Yugoslavia: a blue-print for post war environmental clean-up

Gareth Gardiner-Jones speaks to Mikko Halonen of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Balkan Unit, a specially-assembled team responsible for the cleaning-up of environmental contamination in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

When an armed conflict is in progress, the horrors of war are splashed
across the media, but as it draws to a close, the war zone disappears
from our screens and newspapers, little to be heard of again. Yugoslavia,
present and former, has bucked the trend somewhat by staying in the media
eye through political developments and reports over the disputed effects
of depleted uranium on servicemen’s health. But what we do not hear about
is how this country, at risk from many forms of war-related after-effects,
has recovered, if, indeed, it has.

The work of the Balkans’ task force is considerable: NATO’ s intensive bombing
campaign across Serbia has resulted in the loss of infrastructure in entire
cities, including water supplies, and in the damage of a great number of
polluting industrial facilities. As well as the current work in the Federal
Republic of Yugoslavia, assessments are also being undertaken for Macedonia
and Albania, other nations affected by the conflict.

Above all, the Balkans task force is a unique first. Following armed
conflicts environmental concerns usually come far down the list of post-war
priorities, but in Yugoslavia’s case, for the first time ever, the environmental
consequences of the fighting have been assessed.

How was it decided where to concentrate efforts for the clean-up?

Because there were a great number of problems identified during the
feasibility study at four environmental ‘hotspots’ that we have identified,
and as resources for the implementation of mitigation measures are limited,
a prioritisation process was undertaken to define the most urgent tasks.
The first remediation projects are being implemented in the cities of
Novi Sad, Pancevo and Kragujevac. The total estimated cost for the 27
projects, identified in the UNEP/BTF Feasibility Study was approximately
US $20 million. Up until now, we have received approximately $7million
from the international donor community.

The criteria for prioritisation included, among others, the urgency of mitigation of impacts; the size of the area and the number of people affected; the effects of the impacts over a long period of time; and environmental return, as well as general sustainability.

Is there a general process involved in the remediation of war zones or is each case different?

“These clean-up activities
should be seen as the pilot project on humanitarian environmental
activity for other post-conflict situations.”

Each case is different. These clean-up activities should be seen as
the pilot project on humanitarian environmental activity for other post-conflict
situations, so we are aiming to create know-how and, consequently, guidelines
to the UN on the planning and management of the UN emergency environmental
response. We will pass on the lessons learnt to other UN agencies for
use in other conflicts, for instance in Albania and Macedonia where we
have also carried out assessments.

What are the main priorities in these three ‘hotspots’ on which you
are concentrating?

In Novi Sad, the first high priority projects currently either being implemented or prepared are for the protection of drinking water resources. In Novi Sad an oil refinery was hit during the NATO campaign. It must be said that our mandate is to deal with the humanitarian environmental consequences resulting from the conflict through remediation. This is a difficult task for us as we cannot solve all the urgent problems present, partly because of the mandate and finance, but in the field, other international organisation e.g. World Health Organization and the United Nations Development Programme and many donor countries are taking part in reconstruction projects, capacity building and remediation.

In Pancevo, the remediation of wastewater treatment capacities, the heavily polluted wastewater canal, as well as EDC-contamination (dichloroethane) are the main priorities. The area, which is an industrial complex with a petrochemical plant, a refinery and a fertiliser plant, is of the highest regional and international interest as it is directly connected to the Danube river through the Pancevo wastewater canal.

In Kragujevac, south of Belgrade, remediation of PCB-contamination is top priority.

How much work has been done up until now?

The original report (UNEP/Balkans Task Force report . The Kosovo Conflict
. Consequences for the Environment & Human Settlements, October 1999)
was followed in February 2000 by a feasibility study, finalised in April
2000, that identified 27 clean-up projects to address the post-conflict
environmental and humanitarian problems, of which 10 are now in the pipeline.
In order to elaborate the necessary action in more detail, a preparatory
phase for the implementation of the most urgent priority projects was
introduced. An integral part of this work has consisted of setting up
the necessary project preparation and management team, organising the
co-operation with international expert teams, as well as identifying potential
companies for implementation.

During 2000, a project office in Belgrade was established in order to prepare the necessary technical documentation and to establish the necessary political framework in order to get the support of the new government. Last year also saw project organisation, introduction of the implementation phase, short-listing of contractors, project management, stakeholder and donor communication as well as preparatory work for environmental training of stakeholders, through seminars and workshops.

We are going to do as many of the projects as we can, but I’m sure we
can never get all of the 27 projects done. The clean-up project is currently
established till the end of 2002.

How do you go about the tendering process?

The procedure is defined by UN rules, including short-listing requirements. Naturally our website is a transparent way of providing information – such as which projects are soon coming up for tendering – to all relevant stakeholders, who can contact us and provide their references.

How long did the assessment and feasibility study take?

The assessment report was published in October 1999, with the research work starting in the summer of that year – actually during the NATO campaign. The feasibility phase was launched in February with the report coming out in April 2000. Because Milosevic was in power we had to be very careful, but now the situation has changed for the better, giving space to more players besides the United Nations.

How is the Yugoslav government involved, if it indeed is?

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia authorities have given their support to our activities during the assessment phase, the feasibility study, as well as now during the clean-up phase, indicating clearly that the international community should bear its responsibility for the conflict-related clean-up.

Is there any danger to those involved in clean-up operations?

“There is some hope, at least
in Serbia, that a ministry of environment could be re-established
in the coming months.”

The clean-up operations themselves are generally not dangerous. The challenge lies in informing people in case of any urgent spreading of the identified contamination, and to execute the remediation projects as quickly as possible. When we are carrying out operations in the field, staff follow strict safety procedures. Local people are also supportive, and there is no hostility from them.

We are also supporting capacity building for the environmental sector in the country so that local people can see that our job is important. In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and in Serbia at the moment, for example, there are no environment ministries, because the political situation means that they have to keep the ministries to a limited amount. So our work provides also a way for local people and officials to push the importance of the environment onto the agenda. There is some hope, at least in Serbia, that a ministry of environment could be re-established in the coming months.

How satisfied are you that there are no risks from depleted uranium?

“… under certain circumstances,
depleted uranium can still pose risks …”

No widespread ground contamination was found by the UNEP expert team
in the investigated areas, therefore, the corresponding radiological and
chemical risks are insignificant. However, under certain circumstances,
depleted uranium can still pose risks, and our report highlights a series
of precautionary measures that should be taken in order to guarantee that
the areas that were struck by depleted uranium ammunition remain risk-free.

Were the environmental protections sufficient before the war broke out, in your opinion, and to what standard are they being restored?

As in many of the neighbouring countries, mismanagement of natural resources and inadequate environmental protection measures were not uncommon during several decades prior to the Kosovo conflict. Within the clean-up project, we are only dealing with conflict related environmental problems and our minimum requirement for projects that we implement is to reach the pre-conflict level.

Do you see any conflict between restoring the infrastructure of a
community as soon as possible and long-term sustainability?

“Solving the most urgent
environmental problems at these ‘hotspots’ supports the sustainability
of the surrounding community.”

We are not restoring infrastructures of communities. We are working mainly
with industrial facilities that were bombed during the war. Solving the
most urgent environmental problems at these ‘hotspots’ supports the sustainability
of the surrounding community. Since the beginning of our activities in
the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, our objective has been to involve
the municipalities, get their commitment to the project, as well as to
provide support for their environmental capacities. We aim for sustainability
by inviting local people and government together for workshops to discuss
environmental challenges for the future.

UNEP Balkan Unit


UNEP Depleted Uranium Assessment


World Health Organisation


UN Development Fund


Federal Republic of Yugoslavia



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