Peatland rehabilitation in Belarus in response to drought and sand storms 

Why land degradation and drought are important topics for Belarus?  The warming and prolonged vegetative period caused by climate change bring new opportunities for agriculture, forestry and local people, but also demonstrate the vulnerability of the land and the need for urgent actions to preserve land productivity. 

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Photo by Siarhei Plytkevich: Arable lands in Homieĺ Region of Belarus affected by sands storms, April 2020
Photo by Siarhei Plytkevich: Arable lands in Homieĺ Region of Belarus affected by sands storms, April 2020
 


This is not an African or Arabian desert. This is the Republic of Belarus, a country in the center of Europe with a typical Сentral European climate and 40 per cent of area covered by forests. Belarusians affectionately call their country "blue -eyed" for its large number of lakes, more than 10 000.

The consequences of climate change have already affected Belarus. The average temperature in January 2020 was 1.1 degrees Celsius, 5.5 degrees Celsius above the climatic norm. This was the warmest January in the history of weather observations in the country.

In the south of the country, Belarusian Paliessie, is a unique wetland landscape, a home of many endangered species of birds and animals. Paliessie mires are transit corridor that offers safe and abundant feeding grounds for many migratory birds. The region is also a source of important cultural heritage for local people including dialect and local traditions. In Paliessie, the cultural self-identity of local populations is closely interlinked with nature, landscapes, mires and the provided by ecosystems, such as fresh water, timber, berries, mushrooms. Today, large parts of Paliessie are affected by the impacts of climate change such as more frequent droughts and water scarcity.  

At the midst of planting season in April 2020, Homieĺ (Gomel), the southern region of the country had a record low amount of rain –  only 7.9 mm, or 19 per cent of the norm. Last year, precipitation in this area was not much higher – just 12 mm. Increase in forest fires has been recorded during the last three years, with 17 cases of fires in 2017 and 121 fires in 2019. At the same time, about 45 per cent of Homieĺ region is within radioactive zone contaminated by Chornobyl catastrophe. Combustion of peatlands located in the radioactive zone represents a particular threat to public health since it increases the transfer of radionuclides to the healthy land. 

Photo by Siarhei Plytkevich: Tractor plowing dry soil before planting potatos, Homiel region, Belarus , April 2020
Photo by Siarhei Plytkevich: Tractor plowing dry soil before planting potatos, Homiel region, Belarus , April 2020

To address these challenges, the Government of Belarus together with the UNCCD have chosen Homieĺ region for ecological rehabilitation of 2000 hectares of drained peatlands. With correct application of technology, in about 10 years the hydrological regime can be restored in the vicinity of two cities – Chojniki and Kalinkavičy – reducing the risk of increasing forest fires.  

The residents of the affected area have shared the following concerns: "We thought 2018 was a disaster, but now it happened again and even worse. Last year, it was hot and no rain but we needed water to irrigate every day. Where are we supposed to get it from – wells, ponds, river were getting shallow and dry. We don’t expect anything good this year either. There was no snow in the winter, the rivers didn’t freeze, there was no high water during the spring. We have never experienced this before. We thought climate change happens somewhere else, but it’s happening right here, brining droughts, fires and poor harvests."

Photo by Levkovskaya. Local resident of Gomel region on corn field after dust storm, 2020
Photo by Ms. Levkovskaya. Local resident of Gomel region on corn field after a dust storm, 2020

Such weather anomalies have become common, leading to decrease in soil moisture and affecting the productivity of agricultural land by blowing away the fertile upper layer of the soil every dry planting season. The consequences for the entire country and the livelihoods of local communities are significant. 

For natural ecosystems and particularly wetlands, climate change means irreversible adverse effects. Scientists call Belarusian mires the "lungs" of Europe – 12.3  per cent of the country is covered by peatlands (4.2 per cent – by natural mires), compared to the 3.4 per cent world average.

Agricultural production is an important sector of Belarus economy, accounting for 16 per cent of the country's GDP. The exports of food products and agricultural raw materials exceed $5 billion (more than 16 per cent of the total exports of the Republic of Belarus). About 22 per cent of the population lives in rural areas and 9 per cent are employed in agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

 

One of the main functions of mires in Belarus is to regulate and maintain a favorable regional hydrological regime, so that the natural ecosystems can function sustainably and provide reliable water supply for rivers and lakes by accumulating fresh water reserves (more than 7 billion cubic meters).

As a result of climate change, peat mining, drainage of mires and intensive agricultural development of drained land have created significant areas of disturbed degraded  peatlands. Hundreds of thousands hectares of dried peatlands can become the cause of large-scale prolonged peat fires, such as happened in 2002 in Belarus and in 2010 in Russia. Damaged peatlands are also a significant source of carbon dioxide emissions.

Recognizing the scale of these environmental threats and the pressing need for urgent measures, in December 2019 Belarus adopted the Law on the Protection and Use of Peatlands.

The law will support the country's efforts to achieve land degradation neutrality under the UNCCD, when no land is lost due to degradation at the bottom line. These measures will include the restoration of at least 10,000 hectares of disturbed peatlands. By restoring peatlands and the ecosystems they support, the country will contribute to the Paris Agreement with a pledge of reducing greenhouse gases emissions by at least 35 per cent by 2030, also addressing the Aichi biodiversity targets and the goals of the Ramsar convention on wetlands.

Since 2018, the UNCCD supports the efforts of the Government of Belarus on rehabilitation of peatlands through the Greening Drylands Partnership, an initiative funded by the Government of South Korea.  Between 2018-2019, about 1000 ha of degraded peatlands were rewetted in Mahilioŭ region, in the south-east of Belarus. Sustainability of the rehabilitation measures is grounded in the strong partnership built between local authorities, forestry department and local community.  

Photo by the GDP project. Pechenezh peatland restored in the Mogilev region, 2018
Photo by the GDP project. Pechenezh peatland restored in the Mogilev region, 2018

The second phase of the project will continue the application of rewetting techniques, improve monitoring, forecast and early warning of fires on peatlands and assess the results of CO2 removal from rehabilitated sites. The project will contribute to reducing the impacts of climate change on the sustainable economic development and to protecting well-being of the population. The project aims to improve the living standards of the population in the Gomel region by developing local capacity for sustainable management and use of natural resources through the restoration of drained peatlands.

Rewetting and re-naturalization of Belarusian peatlands will provide a number of ecosystem benefits. First of all, the level of ground water will rise, reducing drought risks through accumulation of freshwater. By preventing further mineralization of peats, the soil carbon will be locked in the rewetted areas, also removing carbon from the atmosphere.  Rewetted peatlands have the potential to sustain biodiversity, including biological resources such as cranberry. Another promising path is the development of ecotourism to utilize the recreational potential of the mires.

Currently, a team of Belarusian experts together with the Global Mechanism of UNCCD is developing a gender-responsive transformative project to rewet 33,000 ha of degraded peat- and mirelands, achieving multiple benefits at scale, learning from the successful experiences. 
 
 

Photo by Artushevski. Restored Dokudovskoye peatland after ecological rehabilitation
Photo by Artushevski. Restored Dokudovskoye peatland after ecological rehabilitation