Environmental scholars from Columbia and Yale universities have prepared what they call the "2002 Environmental Sustainability Index." It measures how well 142 countries in the world are maintaining their environments. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill investigates how nations in Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia fared in the survey.
Prague, 8 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A group of U.S. environmental scholars says Latvia leads Eastern and Central Europe in what it calls "environmental sustainability" -- that is, maintaining or improving its environment.
Ukraine ranks last in the region.
The scholars, from Columbia and Yale universities, have constructed an Environmental Sustainability Index, or ESI, that measures each country's environmental systems and stresses, human vulnerability to environmental risks, institutional capacity to respond to environmental threats, and responsibility toward global environmental protection.
They say the ability to measure with scientific precision is important because it provides a sound basis for environmental decision-making and policy. The ESI, they say, makes the idea of environmental sustainability more concrete because the index represents actual data and real-world analysis.
The ESI study ranks 142 nations in the world. The list excludes countries -- Afghanistan, for instance -- where data gathering is nonexistent or is too crude to support accurate comparisons.
Latvia scored high for its water quality, for the healthfulness of its environment, and for its success in reducing the environmental pressures it exports to its neighbors, among other factors.
Ilona Jepsena, director of the Department of Natural Environment Protection in Latvia's Ministry of the Environment, says the country's successes resulted from dedication to ecology.
"This high result is a reflection of more than 10 years' hard work in Latvia. Environmental policy particularly followed during these years facilitated, first of all, significant investment in the environmental sector," Jepsena says.
Like many nations in transition from communism, Latvia also received high scores for reducing population growth -- a factor that may be good for the environment but that in many places is considered a social problem.
Ukraine scored very badly in the category of reducing waste and consumption pressures. It did exceptionally poorly in ecological efficiency and in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In the general area of social and institutional capacity, the experts scored Ukraine negatively on its openness to discussion of environmental issues and on private sector responsiveness.
Ukraine measured poorly in basic human sustenance and environmental health, hardly surprising in a nation still suffering a hangover from the effects of history's worst civilian nuclear accident at Chornobyl in 1988.
The ESI authors assigned the top five scores in Eastern and Central Europe to Latvia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, and Estonia, in that order. They gave the bottom five scores to Macedonia, Russia, Poland, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine.
Latvia's Jepsena says she believes international pressure is a factor in some nations' response to environmental needs: "Accession to the EU has no doubt also politically strengthened environmental protection in Latvia."
In Central Asia, the worst performer was Turkmenistan; the best, Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan got high marks for reducing ecosystem stress. Turkmenistan scored negatively in many areas, led by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, government responsiveness to ecological management, water quality, and environmental health.
Turkmenistan journalist Rakhim Esenov in Ashgabat blames some of Turkmenistan's difficulties on natural causes.
"We have a lot of salt in our water. Now as before, Ashgabat gets its water from two sources. One is the Amu Darya [river]; the second is from the mountains. This is the cause of kidney diseases among the population, Esenov says. "Amu Darya's water passes through a way of thousands of kilometers before it reaches us, and on the way it absorbs the salt and dirt of the earth. It is not being thoroughly cleaned. There needs to be a huge filtration system. I think nature is to blame for that."
Esenov says he also recognizes a failure of enforcement. One example, he says, is severe air pollution: "The reason is that, for example, in the area where I live, there are streets on all sides. The cars' carburetors are not regulated. They eject a lot of gas into the air. When the air polluting cars go through the city, the police do not stop them."
ESI's authors say the world's most sound national environment belongs to Finland. The United Arab Emirates has the worst.
Some other nations and their rankings are United States, 51st out of 142, just behind Zimbabwe and just ahead of Belarus; Germany, 54th; Turkey, 50th; Iran, 105th; Pakistan, 116th; China, 129th; Iraq, 139th; and North Korea, 140th.
The ESI scholars discovered an imperfect correlation between a country's prosperity and its favorable score. Among countries whose annual per capita income is within a $5,847-12,891 range, the average ESI score was 53.4. Latvia came in far above that average.
In Latvia, Jepsena says, a success factor was the government's ability to win the backing of the people for ecological responsibility even when funds for environmental initiatives were not readily available.
"We have succeeded to persuade society that we have to respect the environment, in spite of all difficulties in the economy," Jepsena says.
Ukraine, in the next lower range for per capita income, scored 34.5 -- far below the average score for the range.
Among the richest nations in the world, the average ESI score for 2002 is 54.7. The United States scored below average, with 52.8.