$1 billion dollars to clean the Dnipro: How open data is fighting pollution in Ukraine’s longest river

An interactive map called Chysta Voda allows Ukrainians to monitor the quality of drinking water across the country.

In July 2018, a crowd gathered in Kyiv’s Poshtova Square for Dnipro Day, a celebration of Ukraine’s main waterway and Europe’s fourth longest river[1]. During the celebration, the TEXTY data journalism agency, together with Eurasia Foundation, presented Chysta Voda, an interactive map based on open data about water pollution levels in Ukraine’s rivers. The map was developed by TEXTY and Ukraine’s State Agency for Water Resources (SAWR), with support from the former State Agency for eGovernance (now the Ministry of Digital Transformation) under the USAID/UK aid program, Transparency and Accountability in Public Administration and Services/TAPAS.

Chysta Voda, which means “clean water” in Ukrainian, allows anyone with Internet access to view and monitor the quality of rivers that interest them, including the Dnipro, Dnister, Southern Buh and more. The map provides up-to-date information and historical data from the last five years for over 400 water quality control points – the special places on the river basins where analysis is carried out to obtain data on qualitative and quantitative characteristics of the water. The map aggregates data on key parameters including both water-beneficial elements and compounds such as oxygen saturation level, and those that degrade water quality including phosphates, nitrites, nitrates and others. The map also allows users to see which companies are responsible for generating the most pollution in rivers and the amount (volume) of contaminated water that is produced as a direct result.

In the past, ecologists had to submit paper-based requests to government agencies in order to obtain information about water pollution. It was not uncommon for weeks to go by before receiving the requested information from government agencies, at which point the data would already be outdated. Other times, the ecologists’ requests to government agencies would go unanswered altogether.

Oleksandr Koval has been involved in environmental issues for more than two years now. His background is in medicine and for a long time, he worked for a pharmaceutical company. He considers the state of the environment extremely important. That is why, together with other eco-activists, he founded and leads the NGO, Green Generation, which is mainly focused on making improvements to Ukraine’s waste management system.

Having learned about Chysta Voda through the news, Oleksandr is now an active user of the site. “Ukrainians generally don’t think about the quality of the water they are drinking or in which their kids are bathing,” says the environmentalist. “Ukrainian society rarely pays attention to these fundamental environmental issues. Neither companies nor the state budget allocate money towards filters or repairing waste treatment equipment, because they know that the likelihood of negative repercussions for them are slim.” Oleksandr explains that, in Ukraine, it’s cheaper to simply pay an inspector a bribe than it is to put money towards the cost of a water treatment system. However, Oleksandr believes that a simple tool like Chysta Voda has the potential to draw a lot of attention to problems with Ukraine’s rivers, because the data it contains can be seen and understood by everyone.

“According to the Constitution of Ukraine, every individual has the right to a clean environment,” says Oleksandr. “Open data on the state of Ukraine’s water resources is helping to safeguard this right, either in court or at the community level, by demanding that the government put money into preventing environmental catastrophes rather than into new bridges.”

The Dnipro is the longest river in Ukraine and the main source of water for people living in the country. According to the SAWR, 70% (or nearly 35 million people) use water from the river. Several million consumers live in the capital and Kyiv region alone.

The treatment of sewage for this entire area is handled solely by the Bortnychi Aeration Station (BAS) – one of the biggest water treatment plants in Eastern Europe. BAS is part of a subunit of Kyiv Vodokanal, the company that is responsible for water supply and sewage in the Ukrainian capital.

According to Kyiv Vodokanal, approximately 700,000 to 1 million tons of water flows into the BAS treatment plant on a daily basis. BAS’ filtering equipment, which has a depreciation rate of 80%, removes nearly 4-8 tons of contaminants from this volume of water. Moreover, the Station’s treatment facilities were designed in the 1950-60s to achieve only three indicators in purified water while today, the quality of treated wastewater should be tested against 16 indicators.

“On the Chysta Voda online map, you can see that further upstream and downstream, the water in the Dnipro is cleaner,” explains Oleksandr. “Of the water that goes back into the Dnipro from BAS, 7 out of 11 indicators for harmful contaminants are above the norm. In other words, the polluter is BAS itself.”

In June 2015, the Government of Ukraine and Japan’s Agency for International Cooperation (JICA) signed an agreement to reconstruct the sewage treatment facilities at the BAS. The document preparation stage took four years to complete. Finally, in March 2019, Kyiv Vodokanal announced a tender for the reconstruction and modernization of the BAS.[2] Once launched, the full scope of renovations will take six years to complete, after which the Station will meet EU standards.

Thanks to the development of Chysta Voda, the government can no longer ignore problems with water treatment, because the map allows anyone with Internet access to see pollution levels. The problem has been discussed in the national media, citing, among others, data from the Chysta Voda map itself.

“It is no longer necessary to request data from state bodies and risk failing to get this information from them. On the other hand, because the data is now publicly accessible, it has become difficult [for the government] to pretend that some improvements have taken place. We will monitor each step of the BAS modernization process by checking the quality of water via Chysta Voda”, says Oleksandr.

According to Oleksandr, in a country as industrialized as Ukraine, it’s important that citizens pay close attention to the waste that is being generated through manufacturing processes. Oleksandr and other members of Green Generation are promoting this topic among Ukrainians at events and through publications. Moreover, the organization shows young people how to use Chysta Voda so that this new generation knows how use open data to improve their environment.   

[1] https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-longest-rivers-of-europe.html

[2] https://m.vodokanal.kiev.ua/xronolog%D1%96ya-real%D1%96zacz%D1%96%D1%97