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World: Poor Nations Cannot Delay Environmental Action

Prague, 5 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Some people live in clean homes with green gardens, drink clear, clean water, use flush toilets, and put out the garbage to be collected. Such people often worry about "vital environmental issues" like global warming, overuse of fossil fuels, and saving the whales.

Some people -- like those in the northern Mexico City suburbs, in Bangkok, in Marrakech, and elsewhere in developing countries -- live their environmental issues. For them, barely breathable air, rotting garbage, open rivers of untreated sewage, and contaminated food are immediate, everyday facts.

For such people, environmental issues often are a distant priority. First comes finding food to head off starvation, water that nurtures rather than poisons, and health care to save children hovering at death's verge.

As the British magazine, The Economist, said in a sweeping survey recently on Development and the Environment: "Conventional wisdom has it that concern for the environment is a luxury only the rich world can afford."

But more and more, this conventional wisdom is being challenged by mounting evidence that developing nations are especially in need of environmental sensitivity, particularly toward water and air quality. Far from being unable to afford environmental-protection steps, these countries simply can't afford to postpone action. First of all, people are dying now. Second, cleanup delayed is cleanup tripled and quadrupled in cost.

Christopher Flavin, senior vice president of the U.S.-based, nonprofit Worldwatch Institute, recently told United Nations Radio that environmental protection -- far from being an expense -- can be a profit-making investment. The great expense, he says, lies in delay.

"The critics that say that we should wait (before developing new clean-air energy technologies, for example) are a very small minority." Most experts, he says, "see that there is a real urgency. The time to act is before poisons are emitted; you can't just put them back," he says.

This certainly has been the experience in the former Soviet Union and related states, where -- from Siberia's Lake Baikal to former East Germany's Schkopau chemical complex -- the dangers of delay are being illustrated daily.

A writer from the British newspaper Financial Times visited Schkopau recently and marveled over the current use of a barbed wire fence whose function ten years ago was "to keep in the prisoners forced to do some of the dirtiest jobs on the site." The reporter wrote: "Today the fencing at Schkopau, site of east Germany's biggest chemical plant, is to keep people away from buildings so contaminated they have to be dismantled brick by brick."

For half a century, East Germany's governors, as did communist leadership throughout the Soviet aegis, developed heavy industry with disregard for nearby populaces. That industry quickly became outdated, inefficient and environmentally hazardous.

The international Dow Chemical company bet last year against the odds that the Schkopau site could be made both environmentally acceptable and profitable. And Dow is backing up its bet; it is spending about $1.5 billion in a cleanup operation.

In Baikalsk, southern Siberia, scientist Mikhail Grachev also is betting on coexistence of profitability and environmental quality.

Lake Baikal, 700 km long, is so isolated and so ancient that it survived industrial depredations throughout the communist era that made much of the rest of Russia a catch basin of pollution. It's cherished by Russia as the jewel of Siberia and by cognoscenti in the rest of the world as a 25-million-year-old miracle. It contains 20 percent of the world's fresh water supply and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But this environmental heritage is under assault. The "most dramatic menace," a writer for the Los Angeles Times wrote, is a former military factory that pumps into the lake 140,000 tons a day of waste water containing dioxin. There also are other industrial pollution, illegal logging and untreated sewage violating the ancient treasure.

Grachev's plan is to light a kind of industrial backfire against these incursions. He has set up a shoreline bottling plant for drinking water. In his words: "The way to protect the lake is to build industry that depends on pure water. We have to adapt science to a market economy." Grachev says he seeks to start a movement that will gain momentum in attracting to remote Baikalsk environmentally-affirmative enterprises that will then become allies against negative activities.

The Financial Times survey concludes that in developing countries, generally, pollution and other immediate environmental problems are worsening. Water supplies, for instance, are receiving marginal improvements, but populations are outstripping any benefits. Worldwide, about 1 billion people don't get clean water, and water contaminated by human waste is believed to kill hundreds of thousands of children a year.

Air pollution is a killer, too. In addition to their human toll, air and water pollution are expensive in economic terms -- health care, lost productivity, and other costs. A World Bank study published recently found that across a range of countries in Asia, a set of water and air remedies would cost far less than the immediate savings in human health care.

Industrialization, population growth, migration of people to cities, poverty with its concentrating impact on immediate needs, and poor policy choices by leaders continue to impede environmentally sound investment.

And technology isn't the unmitigated enemy it often is made out to be. Certainly, industrialization has contributed to environmental degradation. But technology is also the force that discovers environmental dangers, that purifies water, that increases agricultural production.

Harvard's Nicholas Eberstadt, in a speech last December to a policy conference in Washington, joined a growing chorus of voices urging greater attention by environmentalists not only to great global issues but also to what Eberstadt called "micro-environmental" concerns.

These include sites like Schkopau and Lake Baikal and thousands of others where the threat is now, the potential benefits immediate, and the likely cost of delay exorbitant.