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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Crisis Damaging Environment

Prague, 2 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A Western-financed environmental watchdog group says NATO's 70-day bombardment of Yugoslavia has damaged the local environment and may also threaten the ecology of neighboring countries.

That is in addition to the degrading of local environments caused by the huge inflow of refugees into towns and camps unprepared to treat the additional sewage and waste.

But officials with the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC) told RFE/RL today that nobody knows the actual extent of the damage, and that any specific claims of damage or damage estimates are untrustworthy.

Yugoslav officials say NATO strikes on a chemical complex near Belgrade and the bombing of oil refineries have caused massive, long-term pollution and other ecological damage. The Yugoslav ambassador to Austria, Rado Smilkovic, says NATO has consciously risked poisoning millions of people.

There have been reports also of oil slicks in the Danube river running through Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Romania, and of fish kills and water supply contamination.

Romania's Environment Ministry has published a study expressing general concern about water pollution, including pollution in the Danube and the Black Sea. The ministry says air and land have also been degraded. It says acid rain has damaged fruit trees and bee colonies.

Bulgaria has reported spotting oil slicks on the Danube, but Romanian authorities said they haven't detected any. The river marks much of the border between the two countries.

Further south, fishermen and fishing industry officials in Italy have complained about fishing nets recovering undetonated bombs dumped in the Adriatic Sea by NATO warplanes returning from missions.

REC Executive Director Jernej Stritih says that destruction of industrial plants and utility installations clearly have increased pollution in Yugoslavia. He says also that refugees have overloaded infrastructures near camps in Albania and Macedonia.

The center's information chief, Mary McKinley, told RFE/RL today in a telephone interview from REC headquarters in Szentendre, near Budapest, that reliable hard data are scarce. McKinley said: "We have country offices in Belgrade, Skopje, Tirana, Sofia, Bucharest, etc. [that] are trying to collect as much information as possible on the impact. We know, of course, that there's a lot of environmental destruction going on, but at this point I would mistrust anyone who says they have hard data on the exact extent of the damage."

The United States, the European Commission, and Hungary established the REC in 1990 as a non-advocacy non-governmental organization (NGO) to address environmental problems in 15 countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Donor nations include Austria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

McKinley said the center has received an extensive report from its Belgrade office of widespread and severe environmental damage, but could not quantify or verify the information. She said the REC is assembling teams of experts now and will seek to send them into the field in Yugoslavia and other affected countries to measure the impact of the Balkan conflict on the environment. She said the center will issue a comprehensive study as soon as reliable data are gathered.