Pollution and Politics in the Black Sea

By Land, Thomas | Contemporary Review, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Pollution and Politics in the Black Sea


Land, Thomas, Contemporary Review


Turkey has accepted a convention defining the liability of ship-owners to compensate the victims of oil pollution and to meet the cost of ensuing spillage operations. The move is just one of many in a mounting confrontation with Russia over Black Sea shipping revenues generated by lucrative oil exports from the Caspian to Western Europe.

Russia wants to increase while Turkey would like to restrict traffic across the overcrowded and dangerous Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits linking the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.

All the major ports around the heavily polluted Black Sea are involved in the conflict. They are investing heavily, well beyond a new $750m development master-plan financed largely from international sources. They are manoeuvring for position in a war of logistics that will decide the distribution of shipping revenues when the prosperous Caspian production fields of former Soviet Central Asia come on steam early in the next century.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry official has announced: 'Our government has begun the necessary procedures to joining the United Nations Civil Liability Convention.' The instrument, established by the London-based International Maritime Organization in 1969 and amended by it in 1992, defines the liability of ship-owners in the case of spillage and subsequent clean-up operations.

The issue is complicated by the international status of the Turkish straits observed even though they cross Turkish territory. Turkey justifies the move by the changing international logistical significance of the waterways. They handle some 60m tonnes of crude oil and petroleum products a year, and that volume of traffic may well increase substantially. But the ships must pass right through the centre of Istanbul, posing an incalculable threat to the city's nine million residents. The battle lines were drawn up recently at an important international conference in Turkey called 'Two Seas: The Future of the Black and Caspian Seas in Terms of Energy'.

The new regional investment master-plan has been launched following a three-year, $30m preparatory phase. It will affect land-use planning around the Black Sea and create vast and lucrative investment opportunities in many industries including shipping as well as energy, insurance, construction, agriculture, fisheries and tourism. It will also confront widespread environmental degradation caused by the inept and greedy industrial planning of the region's former communist rulers. Ninety per cent of the Sea lacks oxygen, and the dead water is expanding steadily upwards from the bottom, according to an authoritative study published by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

Pollution by ships brings some 45,000 tons of oil into the Black Sea every year, says the World Bank, a sponsor of the initiative. Many ships discharge their ballast and bilge during loading and unloading because many Black Sea ports lack reception facilities.

Land-based marine pollution stems from many sources including the five tributary rivers of the Black Sea - the Danube, Dniester, Dnieper, Don and Kuban. They discharge into the virtually enclosed Black Sea the wastes of a combined population of 165m people in 17 countries. Sewage washes up on the beaches, spreading disease and making the shores unsafe for residents and tourists. Pesticides and fertilizers are often over-applied and run into the rivers. Fertilizers are frequently stored in the open air and blown by wind or washed directly into the water. Last month the Nato bombing and the consequent oil spillage on the Serbian stretch of the Danube added a new threat.

After decades of damage, the Black Sea now ranks among the world's most polluted bodies of water. Specialist training and institution building will have top priority in the programme because many of the regional and national agencies in the six countries lack the skilled personnel needed to assemble reliable data on the marine environment. …

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