Exclusive-Ukraine deepens Bystre Canal on Danube, aims to boost exports - deputy minister

FILE PHOTO: Cargo ships heads from Black Sea to Danube, in Odesa region, Ukraine

By Pavel Polityuk

KYIV (Reuters) - Ukraine has not violated any agreements by deepening the Bystre Canal on the Danube to increase food exports from its river ports, and is ready to show Romania the work it has carried out, a senior Ukrainian official said on Wednesday.

Romania said this week it was concerned by signs that neighbouring Ukraine was dredging the canal that slices through a shared, ecologically sensitive coastal region, and asked if it could check the site.

Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia a year ago, said last week the draught of ships passing through the Bystre Canal had deepened to 6.5 metres from 3.9 metres.

Romania has said it is concerned that any works on the waterway through the shared Danube Delta area could threaten wildlife in the UNESCO World Heritage Site and break international environmental protection treaties.

"We officially notified the Romanian side back in August 2022 that we would carry out operational dredging, i.e. sediment clearance, and received no comments," Yuriy Vaskov, Ukraine's deputy minister for restoration, told Reuters in an interview.

The canal was 6.5 metres deep in the mid-1990s, but Ukraine has not done any dredging in recent years, resulting in an accumulation of silt.

"We see no problem - this is not new construction but operational deepening," Vaskov stated, adding that the dredging work was aimed at ensuring the canal was deep enough to allow ships of up to 6.5 metres draught.

Ukraine has been transporting grain on the Bystre Canal as it develops alternative routes for its exports while access to its Black Sea ports has been limited since Russia's invasion.

"Previously there was no need to increase the depth (of the canal). Now there is such a need," Vaskov said.


He said that heavy congestion of the Danube ports and long queues at the Romanian Sulina canal were the main reasons for the move.

Ukraine, which has vastly increased exports via its Danube ports to 1.5 million tonnes per month since Russia's invasion, hopes that a deeper canal would allow an additional 500,000 tonnes to be exported monthly.

Ukraine had previously developed a plan to deepen the canal to 8.2-8.3 metres, which it says could be implemented in the future.

"There has been such a project for many years, but at the moment it is not being implemented. This is where Romania has not agreed to implement this project," Vaskov said.

"This is in the economic interest of Ukraine, and necessary in the medium term, but discussions on this are ongoing," he said, adding than any action could be done when agreed with Romania.

Romania is an important economic partner for Ukraine, and exporters shipped 8.6 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain through Romania's Black Sea port of Constanta last year.

Despite a decrease in the 2022 grain harvest to about 54 million tonnes from a record 86 million in 2021, at least 30 million tonnes of grain are still in silos and could be exported, according to the agriculture ministry.

A major global grain grower and exporter, Ukraine's grain exports were down 28.7% at 30.3 million tonnes in the 2022/23 season as of Feb. 20, hit by a smaller harvest and logistical difficulties caused by the Russian invasion.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Editing by William Maclean)