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UNEP leads international efforts to assess environmental impact of Balkans conflict

London, 16 June 1999/Reissued Nairobi, 17 June 1999 - A team from the joint UNEP/UNCHS (Habitat) Balkans Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements, will soon travel to Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro, to start work on providing a detailed assessment of the environmental impact of the Balkans conflict, United Nations Under-Secretary-General Klaus Toepfer announced here today.

Toepfer, the Executive Director of both the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements said it was urgent that work begin on thoroughly assessing the environmental damage and risk resulting from the conflict, thereby enabling environmental rehabilitation.

Last month, UNEP/Habitat participated in the United Nations Inter-Agency Needs Assessment Mission to Serbia and Kosovo. One recommendation of the report presented to the United Nations Secretary-General was that a fact-finding mission to the region should be undertaken involving UNEP, Habitat and the United Nations Development Programme. The report said that, "Given the gravity of potential environmental consequences of the conflict and NATO bombing in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and their regional ramifications, a more detailed assessment of the full extent of the environmental impact is urgently required."

It is in response to this recommendation that a team from the Balkans Task Force, led by the former Finnish Environment and Development Co-operation Minister, Pekka Haavisto, will travel to the region. The team, working as an integral part of the UN's response to the Balkans conflict, will meet with government representatives, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector and prepare the ground for a full-scale environmental assessment mission in the near future.

Following this initial exploratory visit, UNEP will jointly convene a meeting in Brussels with the European Commission, where all relevant actors will be asked to contribute towards the coordination of the international response to the environmental rehabilitation effort, including the preparation for the full-scale assessment mission.

In order to facilitate a fast and appropriate response to the environmental effort, the Balkans Task Force is in close contact with key players in the peace and reconstruction process, including the European Union, Russia, the United States, World Bank and other relevant United Nations agencies. It is also sharing information on a regular basis with the likes of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Danube Commission and will this week dispatch a staff member to Skopje, who will work in collaboration with the wider United Nations humanitarian team under the leadership of Martin Griffiths.

Here today, Toepfer also announced the opening of a new Balkans Task Force Web Site. The site - accessible from the UNEP Home Page at (or - contains information that was not previously in the public domain such as detailed situation reports and maps. The site also contains general information on the task force, the latest news, developments and contacts, and links to United Nations agencies, NGOs like WWF, and other important partner sites, including their press releases.

Toepfer established the joint UNEP/UNCHS (Habitat) Task Force to look at the direct environmental and human settlements impacts of the conflict in the Balkans and to the wider consequences to countries of the region, including Bulgaria and Romania. The main aim of the Task Force, which is chaired by Mr. Haavisto, is to collect, evaluate and monitor the environmental situation, in cooperation with government, inter-governmental and non- governmental organizations.


Note to Editors

The Report of the United Nations Inter-Agency Needs Assessment Mission dispatched by the United Nations Secretary-General to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (16-27 May 1999) stated that, "A large number of civilian industrial facilities (more than 80) have been attacked and destroyed in the NATO air campaign. Damage to oil refineries, fuel dumps and chemical and fertilizer factories, as well as the toxic smoke from huge fires and leakage of harmful chemicals into the soil and the water table have contributed to, as yet unassessed, levels of environmental pollution in some urban areas, which will in turn have a negative impact on health and ecological systems."

It continued, "For example, the mission visited Pancevo, 15km NE of Belgrade, where the destruction of a petrochemical plant has resulted in the release of various chemical fluids (such as vinyl- chloride, chlorine, ethylene-dichloride, propylene) into the atmosphere, water and soil. This poses a serious threat to health in the region, as well as to ecological systems in the broader Balkans and European region. Many of the compounds released in these chemical accidents can cause cancer, miscarriages and birth defects. Others are associated with fatal nerve and liver diseases.

The pollutants which have been released will also have a negative effect in the short and long term on the nutrition chain. The lack of protective substances, as well as fertilizer, could also endanger the survival of certain plants. Several thousands of hectares of lands, rivers, lakes and underground waters may be polluted due to the spillage of petrochemicals, oil spills and other chemicals. The ability of the local authorities to undertake decontamination and recovery in an environmentally sound manner is hampered by shortages of materials and equipment."


For more information contact:
Tore J. Brevik,
UNEP Spokesman
on tel: (254-2) 623292,
Robert Bisset
on tel: (254 2) 623084, fax: (254-2) 623692,
UNEP News Release 1999/71

Thursday 17 Jun 1999
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