhydromet, the body subordinated to Minprirody and responsible for biological monitoring. See for more details on information systems.

Such a system has several requirements:

  • Political will with a high commitment is key to ensure good inter-institutional co-operation on data management and to establish a policy for data management and information sharing in the water sector.

  • Good governance must rely on a combination of legislative texts (law, decree, sub-law regulation etc.) and policy; documents featuring strategies and procedures for inter-institutional co-ordination in this domain; sufficient funding of these activities and organisation of a steering committee and specific working groups to ensure information sharing.

  • A national master plan for data management in the water sector could help develop a national water data management strategy. Such a plan could, for example, lay the foundation for a national water information system. This system would introduce procedures that reinforce the capacity of partners to manage, monitor, process and share data.

The monitoring of surface and groundwater systems is a key component of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) under Article 8:

“Member states shall ensure the establishment of programmes for the monitoring of water status in order to establish a coherent and comprehensive overview of water status within each river basin:

  • for surface waters such programmes shall cover: (i) the volume and level or flow rate […], and (ii) the ecological and chemical status and ecological potential

  • for ground waters such programmes shall cover monitoring of the chemical and quantitative status.”

Although Belarus has no legal obligation to comply with the WFD, the country has adopted a policy to approximate EU norms in water management. WFD Article 8 stipulates that monitoring occur “within each river basin”. Consequently, good water monitoring systems require accurate delineation of water resources by river basin. Section demonstrates the process using the Pripyat river basin as a case study, while Sections and discuss its monitoring system.

The Pripyat river basin was selected for a pilot project under the EUWI+ to develop an RBMP in line with WFD principles (see Box 2.1 below for information on the state of RBMPs in Belarus). The Pripyat is one of five main international river basins in Belarus that require an RBMP in line with the country’s Water Code. Development of the Pripyat RBMP began in 2018. Since then, it has been delineating surface and groundwater bodies, analysing pressures and impacts, establishing environmental objectives and developing specific corrective measures. It has incorporated all surface water survey results.

As a first step towards an effective monitoring system is delineating the boundaries of the river basin in question. The delineation typically follows the basin’s surface hydrology boundary, but it should also consider groundwater aquifers (as it does for the Pripyat river basin). The size and complexity of river basins make them unwieldy to manage as a single unit. Basins are thus subdivided into sub-basin management areas, which tend to follow major hydrological boundaries. They group together water bodies that share common features, such as water-use patterns, ecosystems, biophysical conditions and socio-economic qualities (Pegram et al., 2013[23]).

The hydrographic network in the Pripyat river basin encompasses 50 900 km². It is part of the Black Sea basin, covering 25% of the country’s land area. As a pilot area of the EUWI+ project, the network consists of 509 watercourses (rivers, streams, canals). It has a catchment area of more than 30 km2 and 79 water reservoirs (lakes, reservoirs, ponds) with a surface area of more than 500 m2. During the EUWI+ project, the hydrographic network of the Pripyat river basin was delineated into 715 surface water bodies: 636 rivers and 79 lakes (Figure 2.16).

In the first stage of delineation, a preliminary review of the basin attributed many surface water bodies as candidates for the “artificial water bodies” or “heavily modified water bodies” categories. This was due to their significant, permanent and irreversible hydrological or morphological modifications. For example, the basin had 735 operating drainage systems for agricultural land reclamation. The RBMP’s “pressures and impacts analysis” stage assigned specific surface water bodies to the “artificial” or “highly modified” categories or as “river surface water bodies at risk” and “lake surface water bodies at risk”.

The second stage of delineation was in line with the WFD’s System A for characterising surface water body types2.

The third delineation stage considered available monitoring data and information of significant human pressures. These can deteriorate the water body status (i.e. ecological and chemical status, hydrobiological and hydrochemical parameters). This led to the following results within the hydrographic network of the Pripyat river basin:

  • In all, 715 surface water bodies (636 water courses and 79 water reservoirs, including lakes) were delineated, uniquely coded and documented as separate line and polygon Geographic Information System (GIS) shapefiles.

  • These bodies were further categorised into 9 types of river surface water bodies and 13 types of lake surface water bodies.

  • The vast majority (85.5% of river surface water bodies and 76% of lake surface water bodies) are candidates for “artificial water bodies” and “highly modified water bodies” categories due to their hydromorphological modifications (Figure 2.17).

  • Only 14.5% of river surface water bodies and 24% of lake surface water bodies are close to natural conditions.

In 2018, with the help of EUWI+, the groundwater aquifers in the Pripyat river basin district were divided into 11 groups of groundwater bodies, which are the management units according to the principles of the WFD. The delineation was based on geological structure, hydrogeological conditions, lithology, flow directions or river catchments and human pressures on the aquifers. The groundwater body types are shallow (five), deep (five) and local (one) (Table 2.2).

This delineation is the foundation for the monitoring network and risk management, setting the stage for the Pripyat RBMP’s programme of measures.

The size of the delineated groundwater bodies varies between 2 500 and 45 500 km², including overlapping areas. The shallow groundwater bodies are of a lowland nature and much influenced by, and important for, associated aquatic ecosystems and the numerous and widespread dependent terrestrial ecosystems (wetlands). Since, by definition, the groundwater levels of these shallow bodies are not deep, they lack protection against human activities on the surface, particularly agriculture. The deep groundwater bodies are well protected and overlaid by shallow groundwater bodies and confining layers. As these groundwater bodies are unpolluted and of good water quality, they are the preferred main sources for potable water supply.

Five groundwater bodies are linked with counterparts in the Dnieper (Dnipro) river basin downstream, located in Ukraine. In 2019, Belarus and Ukraine co-ordinated and harmonised the delineation of their transboundary groundwater bodies with the support of EUWI+.

The surface water monitoring system in the Pripyat river basin only partially meets the WFD criteria. The system consists of operational, surveillance and investigative monitoring sites, but site selection could be improved using criteria provided by EUWI+.

The EUWI+ project supported three rounds of surface water surveys on two topics. The first topic was macroinvertebrates supplemented by assessed chemical parameters and hydromorphological site protocols. In addition, Belarus carried out a hydromorphological assessment for the first time in this same way. The first surface water field survey was conducted in October 2018 in the Pripyat river basin. It analysed 23 surface water samples from 23 monitoring sites in the chemical laboratory of the Republican Centre for Analytical Control in the Area of Environmental Protection (RACA). Biologists from CRICUWR also analysed the samples. The protocols of the ecological status of the investigated water ecosystems ranged from potential reference conditions to water bodies at risk of failing WFD environmental objectives. In June 2019, a second round was carried out at 38 sampling sites.

The survey documentation includes photographs, water and sediment samples, chemical and biological analyses, a hydromorphological description of the sampling sites and reporting of the results.

In 2019, a third hydromorphological survey was conducted at 39 sites in the Pripyat river basin to support development of the Pripyat RBMP. Prior to the field work a large amount of supporting information and documentation was prepared. This includes topographic maps and historical maps, aerial photographs and maps of web services, actual land-use information, geological maps and available long-term hydrological data.

After comparing hydrological parameters of the 39 sites such as mean flow, low flow, water-level range and frequent flow fluctuation with natural conditions, it assigned a hydrological score. It also compared morphological parameters of the 39 sites (e.g. channel sites, in-stream features, bank and riparian features, and floodplain features) with natural conditions and assigned them a morphological score. The combination of the hydrological and the morphological scores informs the hydromorphological assessment.

The studied water bodies in the Pripyat basin have high variability. The second-year survey made progress regarding site selection, namely the inclusion of potential reference sites (in terms of pollution). Additionally, it introduced AQEM3 codes. Since some taxonomic uncertainties persist, newer identification keys will be provided. Biological monitoring can be improved by an ecological status classification system based on the pressure-impact relationship.

The chemical laboratories of RACA were not accredited for tests, including for analysing total dissolved phosphorus, acid neutralising capacity and laboratory practices.

The surveys selected qualitative samples of macroinvertebrates based on recommendations of several techniques developed in EU member countries. The latter considered regional characteristics of watercourses (e.g. lowland rivers with low velocity). They carried out representative sampling at all habitats such as sandy sediment with varying proportion of silt, stands of submerged and semi-submerged macrophytes and stony-sandy sediment. The analyses of macroinvertebrates from rivers of the Pripyat basin (June 2019) identified 211 species and aquatic organisms belonging to 76 different families and 7 major groups.

A comparison of similar sites between 2018 and 2019 indicates that results are highly reproducible and that controlled sections of watercourses are stable. The number of bottom macroinvertebrates varied from 16-45 species and forms in 2018, while 15-56 species and forms were found in 2019. The larvae of emerging insects (mainly Chironomidae) determined the basis of variability; this is associated with the seasonal dynamics of larval development and mass flight of imagos. Small and medium watercourses had the highest variability of indicators since their ecosystems are more sensitive to natural or anthropogenic stress.

The hydromorphological assessment classified 39 sampling sites into the following categories: 2 (~5%) as “high”, 10 (~25%) as “good”, 7 (~19%) as “moderate” and 20 (~51%) as “poor”.

The results are included into the “hydromorphological assessment chapter” of the draft Pripyat RBMP. They will also be considered during the development of policy measures. Finally, they will help with ecological classification of the sampling sites covered by the EUWI+ project.

The experience and practice obtained during the EUWI+ project pilot surveys and assessment in the Pripyat river basin have potential for replication. This could include sharing lessons learned across the wider river basin and in the other main river basins in Belarus and in other EaP countries.

In Belarus, groundwater plays a key role in drinking water supply and is essential for the numerous wetlands that depend on shallow groundwater. Regular monitoring of the quantitative and chemical state of groundwater is therefore essential. Data can inform appropriate management measures and guarantee long-term sustainability for human use, as well as associated aquatic and dependent terrestrial ecosystems.

Belarus has monitored groundwater since the 1960s. Initially, it focused mainly on the effects of the reclamation of wetlands on groundwater quantity. In the 1970s and 1980s, monitoring also considered the impact of human activities on groundwater quality.

The State Groundwater Observation Network has three goals. First, it aims to identify the status of groundwater. Second, it seeks to forecast changes that might result in negative impacts. Third, it aims to determine the impact of measures that were designed to maintain the status of the groundwater. Therefore, groundwater monitoring is observing the natural, undisturbed conditions, the disturbed groundwater regime (disturbed by groundwater abstractions) and local pollution effects.

A review of the groundwater monitoring design within the territory of the Pripyat river basin in 2018 identified several proposals for improvement. At present, groundwater quantity and chemicals are monitored within the Pripyat basin at 26 hydrogeological posts representing the natural groundwater regime (with 76 wells); at 44 water intakes representing the disturbed groundwater regime (with 111 wells); and at 35 objects of local groundwater monitoring representing point sources of pollution (314 observation wells).

The EUWI+ project has divided groundwater aquifers in the Pripyat river basin into 11 groundwater management units (“groundwater bodies”), according to WFD principles. According to this new distinction, the monitoring network covers only 8 of these 11 groundwater bodies. This network needs to be extended for some groundwater bodies. Therefore, it recommended 14 new monitoring wells in four groundwater bodies.

Groundwater quantity is monitored at almost all observation points three times a month. In all, 13 of the 76 wells are equipped with automatic level gauges. In principle, groundwater chemical monitoring is to be performed once per year for a list of parameters/indicators. However, due to lack of funding it is not conducted at all observation wells. For example, in 2016, chemical monitoring was conducted at 57 wells in natural regime and in 2018 at 10 of 76 wells.

In 2019, EUWI+ supported a special study on the shallow groundwater body (BYPRGW0001, a Holocene swamp aquifer), which is not covered by any groundwater monitoring. This groundwater is not used for drinking water. However, since swamps cover 23% of the territory of the Pripyat river basin district it has a significant influence on adjacent groundwater aquifers, associated aquatic ecosystems and groundwater-dependent terrestrial ecosystems. The study proposed integrating new monitoring sites into pre-existing sites to be easily integrated into the State Groundwater Observation Network. The study was accompanied by a groundwater survey covering 15 existing wells and a comprehensive list of substances, including 20 pesticides. The monitoring results reflect very well the influence of the swamps, but also the influence of agriculture pollution in areas that were previously drained. No pesticides were found.

EUWI+ supported a special study in 2019 on the impacts of the Petrikov dump sites of unusable pesticides on groundwater bodies in this area. Between 1974 and 1988, a significant amount of unusable pesticides was stored in the northern part of the Petrikov rayon (Gomel oblast). This study also explored the radiation impacts of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident on the groundwater bodies in the southeast of the Pripyat river basin. Groundwater samples from 14 monitoring sites were analysed on a comprehensive list of substances that included organochlorine pesticides, strontium-90 and caesium-137. The monitoring results of the southeast of the Pripyat basin showed no traces of these substances in the corresponding groundwater bodies. All 7 wells show pesticide concentrations around the Petrikov dump sites, but only 1 of the 20 analysed pesticide substances exceeded the permissible standard in a single well.

At any transboundary river basin, knowledge and data exchange, along with joint monitoring, are of utmost importance for sound and harmonised large-scale water management. A transboundary pilot survey and sub-regional workshops for knowledge exchange are first steps towards inter-calibration of ecological status classification systems.

Belarus has been a Party to the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes since 2003. The Convention serves as a model for agreements and arrangements in the field of transboundary river basin management.  Belarus is one of about 50 countries worldwide with more than 75% of its territory covered by transnational river basins. Transnational river basins cover all of Belarus’s territory as all of the country’s large rivers (defined as longer than 500 km) are transboundary with the notable exception of the Berezina river (Deraviaha and Dubianok, 2020[2]). Transboundary co-operation is thus particularly important. All of its neighbouring countries are also Parties to this Convention, which provides a good basis for cross-border co-operation.

Prior to the EUWI+ programme, Belarus had intergovernmental agreements on the protection and use of transboundary waters with Russia and Ukraine. Within the framework of these agreements, working groups address various cross-border issues. In addition, there is a Technical Protocol between the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of Belarus and the Ministry of the Environment of Lithuania to co-operate in monitoring and exchange of information on the state of transboundary surface waters. In February 2020, the Government of the Republic of Belarus signed a co-operation agreement with the Government of Poland on the protection and rational use of transboundary waters. At the time of drafting this report, the Agreement was submitted for ratification.


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← 1. The population of Belarus in 2018 was 4.96% smaller than in 2000 (and 6.92% smaller than in 1990). Similar but more pronounced population changes occurred in Lithuania (24.6% smaller than in 1990; 20.29% smaller than in 2000), Latvia (27.4% smaller than in 1990; 18.6% smaller than in 2000), Bulgaria (19.5% smaller than in 1990, 14.1% smaller than in 2000), Romania (16.1% smaller than in 1990; 13.2% smaller than in 2000), Ukraine (14.0% smaller than in 1990; 9.3% smaller than in 2000) and Serbia (8.0% smaller than 1990; 7.2% smaller than 2000). Belarus’s experience is most similar to that of Hungary (5.8% smaller than 1990; 4.3% smaller than 2000) and Poland (0.3% smaller than 1990; 0.7% smaller than 2000) (World Bank, 2020[11]).

← 2. System A is one of the two methods for classifying surface water body types defined by the EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD). It uses features such as ecoregion, altitude, size, geology and depth (for lakes). For more details, see Annex II of the WFD.

← 3. AQEM refers to the Development and Testing of an Integrated Assessment System for the Ecological Quality of Streams and Rivers throughout Europe using Benthic Macroinvertebrates project. For more information, see http://aqem.de/

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