YUGOSLAVIA: UN experts play down eco-catastrophe but call for action on environmental hotspots

Pekka Haavisto, Chairman of the UNEP/UNCHS Balkan Task Force (BTF), played down concerns of an ecological catastrophe, but said action was needed to deal with the environment "hot-spots" identified by the BTF's scientific assessment of the environmental and human settlement impact of the Balkans conflict.

“Pancevo and Kragujevac (towns in Serbia) are two hot-spots of particular concern,” said Haavisto. In Pancevo, there is an urgent need to clean-up the 2 km stretch of heavily polluted canal which feeds into the Danube river and to remove the mercury on the ground at the petrochemical factory. As for the Zastava car factory in Kragujevac, we have recommended to the Yugoslav authorities the immediate removal of toxic waste which is a serious threat to the human health of people working there,” he said.

In July, BTF scientists visited Yugoslavia to assess the environmental damage caused by the conflict at selected industrial sites, and last month a group looked at the possible impact on the river Danube.

The BTF team which left Yugoslavia this week has been assessing the possible consequences of the conflict for biodiversity in protected areas in the region. Approximately 4 per cent of Yugoslavia is classified as a nature protected area and there were concerns that the conflict may have had a direct impact on the plant and animal populations in these areas with possible negative consequences for the region’s biodiversity.

“The initial reports from the biodiversity experts support our broader conclusions on the environmental impact of the Balkans conflict,” said Haavisto. “There has clearly been some localised impact with vegetation damaged as a result of direct impact from the bombs. Also, some endangered species in the vulnerable highland areas may have been affected which is a cause for concern.

However, the long-term impact on the region’s biodiversity will likely be minimal,” he said. “An issue of more immediate concern,” continued Haavisto, “is the amount of unexploded ordnance in the national parks – it is unclear exactly how much is there but its presence is hindering management and maintenance of these areas which are key areas for recreation and tourism.”

CEE pollution monitoring deficient

A team of experts from WWF also conducted a rapid environmental assessment of two of the facilities bombed in Yugoslavia: the Pancevo petrochemical complex and the Novi Sad oil refinery, and tested the water of the Danube River.

The WWF mission revealed that toxic pollutants, originally released in the immediate environment of bombed facilities, are now threatening further damage by spreading into surrounding areas.

Samples taken from soil and water showed the presence of notable quantities of mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, ethylene dichloride, and other highly toxic substances including dioxin. These were initially released by the bombing of industrial complexes and continue to leach from these facilities, threatening groundwater drinking supplies and natural resources in several countries of the area, says WWF.

“The international donor community has to provide financial and technical support, and equipment, for the urgent clean-up and removal of contaminants in both the soil and the water,” said Philip Weller, Director of WWF’s Danube Carpathian Programme and leader of the expert team.

WWF’s analysis also revealed that the war has exposed an enormous deficiency in the monitoring of toxic chemicals in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. “The pollution monitoring programme for the Danube has been particularly weak, despite the existence of international programmes supporting improved water quality in the river,” added Mr Weller. This made it extremely difficult to separate damage caused by the war from previous or ongoing contamination.

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