The United Nations environmental agency is set to hand over its ecological clean-up programme in the Balkans to the Serbian Government after making progress in eliminating the health risks to tens of thousands of people living in and around four seriously polluted "hot spots."
Established in the aftermath of the 1999 Kosovo war, the pioneering $12.5 million programme has successfully identified, assessed and completed the first UN-led cleanup of environmental threats as a result of armed conflict.
"Environmental conditions have a crucial influence on the success of efforts to rebuild shattered communities and livelihoods," said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). "The closure of UNEP's post-conflict activities in the Balkans is a positive signal. It demonstrates that, overall, South-eastern Europe is progressing from conflict to peace."
As an integral part of the handover, authorities in Serbia and Montenegro worked together with UNEP on a joint final assessment of the environmental conditions at the four sites.
The initial work identified the four "hot spots" - all of which are within Serbia: the industrial complex at Pancevo; the Zastava car plant in Kragujevac; the oil refinery beside the Danube River in Novi Sad; and the ore smelting complex at Bor.
At most locations, the conflict-related impacts represented only a part of the environmental and health challenges present, as serious contamination also pre-dated the Kosovo conflict, UNEP said. There were also long-term deficiencies in the storage and treatment of hazardous waste.
The conflict-related environmental consequences at Kragujevac and Bor have been largely dealt with, making fresh drinking water available for tens of thousands of people. Hundreds of tons of hazardous waste have been taken away for treatment and environmental management capacities also strengthened.
In Novi Sad, the risk of serious contamination affecting drinking-water supplies has been substantially reduced and conflict-related environmental impacts are being systematically monitored. At Pancevo, the place that suffered the most damage during the war, conflict-related concerns have been significantly reduced, but important "pre-war" environmental problems have yet to be addressed, UNEP said.