Healing the wounds: The environmental disaster in Czechoslovakia

Gabcikovo Dam
Gabčíkovo Dam (Wikimedia Commons)

Czechoslovakia: it has been described at the most polluted country in the world, the planet’s garbage can. The epicentre of Czechoslovakia’s ecological disaster lies in northern Bohemia, 100 or so kilometres north of the capital Prague, in what’s known as the Black Triangle, a region that extends into south-eastern Germany and southern Poland. But a country doesn’t get branded as the filthiest on the face of the earth because of a single region. Under communist rule, industrial output and jobs were considered more important than people’s health and Czechoslovakia’s environment.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: December 4, 1991


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “Healing the wounds – a look at the environmental disaster in Czechoslovakia”, produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Czechoslovakia – it’s been described at the most polluted country in the world, the world’s garbage can. The epicentre of Czechoslovakia’s ecological disaster lies in northern Bohemia, 100 or so kilometres north of the capital Prague, in what’s known as the Black Triangle, a region that extends into south-eastern Germany and southern Poland. But a country doesn’t get branded as the filthiest on the face of the earth because of a single region. So I’ve taken this train, which is heading away from the Black Triangle, across the magnificent, rolling hills of Bohemia, to get a broader view of the process that led to the destruction of Czechoslovakia’s environment.

I’m here in Brno, a city located at the midway point between Prague and the Slovak capital Bratislava. During the 1950’s, Brno was one of a number of cities that were transformed into centres of heavy industry. The reason? Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had decided that Czechoslovakia should become eastern Europe’s industrial powerhouse. Stalin’s grand plans involved grand projects, which defied nature, and in many cases, which would ultimately kill it. One of those grand projects was the construction of three dams just south of here. Dr. Jerzi Uiahala (sp?) used to work at the city’s agricultural research institute, and he took the unprecedented step more than 20 years ago of publicly protesting against the dam project. I asked him why the dams were built.

It was quite obvious that building these dams was actually the result of efforts of technicians who said that Brno has to be provided with the possibility to get ships right to the town. We’ve got here only a small stream. Then it was not too realistic. So other reasons were mentioned. In the end, it was argued that the agriculture requires irrigating crops in this area. But this irrigation on a large scale is fairly expensive. It is also the price of the dams. Perhaps it could be done in a rich country which doesn’t know what to do with excess money. EB: You sent a protest letter to a literary magazine. What was the reaction of the authorities? Well, there was a contra article written immediately to which we were no more allowed to respond. What contributed to this was definitely the news about the great success of these great works in Soviet Russia, which many people here accepted as good support for their own efforts and for their own intentions.

Like similar large-scale projects in the Soviet Union, once in operation, the dams had devastating consequences for the environment. Nonetheless, the legacy of Stalinist thinking is still very much alive in today’s Czechoslovakia, two years after the revolution. A much larger and more controversial dam, the Gabčíkovo dam, for instance, is still being built along Czechoslovakia’s southern border with Hungary, as Oto Makic (sp?), who works for the Tree of Life environmental group told me.

It’s a very old project to build two dams between Bratislava and Budapest on the Danube. This project was started in the ‘50s, and the realisation of this project was started in the beginning of the 80s. This project brings a lot of big damages for the environment, for the forests that are all around the Danube. This project was made by the technocrats in the former Communist regime, and the problem now is that after the revolution, there was the possibility to open a discussion on this problem and now the question is what to do with this structure which is there. It’s 95% finished. Now is the question how to use this dam.

One of people who will decide the fate of the Gabčíkovo dam is Mikulas Huba, a member of the Slovak parliament and chairman of one of the biggest Slovak environmentalist groups, the Slovak Union of Landscape and Nature Protectors.

It’s hard to say what will happen with this stupid dam. But I think it will be partially finished and partially destroyed. EB: You called it a stupid dam. If it’s a stupid dam, why is it still being built? It’s a very old Stalinistic project from the 50’s, and it is the equivalent of a huge Siberian dams or something similar without respecting any ecological aspects.

Dr. Petr Tatar is another member of the Slovak parliament.

Nobody in Slovakia thinks that it can be destroyed. It will take thrice as much money as the whole construction until now. But there are some compromise possibilities for finishing it in some environmentally mostly sound way, to lower the energy production, to minimise the artificial ake or dam area. This can save our drinking water.

These Stalinist works pale in comparison though in the grand industrial scheme which the communist rulers imposed on the Slovak republic. The scheme involved the construction of a major factory in every town or city, according to Ladislav Miklós, the deputy minister of the Slovak Commission for the Environment.

In Slovakia in last 40 years was built monocultural industry, I can say. It was built a big factory, and the inhabitants lived from this factory. Unfortunately, these factories are based on the primary manufacturing of raw materials and of course they are very polluting factories.

This policy not only guaranteed just about every major Slovak town a constant source of pollution, it also makes it extremely difficult today to close down a factory because almost everybody in the town would be out of a job. One of the towns that suffers most from the legacy of the communist industrial policy is Žiar nad Hronom in central Slovakia, which is dominated by a huge aluminium plant. The plant’s technology is hopelessly outdated and, as environmentalist Oto Makic told me, the factory is a major source of air and ground water pollution.

Damages are coming from fluoride mostly, and the inhabitants from one or two villages around the factory were pressed to move from the villages because of the health damages. Then a lot of cows were slaughtered because of the illness coming from the fluoride. And there is a very big hill, a very large hill about 30 or 40 metres high, 1 kilometre long hill of orange waste which comes from the factory, and it lies around the corner of the factory. But what is important there is that the people living in this area, they are not against stopping of these technologies because most of them, they live from the factory. They’re working there and their families are working there. So there is no environmental movement in this area.

Nonetheless, there’s every reason to close down the factory. Dr. Tatar again.

You can take overall statistics of cancer in that district which now is one of the highest in Slovakia. 40 years ago, when there was no factory, it was the cleanest district, full of forests with nearly no data about cancer. For example, the average time in retirement among the workers is 2 years, which is rather short. EB: What do you mean by 2 years? Do you mean they retire 2 years earlier? No, they retire normally but die within 2 years. The same is known in other metallurgic factories.

Some environmentalist legislation was passed under the former communist regime, even though the communists claimed that pollution was a capitalist scourge. But it was quite easy to get around Czechoslovakia’s environmental laws, according to Dr. Stewart Auckenklos (sp?), an American who serves as a special counsel to the minister of the federal committee for the environment.

In many cases, the fines for violating the water and air laws were perhaps 100 karuna for violation, and it was far, far cheaper for businesses to pay the fines than to do the cleanup. The clean water law in Czechoslovakia is one of the strictest in Europe, stricter than most of the clean water laws in western Europe. However, there have been over 2000 exemptions to the law that were granted in the past 10 years since it was adopted. The surface reason is that enterprises would apply for an exemption. The form of the application would be it’s a big job to clean up our waste discharge. We’re going to need some time to do that, so will you give us a six month or one year exemption while we build a new waste water disposal plant.

Not only were these exemptions issued on a large scale, people who were willing to work in the most polluted areas of the country, particularly in northern Bohemia, were actually encouraged to do so. Dr. Auckenklos again.

In Most and Litvínov, two towns in northern Bohemia, workers are paid higher rates of pay than they are in other parts of Czechoslovakia. In fact, this is true in other highly polluted areas of Czechoslovakia. The workers know that they are being paid more, and they know that their life expectancy in those areas is 5 or 7 years less than the overall life expectancy in Czechoslovakia and perhaps 10 years less than life expectancy in Western countries. They joke about this: the extra pay is burial pay.

Walking along this highway not far from Bratislava’s old city centre, I can see some of the scars of 4 decades of reckless industrialisation: the grand projects, the chimney stacks that dot the skyline of Bratislava, just like every other town and city in this country, and the apparent absence of any anti-pollution measures. But industrialisation has not only ruined Czechoslovakia’s urban areas, according to Dr. Mikulas Huba of the Slovak parliament.

The impact of pollution is huge, is growing very, very rapidly, especially destruction of forest ecosystem. Now more than 50% of forest ecosystems are in different levels of destruction. But the main problem is the rapid character of this destruction. Maybe today’s situation isn’t such a danger as prognosis.

This is undoubtedly the most frightening aspect of Czechoslovakia’s environmental catastrophe. Because of the continuing high pollution levels, nature is being destroyed at an ever faster pace, and it is causing uncontrollable chain reactions. Dr. Miroslav Kundrata is a geographer who works for Czechoslovakia’s Academy of Sciences. He’s also one of the country’s leading ecologists, and he told me that contamination of the food chain is one of the by-products of agricultural pollution.

For instance, we are discussing now about the quality of fish meat and we have data about very high concentrations of heavy metals or PCB in our fish meat or meat of some animals.

No region in Czechoslovakia is free of pollution. Half the Czech Republic’s air is severely polluted, as is a third of the Slovak Republic’s. Half the country’s rivers are biologically dead. Human beings too are feeling the effects of the pollution, particularly the most fragile members of society, the elderly and children. Jan Boltes (sp?) is an environmental journalist whose own daughter suffers from acute asthma.

If you see children in hospitals with oxygen masks and if you see how painful it is to breathe, what’s most horrible feeling if you imagine that somebody put a hand on your mouth to stop you from breathing, and if you see a small, just 1, 2, 3 years old children, so then you decide to do something much more than you can.

Until recently, parents like Jan Boltes couldn’t get any scientific data about the effects of pollution on their children’s health. The reason was simple, according to Dr. Tatar.

There are no widespread detailed data collected, no overall research on this topic due to former regime which was not interested. But it was shown in the last 8 years that in the districts were the most polluting factories are producing emissions. For instance, lung diseases or respiratory diseases in children are considerably higher, twice or thrice more rate, than the Slovak average. Really, the respiratory diseases are more frequent. They last longer, have more complications and so on. The same is true in the capital of Slovakia. In Bratislava, several groups of children were compared according to the distance from the most polluting factories in the town. Children living in more polluted areas have slower body development, weight, muscles and so on. They have also some long-term impact of blood count, not very significant but there are some differences.

If you look at the children here in Czechoslovakia, you know something is very wrong. All the children look pale and sickly, and most kids, even those who are only 4 or 5 years old, have dark circles under their eyes. Unfortunately, though, there haven’t yet been any long-term studies in Czechoslovakia on the link between pollution and human health. But the Slovak environmental committee is setting up a comprehensive monitoring system to gather data on the republic’s environmental disaster so it can then make policy decisions. Dr. Vadislav Miklos.

We gave the informational and monitoring system on the highest priority of our ministry to ensure that our decisions will be complete. Important is what is the effect, impact to the man, to the ecosystem, to the buildings for example, and it could be done only when we have this possibility to combine all type of information.

But Jan Baltes feels that the government should act now and not wait for more comprehensive research.

If you remember in 1954, London suffered from horrible smog. At this time, about 4000 people died because of heart attacks and other problems. What did the British government do? They decided to do something against the smog immediately. So they developed a system of taxes, how to persuade the people to buy electric heaters, and then later they funded research what is smog, what is it doing  how it develops and so on. We always chose another way to fund research. So we have so many research, we have so many results, but only in scientific level. No industrial or practical results.

Though environmentalists are among the best organised pressure groups in Czechoslovakia, they actually wield very little power. And their cause hasn’t been helped by the general public’s lack of concern for environmental problems. Anna Radikova is a spokesperson for the Prague Mothers, a group set up 2 years ago to try and reduce pollution levels in Prague, one of the most polluted cities in Czechoslovakia. She told me one of the first actions undertaken by her group of mothers was to close down a nursery school on one of Prague’s main thoroughfares.

We tried to force the local government to remove this nursery school from this very polluted area to some other place. We talked to the director of the school and parents, and suddenly we saw that the parents of the children who suffer from coming to this school are not interested. They were against moving the school because it was comfortable for them to take their children to the nearest nursery school. It didn’t take them too much time to take them to the school. So the parents were quite satisfied with the school, and they didn’t want to hear anything about the dangers for their children which come from this highway.

Indeed, Oto Makic believes that the public’s apparent indifference to the environmental catastrophe has only exacerbated the situation.

The environment is so bad also because the population is not very interested in the environment. The people now are most interested in their economic and social problems. Public opinion polls which were made after the revolution in the spring of 1990, the environmental problems were the first, the biggest problems that the people saw. Now the environmental problems are on the 7th, 8th, 9th place.

In cafés like this one in Bratislava, young people before the revolution spent most of their time discussing politics and the environment. Now though, young people, just like their elders, have lost interest in green issues. Robert Gaidosh is a high school student who also belongs to Brontosaurus, one of the largest environmental groups in Czechoslovakia.

I don’t think young people are concerned about the environment too much in this time because everyone is just looking for himself and his own problems and don’t care just about nothing else, whether it should be environment or hunger problems in Africa or stuff like that. They are so pessimistic. They don’t believe that one individual can change anything.

Miroslav Kundrata admits that the general public’s frustration about the lack of change is understandable.

The pollution and environmental problems are so deep-rooted that it would be naive to expect that they could be changed in one year or two years.

Just over two years ago, the Velvet Revolution was sweeping Czechoslovakia’s communist regime out of power. In the events that led up to the peaceful revolution, Mikulas Huba and other environmentalists played a key role.

This role was very important, especially before the revolution, and especially in a country like Slovakia where there didn’t exist a typical dissident movement. In this period, we were on one side of the barricades, and the communists or technocrats were on the other side, and reality was black and white. People wanted to listen to us because we were like the voice of the revolution. But now, after the revolution, people refuse to listen to our theories or our arguments, the necessity of changing society and changing hierarchy of values because they want to have money immediately and to be in the same position as Austria or West Germany, to have full shops.

Well, the shops are now full, but most Czechoslovaks know it’ll be quite a long time before they become as rich as West Europeans. Few people here realise that the road to economic prosperity would be so long. This has led to discouragement and even apathy. But environmentalists like Dr. Kundrata are still enthusiastic and active.

There’s a lot of very concrete but very small projects. Usually, the people from the West are looking for big projects. If there are some sponsors from the West, they are looking for big money invested, but we see that we don’t need such big projects. We need to improve things in local, concrete areas.

Dr. Auckenclaus of the Federal Committee for Environment wants to capitalise on the environmentalists’ energy and experience by involving them in drawing up new environmental laws.

Here in Czechoslovakia, to a large extent, both environmental people and factory managers blame the pollution from the factories not on industry but on the old structure. The plant managers pretty well knew the pollution that they were causing and how and why, but their requests for funds to stop the pollution never were approved in the annual plans. So I’d like to take advantage of this at least lack of animosity between environmental people and industry people to do what I can to encourage them to talk to each other about their common interests and develop a relationship between business and environmental people which is more cooperative and less adversarial.

So, are environmentalists up to the task? Dr. Kundrata again.

I think up to now only marginally because the strongest mechanism is lobbying. Lobbying is underdeveloped until now. Then the problem of environmental groups is that a lot of the best people from NGOs came to governments and to politics and official life.

Where they are now working to get Czechoslovakia’s environmental legislation in line with European standards. But their task is complicated by the fact that Czechoslovakia lacks a constitution clearly defining the role of the federal government and of the Czech and the Slovak republics, as Dr. Auckenclaus told me.

As it is now, the environmental laws that are adopted at the federal level first are fully negotiated with the two republics in a rather lengthy and slow process. Where the standards will be set of what the emission limits are, those kinds of things, that will be at each republic and how the laws will be administered will be done at each republic. There’ll be no federal inspectors and there will be no detailed federal regulations that describe the operation of the laws. One logical reason to have federal environment law is to have consistent standards or at least consistent application of environmental law throughout the whole country so that we don’t have Slovak industries competing with Czech industries on the basis of who can pollute the most, which is not for the advantage of the citizens of Czechoslovakia.

Mikulas Huba of the Slovak parliament agreed that there is good reason to adopt environmental legislation at the federal level but added implementation of the laws should be left up to the republics.

I think it would be nonsense to create similar laws on republic or regional levels. But for specific features of each republic, it’s necessary to create specific laws in the field of executive because, for instance, we haven’t the same bodies or subjects for environmental executive in Czech and Slovak republic.

Despite the current constitutional bottleneck, Dr. Auckenclaus told me, some environmental legislation has been passed though it is not yet being implemented.

This summer, the federal parliament passed a general air law and in May it passed a law of waste. Both of these new federal laws  contain tremendously increased fines for violations of the air act or the waste act that the republics are going to adopt. And the fines, if I remember correctly in the air law, go up to either 1 million or 10 million karuna per day, and they can be applied to individuals as well as companies if individuals are responsible for willfully failing to comply with the required standards.

Existing plants will be given 5 years to cut their emissions, and politicians feel this transition period is essential. Mikulas Huba again, followed by Dr. Auckenclaus.

It’s nonsense to close everything today but I think it’s not too bad to have a 5-year period for improving the situation under the control of environmental authorities and under pressure of greater penalties and so on.

Whether that will be time enough for the whole process of converting much of the present industry, which is not only an environmental conversion, it’s an economic conversion. It’s a product conversion. I don’t know how long that will take. EB: Do you think it’s a realistic time limit?  I think it’s a realistic time limit for the businesses that will have an easy time converting. As for the chemical works or the steel mills which have very serious problems of efficiency or quality of output or energy use, as well as environmental problems, I don’t know if they will ever convert.

What we are talking about here is the possibility of closing factories or decreasing jobs, and people who are most affected by the pollution are the workers who live near the plants. And those workers ought to have some say, there ought to be some democratic process where they themselves can express their opinion about the trade-off between health and income. Everybody in Czechoslovakia is living in Czechoslovakia. The managers of the businesses are breathing the same air that the workers and the unemployed are breathing. And so environmental questions aren’t limited by sector of the economy and especially they aren’t limited because everybody looks forward to a next generation. And we’re really talking about what’s going to be here for the children.

40 years of communist rule have left deep scars on Czechoslovakia’s environment and on the people. But most Czechoslovaks I met, like Dr. Tatar, are confident that with time the wounds will heal.

This all was due to the way of living in the former regime, in the socialism, where there was no individual freedom, no choice, and this will last a long time to treat the problem. We are standing in front of a task of very deep education and information giving to everybody, what to chose, what to prefer, what to do, what to ask for.

“Healing the Wounds” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Paul Power. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.