A battered old military truck and rusting Belarusian tractor are perched on the edge of degraded wetland in the heart of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve. They have been hastily deployed in a desperate attempt to save an excavator from being swallowed by the squelching earth beside the obsolete Soviet dam it is trying to demolish.
In the 1970s, 11 earth dams were built on the Sarata and Kogilnik rivers as a crude alternative to footbridges to access the area’s aquifers.
Ornithologist Maxim Yakovlev remembers that prior to the construction of the dams, the local rivers slowly meandered through a rich wetland ecosystem which would store, hold back and slowly release water after heavy rains. “Back then, before the dams, when the ecosystem was functioning properly, we had healthier soil and vegetation,” says Yakovlev, as he skirts the edge of a reeking swamp near the tiny, ancient town of Tatarbunary on the northern fringe of the reserve, a 100-mile (160km) drive south-west of Odessa.
“My grandparents told me how different it was here and how so many more fish, birds and other creatures lived here before the dams were made, but the dams quickly devastated the ecosystem,” he adds.
According to Wetlands International, about 64% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1900 and nearly 90% since the start of the industrial revolution.
Rewilding Europe is working to enhance wetlands all over the continent, but especially here, in Europe’s biggest wetland. Only 20% of the Danube Delta ecosystem lies within Ukraine, but thanks to the Endangered Landscapes Programme and a modest crowdfunding grant raised by Rewilding Europe in conjunction with the Dam Removal Europe initiative, Ukraine’s portion is growing.
“Without the dams,” Yakovlev explains, “former polders are being reflooded and the shallow waters and reedbeds will become new spawning grounds and nesting sites for many endangered fish and birds. Upstream in Moldova, work is beginning to improve the river flow there too, so these are exciting times for us.”
Yakovlev is part of a team of biologists and conservationists working for Rewilding Ukraine, a local branch of Rewilding Europe, which is overseeing the dam removal scheme, now nearing completion. “Just in the last few weeks, as the first dams were removed, we have seen shoals of fish return and otters establishing new territories,” says Yakovlev. “It’s amazing how quickly Mother Nature can recover – she just needs a helping hand sometimes.”