Kosovo: War on the Environment

Tasneem Jamal

Philip Weller and Peter Rickwood

The Ploughshares Monitor September 1999 Volume 20 Issue 3

Philip Weller, former director of Great Lakes United, is director of the Vienna-based WWF International Danube Carpathian Program, which is undertaking a number of projects to protect and improve environmental health in the Danube basin and Carpathian Mountains. Peter Rickwood, a former Toronto Star writer, is a consultant working for the program.

Despite intense media coverage of the war, the environment remained a largely unheralded victim of the NATO bombing campaign in the Kosovo conflict. The human and ecological impact of releasing large amounts of toxic chemicals during such conflicts is too high to accept. The environment must be respected in wartime as well as in peacetime.

The sour stench of chemicals hangs in the air three months after bombs and missiles from NATO warplanes transformed sections of the sprawling petro-chemical complex at Pancevo in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia into a scorched scrapyard. On the banks of an oil sheened drainage canal that connects the site to the nearby River Danube, a black stripe like the scum in a dirty bathtub records falling water levels since oil and chemicals began spilling into the canal in mid April. At that time, the Danube was swelling with the melt from record snow falls in the Alps, more than one thousand kilometers to the northwest, and was so high it held back the contents of the canal. Now nothing is preventing the toxic soup of mercury, 1,2-dichlorethane, dioxins, and other compounds from entering the river.

There’s uncertainty about the impact of the chemicals in the Danube. Some may get trapped in sediment in dams about 100 km downstream, where the river breaks through the Carpathian Mountains at the dramatically named Iron Gate. Others will be dispersed throughout the whole Danube system and eventually add to contamination in the Black Sea, whose health is in precarious balance. Common sense, at least, dictates that their flow should be halted. Millions of people and a rich fabric of wildlife rely on the river for their sustenance. But this is the battleground in an unprecedented type of warfare that’s not been clearly defined, or even acknowledged, and neither victor nor vanquished seem too concerned about cleaning it up.

An unprecedented type of war

The environment as a victim in the Kosovo conflict received scant attention in the thousands of images and words devoted by news media around the world to the war and the brutal treatment of the Kosovan Albanians. When the focus briefly swung towards it, the Belgrade regime of Slobodan Milosevic attempted to exploit claims of environmental damage and coined the word “ecocide” and NATO spokesmen went on the offensive, vigorously attacking Belgrade’s claims as “a big lie.” It is truth that is usually considered the first victim in war. But to truth should be added the environment. The latter is less likely to be forgiving.

Mark Francis is a marine oil spills clean up expert with a company in Aberdeen, Scotland. He’s standing in awe beside the flattened remains of three storey high oil tanks that a flight of B-52s reduced to hip high pancakes on a bombing run over Novi Sad. The big oil refinery on the banks of the Danube south of Belgrade continued to be a target until the final days of the war. Although a large quantity of oil burned for several days, more of it leaked into the river and onto the refinery site where its penetration into the ground threatens the local groundwater source of drinking water.

When the first bombs fell on Novi Sad there was also concern that the impact of spilled oil in the Danube could affect the Soviet-era built Bulgarian Kuloudzhny nuclear generating plant 200 km downstream.

This article is being written in early October and there has still not been action to contain the contamination at Novi Sad, Pancevo, or the other damaged Yugoslavian industrial sites, all of which are within the Danube watershed. Associated Press reported from Belgrade at the end of September that President Milosevic had reopened the oil refinery at Pancevo.

In Brussels, the office of the south eastern Europe stability pact, a consortium of the European Union and World Bank, is finalising its plans for reconstruction in the region. But the funding nations, including Canada, have drawn a line in the sand which does not permit any of their money to be spent in Yugoslavia while Milosevic remains in power. Meanwhile downstream Danube nations, such as Romania and Bulgaria, continue to lack the tools with which to monitor the river for some of the most dangerous contaminants that are entering it, such as dioxins and mercury. NATO justified its action against Yugoslavia on humanitarian grounds and insisted that it was going to every length to avoid civilian casualties. However, the environmental fall out from the war has left unprotected a large civilian population, whose only fault is to be dependent upon the Danube’s resources.

The Kosovo conflict was the most significant outbreak of hostilities on European soil since the end of the Second World War. The Pancevo complex, northwest of Belgrade, the big Novi Sad oil refinery on the Danube to the south, another chemical factory at Baric and the Kragujevac automobile factory, in the south of the country, were among NATO targets. But either NATO war planners chose to ignore the environmental consequences of targeting them, or deliberately sought to exploit their environmental vulnerability. In either event their destruction raises concerns that have not been addressed about the humanitarian, environmental, and financial consequences of the action. NATO is, after all, an alliance of nations whose governments are democratically elected and it should be no less accountable than any other public institution for its actions. But to respond, as NATO has done until now, with indifference, or to draw the cloak of military security more tightly around its strategies, does not solve an extremely charged public issue.

Toxic risks

It is 1999 and time for a change in the rules of warfare. A giddying number of highly toxic chemicals and compounds are used in manufacturing processes or produced as waste. Even under normal peacetime operating conditions the risks of possible impact are considered increasingly unacceptable. Whether NATO deliberately chose to damage the environment, or simply took a wild gamble, the risks in releasing large amounts of toxic chemicals, and their human and ecological impact, are too high to accept.

Most of the industrialised countries that make up the NATO alliance are in the process of eliminating from the environment many of the toxins that were released by the bombing. In Washington, at the end of September, Carol Browner, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced measures to reduce the discharge of toxins like mercury into the Great Lakes. The risks they pose are too high to ignore, she said. Such chemicals are known as bioaccumulative chemicals of concern (BCCs), or persistent bioaccumulative toxic (PBT) substances, which take long to decay and concentrate as they move through the food chain. Mercury is so powerful that less than a gram can contaminate a seven hectare lake to the extent that fish in it are unsafe to eat. Yugoslav sources estimate that eight metric tonnes was released in Pancevo.

New wars that impact on the immediate environment and neighbouring states are among the concerns that the United Nations Environment Programme focusses on in its Global Environment Outlook 2000 (Geo 2000) report published in September. The report urges the integration of environmental thinking into mainstream decision-making.

One minor sign of progress is that the Kosovo conflict was the first war after which a formal environmental assessment was undertaken. UNEP assembled an international team of scientists to study the damage and WWF International, the conservation organisation, commissioned an expert rapid assessment. The UNEP study is unlikely to be released until the middle or end of October. The WWF findings were presented to the public in September. Ursula Stephan, a German academic and specialist in assessing the impact of chemical industry accidents and a member of the WWF expert group, said that the damage at Pancevo was “unprecedented.” Analysis of samples collected by Stephan and fellow scientists found levels of toxic contaminants in excess of international limits requiring a clean up. The WWF findings have been widely circulated to government agencies, international funders, and scientists. Separately, because of its concern about the downstream impact, WWF commissioned a Romanian government laboratory to undertake a monitoring program below the war zone in the Danube. On the basis of its report WWF is pressing for greater protection in the lower Danube and a prominent place for nature conservation in rebuilding the region after the war.

A shared resource

The Danube, like the Great Lakes, is a shared resource, within whose watery realm thousands of animals and plants, some found nowhere else on earth, have developed. The huge delta at the mouth of the river is designated a globally significant reserve of biodiversity. The river supports natural systems that have disappeared elsewhere in Europe. It is also central to European mythology, culture and history.

It’s been nearly two decades since public concern about the environment began to be channelled through organisations such as WWF into fighting to protect the last natural places on the Danube, and reviving natural processes to reduce pollution. For over one hundred years “die schone blaue Donau (the beautiful blue Danube)” of Johann Strauss’ waltz fame has been dammed and diked, its wetlands drained and forests felled. In the 19th century it was a tangle of islands, side arms and branches for most of its length. In the fin de siecle, giant sturgeon were still being caught in the river close to Vienna. The taming of the river was started to improve navigation. Flood control systems and hydro-electric dams followed. In the first 1000 km of the river there are 58 dams. In Bulgaria, where huge fleets of boats used to fish the Danube, floodplains were drained, breeding grounds for fish destroyed, and the industry went into decline. Along much of its length the Danube has become little more than a spillway. The result is that a significant amount of the pollution that enters it gets carried into the Black Sea because natural systems of floodplains and side arms that could trap it have been amputated from the river.

But three events in the 1980s changed the course towards ignominy that was being plotted for the river. In Austria, a plan to inundate one of the last relatively intact floodplain forests on the edge of Vienna behind a new dam rallied opponents who braved sub-zero temperatures in the dead of winter to occupy the threatened forest. When police fell on them with night sticks, dogs, and eviction orders, public outrage was so high that there were spontaneous demonstrations across Austria. Today the floodplain is a national park and its wetland forest is being restored. In Hungary, bitter protest against a controversial joint dam project with Czechoslovakia gave birth to the Danube Forum, from which sprang forth the massive public rallies that led to sweeping political reform. Meanwhile, in Romania at the end of the 1980s the bloody overthrow of the dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu halted a decade of pillage in the Danube delta. Ceaucescu’s megalomaniac Golden Age plans laid to waste nearly 100,000 hectares of the Romanian section of the delta in a failed bid to turn it into arable land.

In general, the central command economies of the region paid scant regard to the environmental impact of their development policies. After the tumultuous change that swept through the region, the declining state of health of the environment became a focus of concern. In Romania, thousands of hectares of desertified wetland was revived in two joint WWF-Romanian government projects, which have become a blueprint for further restoration. A symbol of the new response to the plight of the Danube was the treaty signed in Sofia, in Bulgaria, in 1991 by countries bordering the river or in its basin, supporting the Danube Environmental Program. A Danube task force report commissioned for the program, supported by the United Nations, European Union, and World Bank, declared that the river had lost much of its self-purification capacity and the drinking water supply of about 20 million people was in danger. “If nothing gets done there will soon be a major health problem in the region.”

Deficiencies revealed

Unfortunately, the war has revealed deficiencies in the effectiveness of efforts undertaken by the programme to protect the river. There is a huge gap in information about conditions in the river, because the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, treated as a pariah in the nearly ten years Milosevic has been in power, has been left out of the programme. Its absence is as significant as if the International Joint Commission (IJC), which governs waterways shared by the US and Canada, failed to include Ontario in its assessment of the environmental quality of the Great Lakes. In addition, testing is not being undertaken for some of the most toxic contaminants in the river. In response, WWF is promoting the development of a joint Bulgarian, Romanian, and Yugoslavian monitoring program downstream of the war zone.

As a non-governmental, non-political organisation, WWF is able to cross boundaries that hold back other organisations. Developing interest in shared support for the environment also has a strong unifying effect. Sometime before Christmas, in an agreement brokered by WWF, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Ukraine will jointly endorse the protection of over 600,000 hectares of wetland on the river. During the Cold War, where the Danube defines the border between Romania and its neighbours, guard posts bristled like porcupine quills on both banks of the river because Romania was a maverick within the Warsaw Pact.

Closing the circle on the war

There is a strong sense that, despite the war, the fortunes of the Danube continue to move away from the destiny that development policies since World War Two had in store for it. The river’s restoration has become a powerful touchstone for the ability of human beings to reverse the destruction that has been heaped on the planet in this century. As part of its concern, WWF is investing millions of dollars into restoring some of the complex wetland systems, known as lymans, in the Ukraine section of the Danube delta. To protect their future, economic activities that are dependent on their continued good health are being introduced. More damaged Romanian wetland will be restored. A former battleground in Croatia on the Danube, where Serbian and Croatian troops fought in the Yugoslavian civil war, has been established as a peace park with assistance from WWF. The long term goal is to integrate neighbouring land in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia) into it. Along the Danube more money from international donors, such as the World Bank and European Union, is being invested into projects to revive it.

These actions also help to close the circle on the war. Stanching the flow of toxins into the river resulting from the war is clearly an imperative. Restoring the natural function of wetland, however, as well as the clear need to build more waste treatment plants and reverse agricultural practices that cause pollution, is considered among the most effective means of reducing pollution in the river.

The Danube is a mighty and ancient river and it offers a lesson from which we can learn, namely that in peacetime we cannot regard such natural resources as a mere convenience for our use, nor can we fail to respect them in a time of war. We humans are becoming an endangered species, living beyond our means and trusting to our luck when every indication is that it is running out. If it’s any consolation the Danube will keep flowing, just as it has done for 25 million years. Human beings, however, may not be around to see it.

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