Managing peatlands, combating climate change

Jan 14, 2016

Smoke… thick heavy air that leaves a bitter nasty taste in your mouth - the people of Kukshyn have experienced this for decades. Respiratory diseases were rampant and often kept thousands of children from school and adults on sick leave. The main culprit was well-known but the scale of the problem was way beyond the level of what the local authorities thought that they could ever tackle.

There was a time when the Smolianka mire wetlands flourished with wildlife. But beginning in the 1950s, draining canals began slashing through once pristine miresmarshes. For Ukraine, peat (turf)[1] was a relatively cheap and readily available source of fuel and energy. Large-scale drainage projects facilitated peat extraction and transformed mires the swamp into land suitable for agriculture or forestry. Little attention was paid to a more environmentally sound alternative – rewetting and restoring the mires marshlands after peat extraction. By the mid-1970s, Ukraine was extracting nearly extracting nearly 7 million tons and overall more than one million hectares were drained. 

Biodiversity suffered – many plants and animals, including some globally endangered species like bisons, brown bears, and golden eagles

started to disappear. Instead of absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, the mires began emitting it as fires raged over dried-up land. Toxic gases spewed into the air through smoke, making people from local communities sick, and the government was forced to spend millions combating fires. Local economies were hurt as hunting and fishing dwindled, and communities could no longer rely on mires as a source of berries to sell for extra income.

UNDP Ukraine analyzed global best practices in tackling similar issues and offered Ukraine a simple but powerful solution –to “re-naturalize” the peatlands by rewetting them and restoring the underground water levels.

Together with local communities and the private sector, UNDP engineers cleaned 12 km of the magisterial channel, repairing 4 sluices and 12 tube crossings. As a result, devastating fires stopped and plants and animals started to re-establish themselves. It is expected that over a 20-year period 230,000 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions will be prevented from releasing into the atmosphere. But the positive outcome was felt not only by the nature; local communities started to feel the difference. The air became cleaner and reclaimed pastures started providing enough hay for local residents to keep cows, enriching the locals’providing livelihoods for local communities, and helping to improve diets, in particular children’s, diet with healthy dairy products. This spurred business activity and local residents, with UNDP support, started to create farming cooperatives to save on equipment and processing. Overall, more than 4,500 people will are estimated to benefit from this initiative.

To make the shift sustainable and to ensure the protection of over 40 endangered species, 6,000 hectares of the Smolianka mires have been registered as a regional landscape park. 

“Now I understand what a sustainable solution truly means. This is a win-win for nature, the people, and the economy,” says Oleksandr Pyvovar, Head of Kukshyn village council.

 

 

[1] Peat is a mixture of more or less decomposed plant (humus) material that has accumulated in a water-saturated environment and in the absence of oxygen. Upon drying, peat can be used as fuel.