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Basin brotherhood

Water: Resource management

Consultant Mott MacDonald is helping to set up new monitoring systems in countries of the former USSR.

By stretching the working day to its fullest extent and working a seven day week, it is just possible to visit all the locations in UK consultant Mott MacDonald's Joint Rivers Management Programme Project in five weeks. The time required to make the tour is perhaps, less of a surprise when you learn that the project covers seven countries; Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine.

The project aims to produce a set of systems and protocols which will allow the seven to improve monitoring of transboundary water quality and flow and to exchange information in a mutually satisfactory fashion.

It also allows testing of updates to a set of guidelines on water quality monitoring and assessment of trans-boundary rivers developed by an UN/ECE taskforce. Eight river basins were chosen as pilot studies with funding coming from the EC's Tacis Programme. Five are in pre-accession countries and work on these began in 1988.

In 2001 Tacis awarded a US$3.9M contract for the final three to the Mott MacDonald consortium, which also includes Arcadis Euroconsult and Dundee University's Water Law and Policy Programme. These are the Kura, the SeverskyDonetz and the Tobol - with the Pripyat river added because of specific environmental characteristics.

The Pripyat, which flows through Ukraine and Belarus, is considered to be of global importance because its wetlands are home to a number of endangered species and the fact that it has few control mechanisms such as dams or dykes. The UN has granted $9M for the setting up of a management and conservation regime. But there are conflicting views on the effect of the Chernobyl nuclear power station which lies within the basin's orbit.

Pollution is also a concern for the Seversky Donetz basin, a major industrial area between Russia and Ukraine, which includes the only remaining area of forest steppe landscape in the Russian part of Europe. It supplies 70% of the drinking water for 1.5 million people in Kharkiv and many more downstream.

Further north, the Tobol basin crosses between Russia and Kazakhstan. The river itself is frozen for much of the year and Mott MacDonald divisional director in charge, Richard Cullen, has an abiding memory of a line of sampling holes roughly sawn through the ice.

In contrast, the southernmost Kura rises in the mountains of Turkey and flows through Armenia, Georgia and the plains of Azerbaijan where it is the main source of fresh water. It is the largest watercourse in the South Caucasus and is also heavily polluted, posing a serious health risk to the 6.8M inhabitants of the river basin.

The team's brief is to evaluate current river management procedures and recommend improvements, either in the form of new procedures, new equipment or training. However, it is certainly not the case that there is a poor level of local knowledge or ability on which to draw.

A number of factors have to be considered, including local legislation and regulations, economic, financial and technical provisions and practices. The inevitable differences of seven sovereign countries have to be taken into account, as do existing transboundary agreements.

In every country the team liaises with the responsible ministry.

There are four team managers, one for each basin, based respectively in Rostov on Don, Kiev, Ekaterinaberg and Tibilisi.

In addition a 12-strong team provides specialist knowledge as required, flying in for short periods.

And there is plenty of local expertise says Cullen. 'There are some impressive people; very well informed technically as well as possessing local knowledge.'

Collation of an inventory for each basin is the main drive at the moment, based on field sampling and analysis of water quality plus all the local factors which may have a transboundary impact. This means reviewing all the possible and probable sources of pollution as well as all the ecologically sensitive areas and natural habitats where water quality may be seen as of major importance.

'We are in a fairly creative stage, ' says Cullen. The team will report its interim findings in January 2003 and will then set about trying to get a consensus as to the next steps.

One of the practical problems of working on such a geographically widespread project is getting all interested parties in each basin together for workshops. The meeting to discuss the interim report, for instance, will probably be held in Moscow, a long and difficult journey for some delegates.

The team will then design and test a water monitoring strategy for each basin. Equipment will be specified and procured with training in its use and in Quality Assurance and Quality Control procedures.

Also included in the programme is a review of the existing emergency warning systems.

The team will also draw up appropriate early warning systems.

Cullen is eager to stress that the Mott MacDonald team wants to avoid being prescriptive, imposing a scheme on the local experts. For this reason he is convinced of the importance of the transboundary workshops.

'You can prescribe medicine for a problem or you can all get together and ask them to solve it.

And that is what we are trying to do.'

The project ends in 2004, by which time Cullen hopes that practicable, workable systems of obtaining and exchanging information will be in place. He clearly believes it can be done.

'The will is there, ' he says.

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