Cheap Solution to Rife Pollution Eludes Eastern Europe

Article excerpt

Only a few years ago a purple haze of toxins hung over Albania's Elbasan Valley - effluents of a massive industrial complex built in the 1970s.

Once the pride of communist planners, the complex produced much of the country's heavy industrial output while blighting the crops of what were once the most productive farms in the country.

Elbasan breathes freely these days, but at a high price. Like the rest of Albania's industry, the dirty, antiquated complex lies virtually idle, and two-thirds of its 11,000-person work force has been laid off.

Shepherding is a major occupation in the area now. Shepherds tend sheep and goats that graze among the slag heaps and silent foundry halls.

This is how Eastern Europe's environment has improved since the collapse of communism.

In the absence of massive foreign aid, cash-strapped governments from Albania to Russia have had to make do with what the invisible hand of the market has seen fit to clean. As unprofitable factories, mines, and power plants close, the environment has gained, at least in the short term.

But many of the most severe environmental problems, exposed when Communist regimes collapsed from 1989 to 1991, remain unaddressed for lack of financial and human resources, with serious consequences for East Europeans.

"The Western countries made it clear early on that 95 percent of the resources for cleaning up the environment would have to come from the East European countries themselves," recalls Janos Zlinszky, head of external relations at the Budapest-based Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe.

"We had been hoping for grants or soft loans, but found only commercial loans would be available," he adds. "Most countries already have serious debt burdens and are unable to take on new loans, especially since most environmental projects don't generate revenue with which to repay a loan."

Problems ignored

Because of this lack of funding many critical problems have been ignored, especially in poorer countries in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union.

Take the Black Sea, for example. For millennia its bountiful fish and shellfish stocks nurtured the human civilizations that populated its shores - ancient Greece, Byzantium, the Ottoman and Russian Empires, contemporary Turkey, Romania, and Ukraine to name a few. In the past two decades, modern fertilizers, industrial effluents, untreated sewage, and fishing trawlers have radically altered its aquatic life.

Twenty of 26 commercial fish species have vanished since 1970; the anchovy harvest fell more than 95 percent between 1984 and 1989. In their place are monstrous blooms of photoplankton, which feed on human waste, and the North American jellyfish that preys on the photoplankton. …