Czechoslovakia Tackles the Environment

Government says a third of the country is `ecologically devastated'. POLLUTION

FILMMAKERS attending the 17th anniversary of Ostrava's international environmental film festival this spring are grateful that the festivities took place indoors. ``I'm having trouble breathing outside, the air is so bad,'' complains Vlad Balaban, an environmentalist who returned from study abroad to help judge the film entries.

Ostrava, near the Polish border, was once the pride of Czechoslovakia's industrial development. But decades of unchecked production from its 35 coal mines and by industries ranging from metallurgy to machinery have ravaged the environment.

On a cloudless day, the sun takes on a diffused pollution-pink glow in what is now called ``Black Ostrava.'' Inclement weather means acid rain.

The festival's theme, ``Technology and Capital Investment for the Future,'' is a significant departure from previous years. It reflects political reforms taking hold in Eastern Europe that breed an awareness of why and how the region's air, land, and water became so contaminated.

``Participation from our country is traditional, but the turnout from abroad is greater this year than it was in 1989,'' says Novotna Libuse, director of the Eko Film Festival. For years, the East European filmmakers were ``enthusiasts who, when they were thrown out the door, came in through the window. Today, we can openly say what the problems are.''

The 65 Czechoslovak filmmakers who entered their work portray the staggering environmental and social-welfare costs of 40 years of Soviet-guided production. Czechoslovakia supplied Eastern Europe and other Soviet satellites with refined metals, chemicals, and heavy machinery. The Soviet view, according to a Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry official, was: ``Why spoil our own environment with such plants when we can import it?''

The result - in Poland and East Germany, as well as Czechoslovakia - is forests destroyed by acid rain, open-pit mines that scar the landscape, poisoned drinking water and soil, and air thick with a chemical haze.

``For years I have watched the deterioration,'' says Czechoslovak Environment Minister Bedrich Moldan, a chemist who worked for the past 19 years in Prague's Geological Survey. During the early years of communist rule, he says, the official reaction was to scoff at pollution. ``They said it was `just the smell of rotten capitalism.'''

Later, he says, ``when it became clear that it was not imported but really homemade - then it was concealed. Because of the general tendency toward secrecy, no one was allowed to have all the information, so no one could evaluate the situation completely.''

In the late 1980s, ``when the situation was clearly a disaster, gradually it was possible to speak about the environment.'' In its last two years, the communist government had tolerated ``very open'' discussion, he says - ``the government's attempt at a kind of repair.''

In May, the country's five-month-old Environment Ministry published information previously banned from the public. Its 120-page report shows a severely curbed life-expectancy rate in many parts of the country, including Northern Bohemia, where it says pollution-induced respiratory disease and cancer are ``at world-record levels.''

The ministry says that 25 metric tons of pollutants fall every year on every square kilometer of Czechoslovakia (compared with 0.6 tons in Sweden). Almost a third of the country is ``ecologically devastated,'' according to the report. That includes nearly 60 percent of the forests in the central and western regions and more than 20 percent in Slovakia.

A water crisis is looming. Only 30 percent of waste water is purified, the rest is dumped into the rivers and streams.

``There is no water for babies' formula,'' says Franz Meister, director of Austria's Okologie Institut. ``There are phosphates and nitrates in the water supply, so at present they're boiling water for formula. Soon they will have a program for bottling it.''

On his visit from Vienna, Mr. Meister is surveying the ecology and helping local environmentalists to assess problems. His gravest concern is the nation's development of nuclear power.

``In Czechoslovakia, there is a lot of uranium mining. Our institute made some measurements in middle Bohemia. The landfills there are full of radioactivity, which leaks into the water supply,'' he says.

He and other Austrians are worried about leaks into the Danube, which flows downstream from Czechoslovakia.

``Thirty percent of Czech nuclear waste goes to the Soviet Union, but Russians have announced they will stop accepting nuclear waste. ... Where will it go?'' he asks.

Vojtech Dolezal, hydrogeologist and Environment Ministry adviser, laments that investigators are in the early process of determining what has seeped into the ground and water supplies and the chemical compounds that pollute the air.

``Some of these chemicals we cannot even identify,'' he says, ``but the health problems are many.''

A cross section of women from Bohemia and Moravia attest to the conventional wisdom concerning childbearing.

``We have children as early as possible, the longer we wait, the higher the risk of miscarriage and birth defects,'' says a young mother of four in Moravia. At age 24, risk is deemed too high, she says. More than 70 percent of all pregnancies in Northern Bohemia result in miscarriage, according to the Environment Ministry.

Slow to react to environmental hazards are those who are closest to them, says Mrs. Libuse. Mine workers, for example, experience noticeable health problems.

``People in Northern Bohemia and here in Ostrava prefer to be paid well in poor conditions rather than accept change,'' she says, referring to the prospect of closing steel factories and coal power plants that emit unfiltered sulphur dioxide and other pollutants.

``One of our biggest nightmares is agriculture,'' says Mr. Dolezal. ``Our farmers are used to the Soviet model of big farms and heavy use of chemical pesticide and fertilizer. As a result, our food is unsafe to eat, and our underground water is densely polluted by nitrates.''

More than 700 types of pesticides are integral to agricultural production. A strawberry farm outside Prague is densely coated with white chemicals; the red berries are barely discernable. But ``this may be the easiest thing to correct,'' says Dolezal.

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