Will the free market bring back the sunshine?

November 6, 1991

By Sally Low

Jablonec nad Nisou — This is a pretty Czech town whose name (apple tree on the Nisa River) is a memorial to all that was left standing by Catholic crusaders during one of their wars against Protestant Bohemia. In the foothills of the Jizera mountains about 30 kilometres from both the Polish and German borders, the scene is one of winding cobbled streets, trees and mountainous backdrops. But a stroll through it all leaves you with an especially strong dose of the sulphur-flavoured air on which most Czechs and Slovaks somehow survive.

Any east European environmentalist will tell you that the old regimes were a disaster for this region. The model of centrally planned extensive industrial development, administered in a way that reached unparalleled levels of bureaucratic absurdity, has left a legacy reminiscent of the worst of Britain's industrial revolution. Thrown in for good measure are a few more modern problems, such as particularly dirty motor cars.

In the 1970s the situation deteriorated. Unable to adapt to the scientific and technical revolution, these economies attempted to match the West's intensive development with more extensive growth. Backward and polluting technologies proliferated.

Can market forces, whose proponents are sweeping through this region in a modern-day crusade, rectify the damage caused by the command economies of the '70s?

Air pollution

In the north Bohemian basin, a little to the east of Jablonec nad Nisou, sulphur dioxide emissions equal the combined total of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark. Produced by brown-coal-fired power stations, they are one of Czechoslovakia's less savoury exports as prevailing winds carry the poison across borders into nearby Germany and Poland as well as into the rest of Czechoslovakia.

The basin itself is just the worst spot in the black triangle where highly industrialised regions of Poland and the former GDR, with their own heavy outputs of sulphur and other toxins, meet Czechoslovakia.

Yearly average concentrations of sulphur dioxide are over twice acceptable levels in the basin town of Teplice and even higher in Roudniky, just four kilometres away. Local air contains some carcinogens in amounts 800 times higher than officially permitted.

Other areas, including population centres such as Prague and Bratislava, the Ostrava-Karvina industrial complex and the Vah river valley, also add to the potent atmosphere.

By 1982 people in the basin enjoyed a fifth less sunshine than in 1950. Prague's winter sun is sometimes cut by two hours a day, and the intensity of that which manages to filter through the city's haze of nitrogen oxides and dust is reduced by up to 40%.

Air pollution is one of the worst of many problems, including soil degradation, unsafe disposal of hazardous waste and the pumping of raw or poorly treated sewage and industrial waste into rivers.

More than half Czechoslovakia's forests have been damaged. In parts of north Bohemia, the trees are dying from acid rain. Some now grow only to half or less their normal height.

People's health has suffered. Between 1945 and 1960, standards in Czechoslovakia were among the best in Europe, but now the life expectancy of 70.5 years is higher only than Poland's.

Some activists look forward to market-forced closures of inefficient and polluting industries and talk hopefully about environmentally sustainable investment to replace the jobs that would be lost. Others fear economic pressures will allow some of the most polluting industries to continue and even lead to new ones.

The giant Ziar nad Hronom aluminium plant in east Slovakia, an area where there are no sources of bauxite, is often cited as one of the worst examples of industrial vandalism, yet the Slovakian government recently promised to sell it electricity at highly subsidised prices for the next 10 years — surely attractive for some company from a Western country where the environmental standards are higher, remark local greens. Already Norway's Norsk Hydro-Aluminium is reported to have offered technological assistance to modernise the plant.

The clean-up will take money. Desulphurisation for one 250 MW thermal power plant costs around US$35 million. The Federal Committee for the Environment has a budget this year of US$12 million. In north Bohemia the Czech ministry has prioritised a more efficient local heating system. This is cheaper than desulphurisation, but the higher smoke stacks will pump more pollution into the atmosphere further afield. "Perhaps there will be some foreign assistance to solve that problem", says Simona Bouzkova, public relations officer for the Czech Ministry of the Environment.

Worse in Poland

Poland's situation is, if anything, worse. While a third of the population live in areas of unacceptably high pollution, it is hard to see where, for example, the necessary $US60,000 million for pretreatment installations in power plants will come from. But since air pollution causes a direct loss of several percentage points of GDP every year, perhaps this will be deemed a worthy economic investment. By June plans had been drawn up and a foreign partner was being sought to produce desulphurising equipment.

Many think of tourism as a possible substitute for some heavy industry, but prospects are not enhanced by the fact that three quarters of Poland's forests are endangered and in some regions, such as the Sudeten Mountains, they are nearly all gone. Along the Baltic coast formerly beautiful holiday resorts have been destroyed. Plant and animal life has disappeared from Gdansk Bay. The Mazursky Lake district, once favoured for fishing and sailing, now resembles a giant sewer. Toxic waste from the West is one type of business the country could do without. But since the beginning of 1989, 50,000 tons of toxic waste have arrived from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Offers by Austrian and Polish-Dutch firms to build toxic waste incinerators in various cities have, up to now, been resisted.

A slightly more disguised form of dumping — a 1989 EC donation of US$60 million worth of pesticides, many of which had been removed from the market or restricted in other countries — was, however, accepted. Companies such as BASF, Ciba-Geigy and Bayer have even set up a foundation to help Polish agriculture take advantage of this gift.

Chemical pesticides and fertilisers have already contributed to high levels of stomach cancer among Polish farmers and acidity in over half their soil.

Falling living standards and environmental degradation correlate closely to worsening health statistics, such as infant mortality, which is nearly twice that of Belgium.

On the other hand, it is in the interests of west European countries to have the region clean up its air and waterways in particular. Aid from the Nordic countries, the EC and the United States for environment-related projects has started to flow mainly to specifically approved projects that will also in some way bring economic benefit to the donor country.


In Hungary "we have almost the complete series of environmental problems except marine pollution, and that's only because we have no sea", says Janos Vargha of Budapest's East European Environmental Research Institute. "But we probably contribute to pollution of the Black Sea through the waste we pour into our rivers."

Among the problems he lists are: pollution of surface and sub-surface waters, acidification, degradation of the soil, overuse of fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture, pollution from the chemical industry and hazardous waste.

Environmentalists generally welcomed the overthrow of the former regimes with great expectations. But Vargha, like an increasing number of others, is not so sure that his list will become a part of the Communist past.

Will Budapest's two- and three-year-olds, with blood lead levels equal to the maximum permitted for industrial workers, grow up to breath clean air? The track record of capital, especially in the Third World, and the statement of one senior Hungarian official, that investment will not be turned down for environmental reasons, leave plenty of room for doubt.

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