A multi-million dollar investment raised by the United Nations Development Programme to clean up the Danube in the heart of Central Europe could bring together many bickering neighbours to protect their abused common environment.
The Danube is the second largest river in Europe. It is used for drinking, irrigation, fishing, energy, transport, industry and waste disposal. Heavy usage has created many pollution hot-spots. The UN agency has committed $8.5m to collect pollution emission data, prepare water quality criteria, select sites for new water purification installations and undertake feasibility studies for waste disposal plants.
The resulting data will be used to create an action plan for reducing pollution and building local institutions for environment management. The UN programme will embrace technology transfer and training, pre-investment surveys and fellowships in environmental monitoring and management.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has also promised funds for an extensive scientific study of the river system. And the European Community is considering proposals for early action for the protection of the Danube.
These developments have been announced in the wake of an important new survey of the Danube conducted by the Paris-based Fondation Cousteau. The study has just concluded on an optimistic note, pronouncing the health of the river -- as defined in terms of the abundance of wildlife supported by it -- to be better than expected and far better than that of any other major European waterway.
Captain Jacques Cousteau, the famous French aquatic explorer, and his associates used every opportunity created by their much publicized one-year study to bring together the policy and opinion makers of the ten Danubian countries. Many of them are divided by smouldering regional prejudices and conflicts. The UN programme may well enable them to work together in the common interest.
One area of high international tension which could benefit from a new spirit of co-operation is the romantic Danube Bend in Hungary. There, the river flows between gentle wooded hills with charming villages and Baroque churches, the scene of a hideous hydro-electric construction halted by the government for environmental reasons.
The ill-fated Gabcikovo-Nagymaros hydro-electric construction scheme had been launched before the collapse of communism in Europe. Hungary's refusal to complete its part of the construction has developed into an ugly row with neighbouring Austria and Czecho-slovakia, neither of which wants the project but both are much too involved just to forget it.
The UN programme may well involve the three countries in a co-operative research and conservation scheme for the establishment of the world's biggest transboundary park and protected area along the river.
Other proposals include improved scientific co-operation and support essential for the more than 1,500 square mile Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve. The UN programme will also encourage preparations by the Danubian neighbours of a major environment convention for the protection of their common river which links big landlocked industries with the sea and the world markets. The convention, agreed in principle at a conference in Budapest last year, is to introduce common standards for water quality monitoring and establish liability for cross-frontier pollution. The accord should affect many investment decisions as well as public health standards.
A group of international and non-governmental organizations have also formed a partnership to promote technical co-operation for the joint management of the river. Discussions in Sofia, sponsored by the World Bank, the European Community and other international authorities, have produced a work programme for the synchronization of the environment protection laws of the region with a view to formulating common legislative proposals.
Such reforms are overdue. Hungary and Holland have signed the latest of a series of bilateral treaties on shipping rights on the Rhine-Main-Danube waterway which is to open this year. The canal will connect Central Europe with important ports in western Germany as well as the Netherlands, creating a continent-wide complex of waterways first projected in the 9th century.
A document issued in preparation for the Danubian convention significantly avoids any mention of the controversy over the half-built Gabcikovo-Nagymaros hydro-electric project; but a specialist observer commented that the signatories clearly had that issue in mind when they included a clause committing themselves to consider collectively the ecological consequences of any major development project affecting the river.
The Hungarian-Dutch treaty clears the way for unhampered shipping movement between the two countries as well as transit traffic. It makes provision for further accord to regulate transport by barges. The waterway will link the North Sea with the Black Sea, connecting 15 European countries along the courses of the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers.
The environmental convention will widen an international code of conduct on the pollution of transboundary inland waters published by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (ECE). The code, which is for use throughout Europe as well as North America, establishes procedures for international co-operation for preventing and combatting pollution disasters by means of a wide range of management practices including early warning, various alarm systems, information exchange, compatibility of monitoring techniques and joint or co-ordinated contingency planning.
The ECE code is the first common response by the governments of the formerly divided continent to their collective need for international cooperation in preventing and combatting the accidental pollution of their inland waterways. The code -- which has been approved by senior advisers to ECE governments in a series of deliberations supported by the UN Environment Programme -- establishes common standards for a set of uniform procedures by the emergency services of the member countries in the event of accidental pollution. It also calls for investment to improve their efficiency and state of preparedness to deal with industrial accidents particularly involving hazardous cargoes in transit.
The Danube sweeps through a catchment area of 80 million people from the Black Forest in Germany to its Black Sea delta in Romania, collecting a mix of untreated urban sewage, factory discharge and agricultural runoffs along the way.
Very little hard evidence had been collected before the Cousteau study on the state of the Danube, although the appalling effects of environmental pollution in the area are well known.
The Black Sea receives 4,300 tons of nitrogen compounds, 900 tons of petroleum products, 600 tons of lead and 200 tons of detergents a year from industrial wastes, mostly from the Danube (as well as the Dnieper). That waste and a naturally occurring hydrogen sulfide cloud in the water that is exacerbated by the pollution have rendered 90% of the sea biologically dead.
Most of the population centres along the Danube's eastern European route lack adequate facilities to treat their sewage. Less than half of Bratislava's industrial waste and household sewage is purified before being dumped into the river. Almost half of Hungary's sewage treatment plants are equipped merely for rudimentary treatment. The town of Ruse in Bulgaria has been poisoned for years by chlorine emissions from a noxious Romanian plant just across the Danube, irritating relations between the two countries.
Yet the economic failure of communism and the absence of thriving modern enterprises along the eastern route of the river have spared the Danube the ecological price of industrial prosperity. It still feeds vast alluvial plains and forests supporting a wealth of wildlife which have retreated from environment-conscious western Europe.
The river is used as a sewer by rogue industries whose activities beyond essential legislative control are responsible for growing pockets of pollution identified by the survey team. But the damage is considerably less extensive and the cost of necessary clean-up operations may well prove correspondingly less prohibitive than hitherto feared.
Early international co-operation for the protection of the river may well focus on the under-funded Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve which is managed by Romania with help from many global scientific and wildlife protection organizations. A quarter of that unique wetland is maintained, largely insufficiently, as fishponds, forests and agricultural lands. The rest is left to chance. A scientific council comprising the many agencies already involved in the area is now evolving a collaborative research and conservation programme.
Public demand to clean up the Danube was recently expressed by more than 80,000 demonstrators forming a human chain and calling for the establishment by Austria, Czecho-slovakia and Hungary of a joint conservation area of threatened lowland forests and wetlands.
The three environment-minded governments locked in conflict over the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros hydro-electric scheme would welcome a compromise leading to co-operative programmes for the protection of the river. The UN initiative may give them an opportunity to find it.
[Thomas Land is a Hungarian-born author and foreign correspondent who writes on global affairs.]
EDITOR'S NOTE: Ethics and the Environment, edited by C. C. W. Taylor, is a collection of thought-provoking papers given at a conference at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, last year. Eminent philosophers, such as Bernard Williams and R. M. Hare, looked at environmental topics, such as urban planning and nuclear power, from an ethical perspective. Distinguished scientists such as Peter Hodgson and civil servants, including the Director General of Environmental Protection brought their practical experience and knowledge to these subjects. Bryan Gould, MP, explained how politicians saw several of the problems. This 97 page pamphlet has a very useful history by the College's President, Sir Keith Thomas, recounting the way people have looked at the environment. This is one of the most enlightening and civilised discussions of a topic that is more talked about than understood. (Obtainable from Corpus Christi College, Oxford OX1 4JF. Price: 5[pounds]; when ordering from overseas add 1[pounds] for postage.)…