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Version: 1997

Geography and population

Belarus is a landlocked country in eastern Europe with a total area of 207 600 km2. It is bordered in the northeast and east by the Russian Federation, in the southeast and south by Ukraine, in the southwest by Poland and in the northwest by Lithuania and Latvia. It declared its independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. For administrative purposes, the country is divided into six provinces (oblasts).

Belarus is part of the east European lowland, covered with young glacial formations, mainly gravel and sand. From the southwest to the northeast the moraine Belarus rampart, where several larger rivers rise, crosses the country. In the south is the vast, marshy land of Polesye. The peak of the highest hill is at 345 m above sea level.

The cultivable area, which according to Belarus statistics corresponds to the land belonging to all types of agricultural farms (state, cooperative, private), is estimated at 11.9 million ha, which is 57% of the total area of the country. In 1993, the cultivated area was estimated at about 6.1 million ha, of which about 98% was occupied by annual crops. Belarus was heavily affected by the accident at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, which is located just over the border in neighbouring Ukraine close to the Pripyat River. The nuclear accident occurred in April 1986 and 70% of the radiation is estimated to have fallen on Belarus, as prevailing winds carried the heaviest radioactive releases into Belarus. About 20% of the agricultural land in Belarus is estimated to be contaminated, including almost all the drained area in the southern and southeastern Polesye. However, in spite of this contamination, cropping has not been suspended.

Agriculture is almost exclusively in the hands of the sovkhoz (state farms) and kolkhoz (collective farms). On 1 October 1995, there were 3 000 private farms in Belarus, owning a total of 62 100 ha of land (Figure 1).

Figure 1

The total population is almost 10.3 million (1996), of which 28% is rural. The average population density is 50 inhabitants/km2, rather evenly distributed over the country. Only in Minsk province, where the capital Minsk is located, does the population density reach 82 inhabitants/km2, while in Vitebsk province in the northeast, the population density is lowest at 36 inhabitants/km2. The annual population growth decreased from 1.1% in 1990 to 0.2% in 1993 and to -0.7% in 1995. In 1996, agriculture employed 17% of the economically active population. While women constitute 51% of the total labour force, their percentage in agriculture is only 38%. This is due to the predominance of women in other professions, such as in education and health services. About 13% of the total female labour force and 26% of the total male labour force is engaged in agriculture. In 1996, agriculture accounted for almost 22% of GDP.


Climate and water resources


The west of the country is characterized by the transitional climate between maritime and continental, the climate in the central and eastern parts is continental. The average annual midday temperature is 6░C, varying from -7░C in January to 18░C in July. The average annual precipitation is 700 mm, ranging from 550 mm in the southeast to 800 mm on the highest areas in the centre of the country. About 70% of the precipitation falls during the summer months. The east of the country is covered with snow for up to 120 days per year, the west for fewer than 80 days.

Due to the climatic conditions, there is a need for drainage rather than irrigation in the country, except in areas where the groundwater level has fallen too much due to excessive drainage.

River basins and water resources

The country can be divided into four main river basins:

- The Dnepr basin. This basin covers about 81.5% of the country. The Dnepr River rises in the Russian Federation and enters Belarus in the northeast. Within the country it flows to the south and, after forming the border with Ukraine over some 100 km, it flows into Ukraine and finally the Black Sea. The largest tributary of the Dnepr within Belarus is the Pripyat, which rises in Ukraine, enters the country in the south, flows east and leaves the country again in the southeast to flow into the Dnepr within Ukraine.

- The Western Dvina basin. This basin covers about 10% of the country. The Western Dvina River rises in the Russian Federation and flows into Belarus in the northeast. It then flows to the west and leaves the country in the northwest to flow into Latvia, where it is called the Daugava, flowing to the Baltic Sea.

- The Neman basin. This basin covers about 6% of the country. Its main source is in the centre of the country near the capital Minsk. It flows to the west and enters Lithuania, where it is called the Nemunas River, which flows to the Baltic Sea. The Vilija River, also rising in Belarus to the north of the Neman River, flows west into Lithunania, where it becomes the Neris River that flows into the Nemunas River. Some smaller tributaries rise in Poland and flow east into Belarus into the Neman River.

- The Western Bug basin. This basin covers about 2.5% of the country in the southwest. The main Bug River rises in Ukraine, and forms the border, first between Ukraine and Poland and then between Belarus and Poland, before entering Poland.

Renewable surface water resources (RSWR) by river basin

Name of Area within Internal Inflow Total Outflow
river basin Belarus RSWR     RSWR  
  (km2) (km3/year) (km3/year) from: (km3/year) to:
Dnepr: 169 190  18.5 13.5   32.0 Ukraine
of which: - Dnepr   11.6 7.7 Russian Federation 19.3  
- Pripyat   6.9 5.8 Ukraine 12.7  
Western Dvina 20 760  7.1 7.2 Russian Federation 14.3 Latvia
Neman: 12 460  9.3 0.1 Poland 9.4 Lithuania
of which: - Neman   6.8 -   6.8  
- Affluents   2.5 0.1 Poland 2.6  
Western Bug: 5 190  2.3 -   2.3 Poland
of which: - West. Bug   0.2 - Border with Poland 0.2  
- Affluents   2.1 -   2.1  
Total 207 600  37.2 20.8   58.0  

The total ARSWR are estimated at 58.00 km3/year, of which 37.2 km3/year are generated within the country (Figure 2). The renewable groundwater resources are estimated at about 18.0 km3/year, which are considered to be drained entirely by the surface water network (overlap).

Figure 2

Location of dams
Name of (sub)basin Number of dams
Pripyat 49
Dnepr 43
Neman 22
Western Dvina 17
Western Bug 9
Total 140

Lakes and dams

There are about 10 800 freshwater lakes with a total area of 1 600 km2, or 0.8% of the total area of the country, and a total capacity of 7.2 km3. The largest lake is Lake Naroch, with an area of 80 km2 and an average depth of 9 m. There are also about 1 550 small and shallow natural ponds in the country with a total area of 350 km2 and a total capacity of 0.5 km3.

There are 140 dams and tanks each with a capacity of at least 1 million m3, of which 89 have been built for irrigation purposes. Their total capacity is estimated at 3.08 km3 and their total surface area about 880 km2.

The gross theoretical hydropower potential of Belarus is estimated at 7 500 GWh/year, a third of which being economically feasible. Hydropower installed capacity is only 6 MW, generating 0.06% of electricity of the country.

International agreements

Since 1992, some agreements with Poland have been reached on water quality issues and navigation on the Western Bug River. However, no agreements exist with neighbouring countries on the sharing of water of international rivers.

Water withdrawal and wastewater

In 1990, the total water withdrawal for agricultural, domestic and industrial purposes was 2.7 km3, of which 21% for irrigation (Figure 3). The total water withdrawal in 1995 was estimated at 3.0 km3. In 1993, 993 million m3 of wastewater was produced, of which 882 million m3 was treated.

Figure 3

Irrigation and drainage development

Drainage development

The history of drainage in Belarus dates back to the second half of the eighteenth century in the then Polish state. On huge private estates, marshes were drained to turn them into meadows, mainly by open canals. In the final quarter of the nineteenth century, large-scale drainage works were carried out in the Polesye region, where about 4 700 km of canals were built with an average depth of 1.1 m. These works were also intended to facilitate wood exploitation and the floating of timber down to Ukraine. Drainage work stopped at the beginning of the twentieth century but restarted in the 1920s, independently in the western part (Poland) and the eastern part (the Soviet Union). During the Second World War, work was suspended again and when it restarted after the war it was initially on a small scale. Following the `Land Draining and Sovkhoz Building Act' of 1966, large-scale drainage work started again. Most of the drainage work was concentrated in the Polesye region, where 85 000 ha had been drained by 1939, and this drained area amounted to 560 000 and 1 400 000 ha in 1966 and 1986 respectively. In the period 1966-1986, mainly subsurface drainage systems were built. Most of this drained land in the Polesye region was contaminated after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

As at 1993, about 3 million ha had been drained for agricultural purposes. In addition, land is drained for non-agricultural purposes, such as construction. On average there are 250 m of drains per hectare of drained land. Subsurface drains exist on more than 75% of the drained area, the remaining 25% being drained by open canals (Figure 4). The total length of the irrigation and drainage network exceeds 800 000 km, which is almost nine times the total length of the natural rivers in the country. The total area where drainage infrastructure could be developed has been estimated at 7.9 million ha.

Figure 4

Most of the drained area is used for meadows and pasture. In 1990, crops were grown on 1 177 200 ha. About 49% of the area was cultivated with fodder crops, 43% with cereals and pulses and the remaining 8% with potatoes, industrial crops and vegetables (Figure 5). The yields on drained land are slightly lower than those on undrained land. This is due to the fact that drained areas consist mainly of swampy, infertile soils, with a low pH.

Figure 5

Irrigation development

Irrigated areas first appeared in the statistics in 1974. All irrigation takes place on land that has been excessively drained. In fact, there is no real need for irrigation, except in areas where the groundwater has been lowered too much by excessive drainage. For this reason, no figure on irrigation potential is available. Irrigation water is provided by canals, groundwater and retention tanks. In total, 89 retention tanks have been constructed for irrigation purposes, with a total capacity of 0.5 km3. About 77% of the area is reported to be irrigated from these reservoirs.

In 1993, the area equipped for irrigation was equal to 131 000 ha. It was largest in 1980, with 163 000 ha (Figure 6). The whole area is reported to be sprinkler irrigated, using moving sprinkler irrigation systems. With this type of irrigation, the area equipped for irrigation may vary from year to year. The variation depends mainly on whether precipitation is sufficient or not.

Figure 6

Of the total irrigated area of 149 000 ha in 1990, 77 400 ha (52%) were covered by meadows and pasture (Figure 7). Fodder crops were grown on 38 000 ha, cereal and pulses on 21 600 ha, vegetables and potatoes on 10 500 ha and industrial crops on 700 ha.

Figure 7

Institutional environment

During the Soviet period, all water investments were the responsibility of the Ministry of Water Administration (Minvodkhoz). At present, several institutions are involved in water resources management:

- The Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for all issues relating to drainage and irrigation. It supervises the Belarus Scientific and Research Institute for Water Management and Meadows Cultivation.

- The Ministry for Natural Resources and Environmental Protection controls water use and quality.

- The Central Scientific and Research Institute for Complex Utilization of Water Resources is the only institution that remains from the former Ministry of Water Administration. At present, it reports directly to the government. In addition to research work, it also monitors water use and water quality.

- The Department of Geography at Minsk State University carries out scientific research on water resources.

- The Ministry for Emergency Situations and Protection of the Population from the Aftermath of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station Disaster. All investments in water and agricultural development in southeast Belarus must obtain the permission of this ministry.

Trends in water resources management

Cultivation on drained and irrigated areas is rather extensive. Three periods can be distinguished in the development of drainage and irrigation in Belarus:

- Slow, relatively steady development of drainage systems from the middle of the eighteenth century till 1966. Cultivation on drained land expanded and crop yields were higher than on undrained land.

- Rapid drainage development from 1966 to 1986, until the Chernobyl nuclear accident. In this period, the drained area more than doubled. However, excessive drying up appeared in some drained areas, and water guns, taking water from specially constructed tanks, had to be used to irrigate these drained lands.

- The Chernobyl nuclear accident, combined with the difficult economic situation, has resulted in a deterioration of the drainage and irrigation systems since 1986, and cultivation on part of these lands has been abandoned. However, statistical data for this period are far from complete.

The radioactive contamination after the Chernobyl nuclear accident affected a large part of the country, especially the southeast. In spite of the fact that the extent of the contamination is known, it is difficult to predict the consequences for the local population. Although these lands should be completely excluded from agricultural production on health grounds, this is not the case at present. Due to this contamination, it is hard to sell agricultural products abroad. At markets in the Russian Federation, they can only be sold at very low prices.

After a period when the transition to a market-oriented agriculture has resulted in the privatization of areas, measures indicate that re-nationalization and the liquidation of private farms could be envisaged in the near future. The difficult economic situation in the country has resulted in a high inflation rate which, combined with the difficulty of selling agricultural products, compromises investment in agriculture.

Main sources of information

Kiselev, V.N. 1987. Byelorussian Polissia (Beloruskoye Polesye). Nauka i Tekhnika, Minsk. 150 p.

Ministry of Statistics and Analysis. 1994. National Economy of the Republic of Belarus (Narodnoye Khozaystvo Belarusii). Minsk. (in Russian). 532 p.

Shirokov, V.M., Kirvel' I.I. 1987. Ponds in Belarus (Prudy Belorusii). Urozay Publ., Minsk. (in Russian) 117 p.

Shirokov, V.M., Pidoplitchko, V.A. 1992. Dams in Belarus (Vodokhranilishtcha Belarusii). Universitetskoye (University Publishing House), Minsk. (in Russian). 116 p.

Shirokov, V.M., Pluznikov, V.N. 1995. Water resources of Belarus, their use and protection (Vodnye resursy Belarusii, ich ispol'zovanie i okhrana). Vodnye Resursy (Water Resources), No 1, pp.115-125, Moscow, Russian Academy of Sciences, Nauka. (in Russian).

Yurevitch, R.A., Kuleshov, A.P. 1992. Actual problems of dam exploitation in Belarus (Sovremennoye sostoyanie i ispol'zovanie vodokhranilishtch Belarusii). Vodnye Resursy (Water Resources), No 1, pp.174-176, Moscow, Russian Academy of Sciences, Nauka. (in Russian).

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