The Environment in Eastern Europe

The former Soviet "satellite" countries of Eastern Europe, especially the industrial regions of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, were as bad or often worse than many parts of the Soviet Union, both in terms of environmental degradation and of the consequent loss of health and welfare of the citizenry. A 1988 article by Hilary French for the Worldwatch Institute was one of the earliest documentations of how bad things were at the close of the Communist period. She wrote: "In Molbis East Germany, the air pollution is so thick, that drivers often have to turn on their headlights in the middle of the day." The article points to the heavy water pollution that rendered 70 percent of Czech rivers too polluted for use. Much of the water in Eastern Europe was too polluted even for industrial use in factories.

Adding to the environmental disaster was the fact that most of Eastern Europe had been using soft brown coal as its major energy resource since the end of World War II. This type of coal is high in sulfur content and has a very low efficiency; therefore it requires a great deal of burning in order to produce the same amount of heat energy as better-quality coal or oil. The result was a terrible toll on the air quality of the region. The ancient city of Krakow (site of the Lenin Ironworks) was being destroyed by some of the highest levels of corrosive air pollution ever seen on the planet. Ironically, Poland could have avoided much of this by using its own low-sulfur coal. However, the Communist regime (with the prodding of the Soviets) was selling its low-sulfur coal to the West in order to earn hard currency while subjecting its own citizens to the nightmare of high-sulfur, filthy, soft brown coal pollution.

The following is one of many possible lists of calamitous situations that marked the state of the environment in the Communist period in Eastern Europe.

• About one-third of Czech rivers were devoid of life.

• All the rivers of southwest Poland were polluted to the point of danger.

• The Vistula River was lifeless in the Krakow region.

• The Baltic Sea coast was closed to recreational swimming or even staying on the beach.

• In industrial Silesia, Poland, homegrown vegetables had unacceptable levels of lead, zinc, mercury, and cadmium.

• Levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2) averaged twenty times the permissible standard in Eastern Europe.

• In Poland, the average SO2 for all cities was fifty times the limit.

• The East German Wartburg automobile produced 100 times as much carbon monoxide as a typical American or Western European car equipped with a catalytic converter.

• In 1984, over 70 percent of drinking-water samples tested from all over Poland failed a health test.

• The Baltic Sea had a hundredfold higher level of bacterial growth than allowed for clean water.

• Eighty percent of the youth in the town of Ruse, Bulgaria, were unfit for military service due to lung disease and other related diseases.

An amazing (at least from a Western public-health point of view) fact was the terrible condition of water and sewage treatment in East Germany and other parts of the Communist world. Although the government began levying fines for dumping untreated polluted water into the Polish rivers and bays, the fines were a fraction of the cost of treatment, and another branch of the Polish government even subsidized the environmental fines the industrial companies had to pay. The result was, as expected, that none of the industrial companies treated any of their wastewater, which contained every conceivable toxic chemical in huge quantities. We tend to think of such problems only in the context of very poor, rural, third-world countries, but in fact because no resources were committed to such essentials for human welfare, the plants were poorly maintained and failed repeatedly, often leading to horrendous fouling of both indoor and outdoor spaces.

The "blue Danube'' became a watery wasteland, a model of a polluted river. In the town of Ruse on the Danube, a particularly bad release of corrosive chlorine gas from a factory across the river in 1988 led to a demonstration (the first of its kind in Bulgaria) and the eventual formation of the Independent Committee for the Protection of the Environment, the first nongovernmental, non-Communist, independent organization of any kind in Bulgaria since the Communist takeover.

It is hard to make real sense of some of the figures used here. What does it mean when a waterway has bacterial contamination that is 100 times higher than the allowable standard? What does twenty or fifty times the allowable limit for SO2 really mean? Although statistics on death rates and tables of pollutants emitted present an objective evaluation of what an absence of environmental regulation and interest on the part of a totalitarian government can do to people, it is hard to visualize such conditions because they have rarely existed.

The whole story requires the testimony of the people who experienced it. In 1990, Carol Byrne, a reporter with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, wrote an article called "Espenhain East Germany—Town Is Sad Example of Pollutions Cost.'' Ms. Byrne visited the town, which she said

.. . looks like it has been transported to Dante's inferno ... Its noon, but the sky is so dark, that the streetlights have come on. . . . White smoke, gray smoke, black smoke, sulfurous orange and yellow smoke—it fills the sky over Espenhain with a permanent poisonous cloud. . . . the smoke gets into your throat and makes it raw, it fills your mouth with a nauseating acidic taste, the water is undrinkable.

In this one town, half of all the children had chronic lung disease and one-third had heart problems (these are children!).

As would be expected, the onslaught of chemical pollution from air and water wreaked havoc with the natural landscape and ecology of Eastern Europe.

• In Bohemia, Czech Republic, 100 percent of the forests were listed as damaged in 1990.

• In the Giant Mountains in Poland, 90 percent of mushroom species have become extinct, 25 percent of all plant life has experienced some form of damage, and half of the animal species are endangered.

• In Hungary, 22 percent of the forests have died.

• At the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria, pollution has destroyed mussels, zooplankton, sunflowers, shorebirds, fish, and commercial crops such as sugar beets, fruit, and vines.

• In Poland, it has been estimated that 75 percent of the forests are severely damaged.

• In the industrial region of Silesia, vegetables from gardens showed levels of lead up to fifteen times above that permitted.

One of the most incredible results of decades of misguided policies under the Soviet regime is the fate of the Aral Sea. In order to provide cotton, rice, melon, and other farms in arid southern Russia with water, the Soviet government built irrigation canals in the 1930s to divert water from several rivers that flow into the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea has by now all but disappeared; it lost 80 percent of its original water volume. Along with this loss has come terrible soil erosion, with polluted dust from the former lake bottom carried by the wind over the dead and desolate landscape.

An interesting aspect of this disaster is that there is no evidence that the Soviet authorities considered the loss of a major body of freshwater to be a disaster at all. Certainly there was plenty of time to do something while the lake was slowly drying up, but nothing ever was. Furthermore, it appears that the authorities did not consider the Aral Sea to be worth saving, because to them it presented no economic advantage compared to the value of the irrigated lands watered by the river diversions. As expected, the ecology of the region around the Aral Sea has vanished, and farmers can't grow crops because of the polluted dust.

A potentially even worse situation is possible at Lake Baikal in Siberia. This lake contains a full 20 percent of the freshwater in the entire world and is a natural treasure. The ecology of Lake Baikal is similar to that of the Amazon in that there are many unique species of plants, animals, and fish, and the area is one of the most beautiful and inspiring in all of Russia. During the Soviet era, two large industrial plants started operations on the shore of Lake Baikal. A major protest movement has been trying, without success so far, to close down these plants, which have been polluting the lake. So far, because of the immense size and depth of the lake, the ecosystem has remained healthy, but many scientists fear that it is only a matter of time before this most precious of Russia's disappearing natural resources becomes lost forever to humanity.

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