ENVIRONMENT

The cost of neglect

Assessing damage in Eastern Europe

HOLGER JENSEN May 7 1990
ENVIRONMENT

The cost of neglect

Assessing damage in Eastern Europe

HOLGER JENSEN May 7 1990

The cost of neglect

ENVIRONMENT

Assessing damage in Eastern Europe

A lake near a chemical plant in the town of Kemerovo, 3,000 km east of Moscow, is so polluted that citizens of the town dispose of stray dogs by throwing them into the water, the Communist youth league’s daily newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, reported last fall. It added that the lake was so contaminated by phenols that the carcasses dissolved within days. Meanwhile, severe air pollution afflicts Poland’s Silesian coal-mining region, where doctors often advise residents suffering from respiratory problems to descend 650 feet into a clinic in a salt mine in order to breathe the relatively clean air there. In some parts of Eastern Europe, highly polluted water and air are blamed for deformed babies, elevated child mortality rates and a wide variety of illnesses among adults. Indeed, after decades of Communist rule, large areas of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have been reduced to ecological wastelands. Now, efforts are underway to correct the damage.

Following the recent political upheavals that ended oneparty rule in six nations, environmentalists in the former Communist Bloc capitals, and in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, are pressing for tougher environmental controls. In Hungary and Poland, efforts have been launched to prevent some badly polluted rivers from further degradation. Meanwhile, in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, governments have begun to assess the ecological damage that has been done. At the same time, members of newly formed environmental organizations, who are free for the first time to speak out, are demanding action to protect the environment.

During the past two years, Soviet environmentalists have been increasingly successful in blocking industrial projects that they claimed would cause pollution. In one case, plans for a pesticide plant in Ukraine were scrapped last year after local protests erupted in a region that is still recovering from the widespread

contamination caused by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion. Last week, on the fourth anniversary of the accident, a Soviet television show raised about $15 million in cash, medicine and other goods for Chernobyl survivors. Guests on the Soviet telethon in-

cluded Canadian ballet dancers Karen Kain and Frank Augustyn. A resolution passed by the Soviet legislature called for more financial aid for areas contaminated by the accident and urged that food no longer be grown in the contaminated area.

The environmental problems are largely a result of years of neglect. Under the former Communist regimes, economic planners insisted that factories meet production quotas regardless of the environmental dangers involved. Said András SzekfU, a sociologist and founding member of Hungary’s environmentally based Green Party: “There is an organic relationship between communism and environmental destruction." Declared Czechoslovakia’s president, Václav Havel, shortly after his December election: “We

have laid waste our soil and our heritage.”

The main problem facing Eastern European countries is that they simply do not have the money needed for massive environmental cleanup programs. Said Irena Miecznicka, a spokesman for the Polish government’s environment ministry: “Right now, the environment has no priority, because there are so many other needs.”

Still, the region faces a nightmarish array of environmental problems. They include polluted water in Poland’s Vistula River that is so corrosive it cannot be used to cool machinery in factories. As well, the air in some parts of Eastern Europe is so badly fouled by poisonous gases and toxic dust that it has been blamed for widespread health problems. Government leaders in Eastern European capitals say that families in the area are far more susceptible to

cancer, lung and heart disease, and eye and skin disorders than the citizens of Western nations.

The situation is also grim in the Soviet Union. Despite its leadership in some areas of science and technology, pollution controls in the sprawling nation of 290 million people are far less strict than they are in the West. For one thing, technicians from Soviet nuclear plants still dispose of radioactive waste by burying it. And Soviet authorities acknowledge privately that newly erected buildings in the Soviet capital were built on radioactive landfill.

In some heavily industrialized parts of the Soviet Union, toxic emissions from plants and factories have caused widespread illness. In May, 1989, government scientists reported that in one part of the heavily industrialized Krasnoyarsk region, about 3,400 km east of

Moscow, the average life expectancy among men was only 49. Said Valentina Ikonnikova, a Krasnoyarsk resident: “Our children are constantly ill. One of our boys was called up to the army, and he had no teeth. They had all fallen out. Some children cannot grow teeth. They appear and crumble. And there are numerous

cases of cancer and skin disease.”

A report prepared by West German officials recently also painted a shocking picture. It said that in more than 100 Soviet cities with a total of about 50 million inhabitants, air pollution was often 10 times higher than levels permissible even under Soviet law. The Soviet Union also has widespread water pollution problems.

Last year, the Soviet maga_

zine Novy Mir (New Peace) reported that women living in Soviet central Asia who drank water from the polluted inland Aral Sea were giving birth to deformed babies, including infants who had no anuses or who lacked skull bones. Meanwhile, the Aral Sea has lost two-thirds of its water as the result of a Soviet program to irrigate cottongrowing lands in the area.

After Soviet engineers diverted two rivers, the sea’s waterline receded by more than 40 km in some places, leaving ships stranded on the seabed.

Disturbing signs of environmental degradation and its human consequences are clearly evident in the industrialized nations of Eastern Europe. In Warsaw, the Pol-

ish Academy of Science reported late last year that one-third of Poland’s 38 million people live in “areas of ecological disaster.” The worst of those is the coaland steel-producing region of Silesia. A study of 1,000 Silesian mothers showed unacceptably high concentrations of lead, mercury, cadmium and other toxic metals

in the placentas of nearly all of the women. It also demonstrated that Krakow (population 725,000), a city on the edge of the region, had the highest infant mortality rate in Poland: 258 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with the national average of 184 per 100,000 inhabitants. (The infant mortality rate in Canada in 1988 was 10.4 per 100,000 inhabitants.) The

pollutants falling on Krakow from its Nowa Huta steelworks have eroded the city’s historic architecture and have made the Vistula the most polluted river in Europe.

The belching smokestacks that appear on the back of East Germany’s 50-mark bills were once a symbol of Communist pride. But they now account for the almost daily air pollution warnings on both sides of the crumbling Berlin Wall. According to an East German environment ministry report prepared in 1989, half the children living in industrialized areas of the country suffer from lung disorders or skin diseases. The report added that the life expectancy for adults in the heavily industralized southern part of East Germany is five to 10 years shorter than in the rest of the country.

Czechoslovakia’s pollution problems are severe, as well. In Bohemia, in the west, where many of the country’s coal-fired power plants and chemical factories are located, doctors report alarmingly high levels of infant mortality. In the same area, medical authorities also report higher-than-average levels of lung disease and cancer. Local officials say that children have to be sent away to the mountains for a month every summer to prevent permanent lung damage from industrial emissions.

Now, the reform-minded governments of Eastern Europe are struggling to implement environmental reforms. In Czechoslovakia, one of Havel’s first acts in office was to create an environment ministry, which launched a sweeping assessment of the extent of environmental damage in the country. Meanwhile, in a major undertaking, East Germany’s interim government has promised to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 30 per cent during the next three years.

Ultimately, Eastern Europe may only be able to afford an environmental cleanup if the West helps. And there have been signs that Western nations may be willing to provide aid. Last week, the Washington-based World Bank approved its first ecological credit to the region with a $22-million loan to Poland. According to some environmentalists, it may take 20 years and an estimated $72 billion to clean up the environment. So far, West Germany has agreed to finance 11 pilot programs costing $245 million. Still, as one West German government official put it, that is like “a drop of water on a hot stone,” given the huge effort that will be needed to make up for nearly half a century of environmental abuse.

HOLGER JENSEN

ANTHONY WILSON SMITH

correspondents’ reports