The legacy of conflict

Pekka Haavisto describes the environmental effects of the conflict in Kosovo and explains how such assessments provide a new tool for the international community

Conflicts always bring human suffering. But what do we know about their environmental consequences? UNEP has been working since the summer of 1999 to find out how the Kosovo conflict influenced the environment – and to determine the environmental impacts of modern warfare.

At the time of the war many environmentalists were shocked by pictures of burning oil refineries, of oil products and chemicals leaking into the River Danube, and of biodiversity sites being targeted in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. There were also many rumours about increased levels of radioactivity as a result of the use of depleted uranium ammunition.

This, of course, was not the first conflict of its kind. The environment has been of concern in previous wars. The use of pesticides in Viet Nam was much discussed. The burning of oil fields in the Persian Gulf war was a source of anxiety. Non-governmental organizations have environmental fears over the war in Chechnya. And the huge flows of refugees from many conflicts in Asia and Africa have raised concerns for drinking water, forests and biodiversity.

But the Kosovo conflict was the first where the United Nations and UNEP took the initiative to make a post-conflict environmental assessment as quickly as possible. The UNEP Balkans Task Force was initiated in May 1999 by Klaus Toepfer, the Executive Director of UNEP, and started fieldwork just a couple of weeks after the conflict ended. More than 60 scientists from 19 countries undertook four field missions, including visits to targeted sites, research work on the River Danube, taking samples at biodiversity sites and working on human settlements in Kosovo.

Hot spots
The Task Force submitted its report in October 1999, only five months after the conflict. It concluded that pollution detected at four environmental ‘hot spots’ (Pancevo, Kragujevac, Novi Sad and Bor, all in Serbia) was serious and posed a threat to human health. It called for immediate clean-up action as part of humanitarian assistance to the region.

It also concluded that much of this pollution pre-dated the conflict and that there was widespread evidence of long-term deficiencies in treating hazardous waste. The team was welcomed in Pancevo – just a couple of weeks after the end of the conflict – by some local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), with the words: ‘You’re here at last! We have been waiting for you for ten years!’ An independent environmental assessment was certainly needed. People had long suffered from different pollution-related diseases: we were told of a special ‘Pancevo cancer’ – liver cancer caused by petrochemicals.

The report broke new ground by making a clear link between the environment and humanitarian assistance. This was politically important, because the situation in Serbia was still very turbulent, and many governments were unwilling to finance anything connected with reconstruction. But the international community could support the first clean-up activities in the area as part of humanitarian assistance.

At risk
The Government also began clean-up activities at the targeted sites after the conflict, but at the time the environment did not seem to be one of its priorities. Though technically the Government could deal with part of the problem, much of it still required assistance from the international community.

We found that local people working on reconstruction after a conflict can be at risk when polluted sites have not been properly cleaned up. Typical problems at industrial sites include the risks of pollution near drinking water sources; the treatment or removal of surface soil contaminated with heavy oil, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals and other hazardous substances; and the demands of continued monitoring of air, water, soil, agricultural products and human health.
We should learn what the rules and limitations of modern warfare should be
We found serious contamination at the hot spots. At the Pancevo industrial complex, for example, a wastewater canal flowing into the Danube was seriously contaminated with dichloroethane (EDC) and mercury. At the Zastava car plant in Kragujevac, PCB and dioxin contamination urgently needed cleaning up.

A joint effort
The Task Force’s work was funded by Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom, and additional in-kind support was provided by Russia and Slovakia, and by NGOs including Greenpeace; WWF, the conservation organization; IUCN-the World Conservation Union; Green Cross International; and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. There was also close cooperation with the European Commission and the International Commission on the Protection of the Danube River. The Task Force’s recommendations were adopted by the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe, and many governments have now joined in to finance clean-up activities.

Depleted uranium was used in the air campaign but, both during and after the conflict, there was a lack of detailed environmental information about its use. It was not until the summer of 2000 that the United Nations received from NATO a detailed map of the sites where ammunition with depleted uranium had been used. This showed 112 locations, mostly in Kosovo, where in all more than 30,000 rounds of depleted uranium ammunition had been used.

The Task Force was therefore not able to begin assessing the effects of depleted uranium until November 2000, almost one and a half years after the conflict. The field assessment – made possible by generous contributions from donor countries, especially Switzerland – was carried out by a team including 14 scientists from several countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency. It carried out its work in close cooperation with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR).

At three of the 11 sites it visited, the team found no increased radioactivity, nor any remnants of depleted uranium ammunition. At the other eight, it found either slightly higher amounts of beta-radiation or remnants of ammunition. It collected samples from soil, grass, trees, fruit and mushrooms – and, at three sites, milk taken directly from cows. Further samples were taken from buildings and destroyed army vehicles, and from the remnants of depleted uranium ammunition itself. All the samples, including the ammunition, are being analyzed in five different laboratories, with the final report being published by UNEP in February 2001.

New challenges
The conflict in the Balkans has given rise to an interesting discussion about modern warfare and its environmental consequences. New types of weapons – such as cluster bombs and ammunition with depleted uranium – and the consequences for chemical facilities present new challenges for clean-up activities.

The crisis had serious environmental impacts, and there has been – and still is – an immediate need for clean-up work at the hot spots to avoid further risks to human health and the environment.

We can learn from this process how to manage environmental crises after conflicts. Taking care of the environment – and, concomitantly, of human health and sustainable development – should be one of the first actions undertaken by the international community. And we should also learn what the environmental rules and limitations of modern warfare should be

Pekka Haavisto, former Minister of Environment and Development Cooperation of Finland, is Chairman of the Joint UNEP/Habitat Balkans Task Force and of the UNEP Depleted Uranium Assessment Team.

PHOTOGRAPH: Jeremy Horner/Panos Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Learning from disaster | Being prepared | The way forward | Breaking the cycle | Flip-flop to catastrophe | Nature's warnings | At a glance | Competition | Insuring against catastrophe | Recreating sustainability | The legacy of conflict | Ask us, involve us | The poor suffer most | Through a slanted lens

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