Environmental reconstruction of confl ict and disaster areas

by Francis Caas, Yoko Hagiwara and David Jensen

Scale of Environmental Impacts The scale of environmental impacts caused by a conflict largely depends on the duration of combat and the state of industrial development in the country. The conflict in Afghanistan lasted approximately 23 years, causing a complete collapse of national and local government. The resulting environmental degradation was mainly caused by extreme poverty and the breakdown of government. Wide scale impacts to the forests, water, soil and wildlife reduced the productive capacity of the countryside, and undermined both food security and the sustainable human livelihoods. If left unaddressed the environmental problems will undermine the reconstruction process and lead to further instability as people fi ght for scarce resources. Solutions to environmental problems in Afghanistan begin by building the basic capacity for environmental management, resolving land tenure disputes and then progressing towards fi eld-based restoration programmes and the development of sustainable livelihoods. Successful restor ation will take decades to complete and will require sustained assistance from the international community.

Recent confl icts in Serbia and Montenegro (former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - FRY, 1999) contrast markedly with Afghanistan. In both countries, the con- fl icts lasted for only a few months, and the primary environmental impacts were largely caused by direct bomb damage to industrial facilities, and the subsequent release of toxic chemicals. In such cases the vulnerabilities created were acute risks to human health from the contamination of air, soil, ground water and locally produced food. Addressing these problems and reducing risks mainly involves technical solutions that can be implemented in several months to years. The UNEP programme to clean-up environmental hotspots in Serbia and Montenegro is a good example of successful risk reduction after a technology disaster caused by a confl ict.

Conflicts and clean-up During the 1999 conflict in the FRY the intensity of air strikes, the targeting of industrial and military facilities, and dramatic television pictures combined to fuel claims that an environmental disaster had occurred with massive pollution of air, land and water. In the meantime NATO was emphasising its policy of selective, precision targeting and denying reports of an environmental crisis. As is generally the case in times of war, it became hard to separate fact from rumour and propaganda. UNEP and the UN-HABITAT programme initiated a neutral, independent, scientifi c assessment of the environmental situation in Serbia and Montenegro.

They carried out a field assessment between July and October 1999 involving extensive fi eld missions and desk study. Their fi ndings were published in October 1999 in “The Kosovo Confl ict – Consequences for the Environment and Human Settlements”. This report concluded that the confl ict had not caused a widespread environmental disaster, but that more localised impacts – combined in some cases with a long-term legacy of poor environmental management – were cause for concern. In particular the environmental situation at four hotspot locations in Serbia (Bor, Kragujevac, Novi Sad and Pancevo) was so severe that urgent clean-up action was recommended on humanitarian grounds. The list of toxic chemicals that were leaching into groundwater and contaminating soil and air was long and included ethylene dichloride (EDC), dioxins, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Through a combination of fundraising efforts, rigorous project prioritisation and thorough technical preparation, UNEP was able to implement 16 works projects at the four hotspot sites for a total cost of $12.5m. In addition, other international partners provided bilateral support for a further six projects, meaning that 22 cleanup projects in all were able to go ahead.

At the oil refi nery in Novi Sad, UNEP worked in close cooperation with Novi Sad Waterworks making an immediate start on construction of a hydraulic barrier to prevent the migration of contaminated groundwater from the refi nery area towards drinking-water wells. At the Pancevo petrochemical plant, UNEP and other partners installed the necessary equipment at the vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) plant to recover and treat approximately 400 tonnes of EDC that had spilled from storage tanks damaged during the confl ict. At the Zastava car factory in Kragujevac, the UNEP Clean-up Programme, working with the Kragujevac University’s Institute of Chemistry, removed and disposed of a total of 135 tonnes of hazardous waste resulting from the clean-up work.

All of these projects have improved the environmental situation and signifi cantly reduced risks to human health and wellbeing at the four hotspot sites. While the main focus of the UNEP Programme has been the physical work needed to mitigate environmental problems and associated health risks, institutional strengthening and capacity building has helped local and national institutions better to assess environmental vulnerabilities and manage risks.

Case by case solutions UNEP’s experience in Serbia and Montenegro, Afghanistan and now other countries including Iraq and Liberia highlights the need for environmental assistance to be part of the post-disaster reconstruction agenda. While immediate assistance should address urgent environmental and health risks, environmental rehabilitation and institution building should be an elementary part of the efforts to repair infrastructure and lay the foundations for environmental governance.

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