Environmental problems in Eastern Europe

Azomures chemical factory in Targu Mures
Azomures chemical factory in Targu Mures, Romania (Wikimedia Commons)

It was only after the revolutions in 1989 that the full extent of the environmental catastrophe in Central and Eastern Europe began to emerge. Half a century of totalitarian rule had left many parts of the region highly polluted, and many, many people were becoming sick because of the contamination of the air, water and soil. Pollution levels dropped dramatically after the revolutions: not because of the environmental movement, but because most industries slashed their output or simply came to a standstill. 8 years later, the situation remains largely unchanged, particularly in Eastern European countries such as Romania and Bulgaria.

Original broadcast: 1997


While many people have been reduced to begging or performing in the streets of Bucharest or other cities in Romania in order to earn a little money to survive, there’s a middle class which has only gradually been affected by the economic collapse. Many of these people since the revolutions of 1989 have journeyed to Western Europe to buy a second-hand car. Once a status symbol under communism, cars have only increased in desirability over these past few years of democracy. As a result, the streets of both Bucharest and the Bulgarian capital Sofia have become as clogged up as many other cities in the world. According to Kliment Mindjov of the Bulgarian environmental movement, Borrowed Nature, cars are now the main source of air pollution in most Eastern European capitals.

Traffic is one of the biggest polluters: 55 to 60% of the air pollution is because of the traffic. You are able to see very low technical status of some of the vehicles we still use. People are somehow trying to follow the western consumption pattern. They have been insulated from the West in the past. That’s why now their first wish is to reach this higher Western level, to have their car. It doesn’t matter that it’s a second-hand car, but they would like to have a car. They would like to demonstrate richness and so on. These are maybe typical things connected with one post-totalitarian regime when we are trying very quickly to reach the other side, the democratic society, the market economy.

The situation is not much better in the Romanian capital Bucharest. Rush hour is known as slow-go time for drivers. And as they inch forward, the cars spew out noxious exhaust fumes. The government has taken measures to reduce emissions, but Razvan Marcu of the Ecosens, a Romanian environmental movement, says these measures have been largely ineffective.

There is a law now that you cannot buy a car older than eight years, which were taken two years ago. But this was only a political decision in order to protect the Romanian car manufacturing industry and also to protect the Korean company Daewoo which build one or two factories in Romania. What I can say about this law is that it’s not good because Romanian cars are not taken into consideration by this law, so the running Dacia which were built in ’73, ’74 or even in the ‘80s are very bad for the environment. You cannot do anything.

As a result, air pollution levels seem to be increasing. Just how much is anybody’s guess, says Razvan Marcu.

The real figures are quite unknown. I don’t know exactly why: lack of equipment, but also lack of interest. The local authorities are not so interested in these issues, but the figures we have and also what we feel in our lungs tells us that the air pollution in Bucharest is really a problem.

Even though Bucharest has an excellent underground or subway system, the number of cars on the city’s roads just continues to increase, causing ever more pollution and more noise. It’s becoming harder and harder to find the peace and quiet of nature in Bucharest.

The amount of green spaces per capita decreased. It was 10 square metres per person 1990, and now it’s only 4. And the local administration still gives permission to build different things. I think the main problem is that the people in the city hall who take these decisions don’t have any knowledge of environmental protection. And also they consider it more important to look at things from the economical point of view. Sometimes they have direct links with the people they help. EB: In other words, corruption? Well, corruption is a fashion now in Romania. But in a way, this behaviour is caused by the ancient regime because everybody tried to help each other. The Romanian people still have this habit to try to solve things, even if they are not permitted by law, for instance, because everybody says that everything is possible. Some people take advantage of this, so they receive money or other things. They just put a stamp or a signature and everything is OK. But it goes from the lower level to the highest level, I think.

Eastern Europe-style corruption is not the only obstacle to introducing higher environmental standards. The transition from totalitarian communist rule to a free market economy in Eastern Europe has led to wide-spread social, economic and political instability. In Bulgaria, the whole business of waste disposal is a good example of the difficulties in transforming the system, says Kliment Mindjov of the Borrowed Nature movement in Sofia.

There are a lot of illegal landfills. This is a big problem around all cities, not only big cities, but also small villages. They are faced with the same problems. One of the explanations is that municipal authorities, they are responsible for the treatment of waste. They have no money for transportation. It is easier very often to put somewhere illegally and to save part of the money for petrol, and this is a new problem. There are several attempts to find some new technologies, for example, incinerators, composting materials, some of the waste especially in the areas where you have agricultural areas. But another problem is that very often companies which are interested to spend money or to invest in these fields come here, but we are in a process of non-stop changes of our decision-makers, not only at national but also at municipal, local level. That’s why all these negotiations, they start, but they are unable to reach the end and they, after having newcomers at this local level, the same companies should have again to start and to start. This transition, very turbulent period unfortunately, does not assist to take the good decisions and efficiently to implement such type of new technologies.

In Romania, the municipality of Bucharest has succeeded in privatizing waste collection. It awarded the contract to a German company which picks up the garbage and dumps it in an open landfill a few kilometres outside the city. There is no separation of waste, and the only recycling which takes place, says Razvan Marcu, is illegal.

There is a whole system of collecting and recycling which is not something legal because it’s made by private people which hire poor people to do this, especially gypsies. There is a hidden understanding with the administration of these dumping places. I saw it with my own eyes, so I know what I’m talking about. A lot of cars were getting in and getting out, empty in and getting out only with iron or only with plastic or only with other kind of stuff. This is very well known. But what’s worse is that the waste are burned in open air, so just burned. So no treatment, no recycling, legal recycling, let’s say, nothing. EB: So a lot of toxic substances are released into the air, then? Yes of course.

Most governments and local administrations say they’d like to do more for the environment, but getting the economy going again is their chief priority. Even when they try to show their green credentials, the measures often appear half-hearted or ineffective. A recent one-month campaign to clean up Bucharest was a good example of the authorities’ approach, says Razvan Marcu.

They were focusing only on picking up the waste from the streets. They introduced a hotline where everybody could call and say there is a big amount of waste in front of my house. No education stuff. Only a few things in the newspapers, so no education for the public to think about an integrate waste management system for Bucharest, no way. And it was just one month. They started all of a sudden and they ended the same way. And another thing which for me at least was quite incredible: they didn’t collaborate with any NGO, based in Bucharest, for this campaign. That shows the mentality people in charge, decision makers I mean, the mentality they have concerning NGOs, which is still unfriendly I might say.

But a far greater problem is that most people in government have little or no understanding of environmental issues and how to protect the environment. Razvan Marcu again.

A professor of mine from the university used to be minister of the environment in ’91, ’92. And now he is a senator. We had the opportunity to talk with him two or three months ago. He told us I tried to organise a commission on sustainable development. But this is impossible because except me, nobody knows what this means.

The term “sustainable development” – in other words developing the economy and the country without damaging the environment – is familiar to most people in industrialized countries. But after having been cut off from the rest of the world for nearly half a century, it’s an abstract and revolutionary concept for the authorities in the former East Bloc, and particularly for ordinary people, says Kliment Mindjov of Bulgaria’s Borrowed Nature.

In the past, it was very easy being one centralized system, all people expected that the government, the state or the municipal authorities, they are responsible for everything. That’s why we still and many people in Bulgaria still believe that citizen involvement is not very important. The most important thing is the central decision or the funds provided by the government. That’s why one of the main goals and tasks of NGOs are to encourage people also to think about their behaviour, to think about all these environmental issues and to have one more responsible behavior. It takes time. We realize that.

Non-governmental groups are only too well aware that they are waging an uphill battle. One of the approaches they’ve adopted is to inform people about the effects of pollution on public health. The Romanian environmental group Ecosens selected a well-known polluter: a factory 7 kilometres outside of Bucharest which emits lead into the air. The first stage of the project was to collect all the available information about the emissions. Since the data was quite limited, Ecosens decided to enlist the services of a government institute to get more information about the effects of the factory’s emissions on the environment and on people’s health.

They said yes at the beginning. We managed to find the money, and then they said no. I think it was a money problem. They weren’t satisfied about the amount of money they can get for their consultations. Even if at the beginning, this was arranged. And then they said we are not going to give you data about pollution levels because you are going to publish it. We said, of course. It’s public information. We were sponsored for this project by the regional environmental centre which is based outside Budapest. And they went like: oh, I know this information will go to Hungary. I said, I think they have this information a long time ago. Anyway this is not a problem. And when we tell them something like – just to check – well, maybe we can manage to raise $30,000. They said with this amount of money, we can make a report, a comparison with other documents, etc. So finally I think it was a money problem and also the mentality. Of course it should be public, people to be aware of and to try to solve this problem.

Ecosens finally got the data it needed and is now preparing a report. They intend to track the pollutant from its origins – the factory – and show how the lead emissions are damaging the health of many people in and around Bucharest. It’s the first time that this has ever been done in Romania.

We are going to organise a seminar. We will invite all the parties involved: the management of the factory, representatives from the local authorities, from environmental protection agency, representatives from the population which is affected directly by this factory, maybe someone from the European Union if they have something like this, in order to present what the real situation and what could be the solution. The last stage of the project is to organise a public awareness campaign in that area, so to explain to people what is happening and to try to help them someway. But our main interest is to give knowledge to people and not to solve their problems.

Once people have this knowledge, the question is whether they will then urge their politicians to close the factory down. Kliment Mindjov of Bulgaria’s Borrowed Nature movement again.

In ‘90, people realized that around some of the big polluters, one smelter especially not far from Plovdiv, this is the second Bulgarian town, the health of children is very bad because of the smelter, and people started to protest, workers from the enterprises started to protest against this polluter, and they closed it. But later, after a year, the same people started to protest again this decision and they said we prefer bread. If we have to choose between bread and health, we prefer bread. That’s why it is quite difficult to follow always this environmentally friendly behaviour and to take the best decisions from environmental point of view.

Environmentalists of the former East Bloc countries realise that it won’t be easy to make up for the past half a century of indifference – both on the part of the authorities and the general public – to environmental issues. Unfortunately, says Razvan Marcu of Ecosens, the outcome of the battle for nature in Eastern Europe is completely out of their hands.

You cannot talk about environment now in Romania because of the problems which people face day by day. The problems are what am I going to eat tomorrow. I have to find another job to earn more money. The general opinion is that as long as Romania will still be a poor country, a developing country, the environment won’t be on the agenda because environment means basically a lot of money. It means good knowledge of the problems and this is not the situation in Romania, unfortunately.