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Romania: Government Hosts Danube And Carpathian Environment Summit

Presidents, ministers, international officials and business people from central and southeastern Europe have been attending an environment summit in Bucharest (April 29-30). The meeting, organized by the Romanian government and the World Wildlife Fund, aims at finding solutions for environmental conservation and development in the Carpathian and Danube region. A key issue is cleaning the Danube -- Europe's second-longest river -- of debris from NATO's 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia and making it navigable again.

Prague, 30 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The high-level meeting in Bucharest brought together key regional and international officials in an attempt to agree on common strategies to overcome a legacy of ecological damage in the Carpathian-Danube region and to counter the effects of war in the Balkans.

The Summit on Environment and Sustainable Development in the Carpathian and Danube Region -- as the meeting was formally called -- was organized jointly by the Romanian government and the environmental organization World Wildlife Fund, or WWF. It was co-chaired by Romanian President Ion Iliescu and Britain's Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who is honorary president of the WWF.

Eight other presidents were present at the summit: Albania's Rexhep Meidani, Bosnia-Herzegovina's Zivko Radisic, Bulgaria's Petar Stoyanov, Croatia's Stipe Mesic, Macedonia's Boris Trajkovski, Moldova's Vladimir Voronin, Slovakia's Rudolph Schuster and Ukraine's Leonid Kuchma. Yugoslav Prime Minister Zoran Zizic canceled his visit to Bucharest because of illness.

In their speeches to the meeting today, many of the leaders underlined the economic importance of unblocking the Danube as well as protecting the entire Danube basin and Carpathian mountains region. They also called for more international aid for the region.

Romanian President Iliescu said a serious environmental re-evaluation of the Danube's status was necessary, adding that support from the international community was crucial. He said that some of the region's environmental problems were too complex to be solved individually by any country.

"Some of the difficult problems regarding the rational use, ecological rehabilitation and adequate protection of the Danube are far beyond the means of each of the riparian countries alone, regardless of its goodwill or available resources. That is why this new spirit of regional solidarity is so important."

Croatian President Mesic also said the impoverished region needed international financial support to protect the environment, while Moldova's new communist leader Voronin said the meeting would have been more effective if, in his words, "economic cooperation and resolution of social problems" had come first.

The Danube-Carpathian region covers a large part of Central Europe. The 2,800 km-long Danube is Europe's second-longest river after the Volga, and it also is the world's top international waterway. The Danube flows through 10 countries and three capitals-- Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade -- and has tributaries in seven additional countries.

From its sources in Germany, the river heads eastward and flows into the Black Sea through a three-pronged delta. The Danube Delta is the world's largest reed system and provides breeding, resting and feeding ground for some 300 bird species.

But the Danube has been blocked since the 1999 Kosovo war, when NATO bombers pounded bridges into the river in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad. The Danube was further hit in 2000 by a major cyanide spill from a gold mine in the northern Romanian town of Baia-Mare, which destroyed hundreds of tons of fish in the Tisa River, a tributary of the Danube. Only about 30 million tons of goods were transported on the Danube last year, compared to 100 million tons in 1987, two years before the collapse of communism.

Today, Britain's Prince Philip -- the most prominent West European public figure to attend the summit -- joined the region's leaders in urging joint action to clean up the Danube. Prince Philip warned that the Danube and the Carpathians face continued ecological damage unless the nations of the region join forces to protect it.

The Bucharest summit ended with a six-point joint declaration that notably pledged to promote the use of the private sector in financing environmental projects in the region. The declaration also urged strengthening the implementation of multilateral and bilateral environmental agreements and promised support for joint activities under the Regional Environmental Reconstruction Program in Southeastern Europe of the EU-backed Balkan Stability Pact.

Prince Philip said he considered that both the summit and the declaration were a success.

"The purpose of the summit and of the declaration is to proclaim the commitment of the participating governments to the protection of the Danube-Carpathian region, and I think it is a remarkable political achievement."

The Danube and the Carpathian Mountains are closely intertwined. A large part of the Danube's almost 800,000 square km-wide catchment (that is, overall basin) area is situated in the Carpathians, Europe's second-highest and longest mountain chain (1,450 km). The Carpathians cover an area of some 200,000 square kms and support the largest areas of virgin and montane (that is, upland slopes) forests in Europe. They also host the continent's last viable populations of large carnivores such as wolves, brown bears and lynxes.

But the region's unique environment has suffered greatly since the end of World War Two. Decades of neglect during communism were followed by further regional degradation in the last 10 years caused by war in the former Yugoslavia, increased pollution and massive deforestation.

In today's final summit document, the heads of state say they will support "new ways and means" to support the Carpathian region's sustainable development. But little detail was provided about concrete measures envisaged.

Officials from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the World Bank also attended the meeting, as did as businessmen and representatives of non-governmental organizations.

During a meeting for environmental experts yesterday (Sunday), Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase acknowledged that little has been done to solve what he called the region's environmental crisis.

"Despite some limited national level coordination, analyses prove that governments in the region did not do enough to respond to the crisis. The destruction of ecosystems, soil degradation, deforestation, water and air pollution continued."

A first step toward restoring navigation on the Danube was made last week when the multilateral Danube Commission signed a $23-million contract with a Danish-Hungarian consortium to begin work on clearing debris. But additional measures to improve the region's environment have yet to go beyond the verbal level.

In their joint declaration, regional leaders pledged to come up with an update on concrete results during next year's planned Earth Summit in Johannesburg. But the results will depend not only on financial resources and economic development, but also on regional political stability.

Macedonian President Trajkovski told reporters today (Monday) that he was cutting short his stay in Bucharest because of the latest outburst of violence in his country, which claimed eight lives over the weekend. Trajkovski said that it was terrorism and extremism that was threatening his country's sustainable development as well as its stability.

(Tania Radu of RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau contributed to this report.)