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Statement by Pekka Haavisto
Chairman of the Balkans Task Force at the

GLOBE International
XIVth General Assembly

Bad Neuenahr, 24 August 1999


Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am grateful for this opportunity to address you and would like to give you a brief overview of the ongoing work of the joint UNEP/UNCHS (Habitat) Balkans Task Force, speaking as its chairman. The Balkans Task Force was established in May 1999 by Dr. Klaus Töpfer, the Executive Director of UNEP and Habitat. The mandate of our work is based on the UN Under-Secretary General Sergio de Mello’s Inter-Agency Needs Assessment Mission to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in May. In his report to the Secretary-General, Mr. Kofi Annan, he stated that a “… detailed assessment of the full extent of the environmental impact is urgently required.”

Dr. Töpfer invited me as a former Minister of Environment and Development Co-operation of Finland, to chair the work of the Balkans Task Force from the UNEP European Regional Office in Geneva.

Arriving from Belgrade today, where our expert team is assessing the environmental damage of the Danube River, I regret to see that international warfare has caused much damage not only to human beings but also to the environment.

This is the first time that an after-war state of the environment is being assessed and the public debate about the immense risks is not yet over. Several weeks after this war, we see many people suffering from its consequences and the environment at great risk. Our preliminary findings indicate that there are serious environmental problems at many sites.

Our first team of experts investigated so-called environmental “hot spots” in July. These hot spots include industrial sites e.g. in Pancevo, Novi Sad, Kragujevac, Nis, Bor, Prahovo and Pristina. We took samples of which we analysed some immediately in our mobile laboratories on the spot and others are being evaluated in reputable scientific institutions.

At present our international expert team with nine scientists from eight countries and representatives from the World Wildlife Fund and Green Cross is assessing the situation of the Danube River. We have also established a close co-operation with the ICPDR, the International Commission on the Protection of the Danube River. We take numerous water and sediment samples for examination by independent laboratories in various countries. The team is visiting four different sites along the Danube River, including Iron Gate I, the reservoir on the border of Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria.

Another group of experts will travel to the Balkans region on 6 September in order to assess the damages to biological diversity sites, such as selected protected areas and national parks. You may ask why protected areas were targeted during the war. We understand that these are areas where some military equipment and vehicles were stored.

Our expert group on depleted uranium which consists of well-known scientists from the World Health Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, EU Commission, Swedish Radiation Institute, World Wildlife Fund and others is looking into the risks to human health, damage and pollution of soil and water. The preliminary assessment and a parallel desk study will be subject to a wider review process on 1 September, which will form the basis for decisions on any further actions that may need to be taken.

One of our problems in the field is to distinguish between previous pollution and pollution caused by the bombings. Many of the industrial sites - like the oil refinery in Novi Sad, plants in Pancevo, the Zastava car factory in Kragujevac or the mining town Bor - show signs of previous environmental pollution at alarming levels.

In Pancevo our team was welcomed by some local NGO’s: “Finally you came, we have been waiting for you for ten years!” There certainly has been need for independent environmental assessment for quite some time. People have also suffered from different pollution-related diseases, e.g. in Pancevo a special “Pancevo cancer” was named. From the environmental point of view it is of course irrelevant if the pollution is new or old, but for questions related to warfare we try to make a distinction between new and old pollution. Anyhow, those who plan the clean-up process have to take care of both new and old environmental problems.

We are already sure that even if words like “eco-catastrophe” or “eco-suicide” overestimate the consequences of the war, there are several environmental hot spots in the area. I am especially concerned about the mercury released in Pancevo, the probable dioxin problems in Pancevo and Kragujevac, as well as the overall risks to drinking water in many of these industrial towns, e.g. in Novi Sad.

Another concern is the lack of electricity in Serbia at the moment. Of course, we all know that the coming winter will be a humanitarian problem for the population due to lack of electricity, oil and gasoline. In some towns the district heating system is damaged. The lack of electricity causes additional environmental problems, because fresh water and wastewater pumping stations and processes are not used properly for this reason. We also find in the mining town Bor that emissions into the river Danube have increased as a result of electricity shortage.

What do we do on land issues? Our experts have proposed a quick impact project to the United Nations agency in charge in Kosovo, the so-called UNMIK, which would use young people to identify neighbourhood improvement projects and would allow contractors to obtain tools by contributing their expertise to needed reparations. Another quick project on organising land cadastre records in various municipalities is being considered. We also work on a project proposal on partnerships for local development. This is a programme of strategic and practical actions to develop sustainable urban governance in Kosovo. Last week, we convened a workshop with international experts from Bosnia, Herzegovina and other countries to discuss the modalities of establishing an independent claims commission on housing and property rights matters under UNMIK. You are aware that the international community formulated political conditions before assisting the reconstruction efforts of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. However, in Kosovo it is easier to include environmental concerns in the reconstruction programmes.

Anyhow, a few companies and Serbian authorities have started some reconstruction in these targeted industrial sites. At the moment, people working for the reconstruction are at risk, because the proper environmental clean-up of these sites has not yet taken place. For example, you can find at Pancevo a lot of asbestos scattered around despite its toxicity. These materials need to be removed and the areas decontaminated before the start of reconstruction. Otherwise we will have new serious health consequences due to the war.

The joint UNEP/Habitat Balkans Task Force is not only covering the environmental consequences of the war, but also looking into the human settlement issues. We have a special BTF/Habitat team in Kosovo, Pristina, where numerous human settlements have been destroyed and others heavily damaged. In the heart of the most destroyed villages, returnee refugees have pitched their tents in the ruins of their burnt-out houses and have begun, brick by brick, to start over again.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We intend to hand the final report of our various findings to the Secretary General of the United Nations in the beginning of October. It will be available to the participants of the donors’ conference on the reconstruction of Kosovo scheduled for October. Our mission reports, photographs, maps and other documents are available at our website http://www.grid.unep.ch/btf/.

Who helped us in our efforts? So far, Austria (USD) 30,000), Denmark (USD 278,000), Norway (USD 250,000), Sweden (USD 120,000) and Finland (USD 537,000) have financially contributed to our work, and Germany and Slovakia have given generous support in kind with mobile laboratories and experts. Other governments have pledged to contribute to the efforts of the Balkans Task Force. However, the needs for solving environmental problems in the Balkans region are immense and we appreciate any assistance your governments can provide.

We have established a separate Fund for the Balkans Task Force, because we do not want to use the regular UNEP budget for this kind of purposes. Anyhow, the Balkans Task Force can give a model on how to react to similar crises and consequences of wars in all parts of the world.

To you, prominent and influential parliamentarians worldwide, my main message is:

1) The crisis in the Balkans has serious environmental impacts, and there is an immediate need for environmental clean-up work of the environmental hot spots. Otherwise there will be further risks for human health and for the environment.

2) The emergency situations have to be seen as part of the humanitarian effort to protect the people of the area. Whatever the political situation, international action has to be taken to protect people and nature.

3) The conflict in the Balkans raises an interesting question about modern warfare and targeting industrial facilities with the risk of heavy pollution close to big cities. It is up to the international community to discuss and decide, whether the rules of modern warfare are up-to-date when looking at all the risks to human health and to the environment.

Thank you.

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