COPENHAGEN AND BERLIN — UNTIL recently, the state of the water on the Polish, East German, or Estonian coastlines was of no great importance to the Scandinavian countries.
For years they had known about the pollution from cities on the east coast of the Baltic Sea and from the rivers running into it from the heavy industrial centers of Poland, East Germany, and the former Soviet Union. But the Scandinavians' attitude, until the fall of the Iron Curtain, was more or less a realistic one: What can we do about it?
An invisible "wall" ran down the middle of the Baltic for the 1,000 kilometers (622 miles) from St. Petersburg in the northeast to Lubeck, Germany, in the southwest. The Scandinavian countries - Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland - developed their expensive water-purification systems as though the sea they wanted to clean didn't exist beyond that wall.
The Iron Curtain did succeed in isolating the two parts of Europe from each other, but in this case, at least, the separation was a fiction - pollutants in the air and sea easily crossed the border. This fiction has now been discovered in the countries around the Baltic, which are joining in a massive effort to clean up their common sea.
Environmental protection has been a frequent theme of the many contacts across the Baltic in recent years. Scandinavian grass-roots movements have joined with Russian, Polish, and Baltic groups. In addition, the Western environment industry has been extremely active in entering markets and finding the right professional partners.
Local councils all over Scandinavia have arranged seminars and education programs for technicians and administrators on how to tackle environmental problems: handling waste, cleaning communal waters, and monitoring industries.
Local and regional initiatives are common. For example, the city of Hamburg and the provinces of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Sleswig-Holstein have met with representatives of the cities of Copenhagen; Malmo, Sweden; and Gdansk, Poland.
In September 1990 the prime ministers and environment ministers from all Baltic Sea nations met in Roenneby, Sweden, to start work on a joint comprehensive action program for restoring the sea's ecological balance. The ambitious action program was reviewed by environment ministers on April 9, and implementation should begin by 1993.
This spring, foreign ministers meeting in Copenhagen agreed to form a Baltic Council to coordinate the new relationships across the sea. Danish Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen said at the founding session that the council should promote the Baltic region as one of the flowering centers of a united Europe. Cleaning up the past was one of the first tasks, Mr. Ellemann-Jensen said.
The Roenneby meeting asked the World Bank to initiate studies and collect material that could lead to a priority list of the most important sources of Baltic Sea pollution. Some of the leading German and Scandinavian environmental-engineering companies have been involved in a detailed river-by-river, industry-by- industry, and city-by-city analysis from Lubeck to St. Petersburg. Data have now been collected in seven reports to the World Bank.
One report on the Nemunas River system in Lithuania was done by the Danish company Kruger, one of the world's most advanced in the water-purification field. The director of Kruger Consult, Poul Erik Sorensen, who headed the work in Lithuania, says that the situation around the river in some places is very bad.
To find the source of the pollution in the river Mr. Sorensen's team had to cover an area of almost 100,000 square kilometers (62,150 square miles) all the way to the Byelorussian capital of Minsk. "You don't have to be a genius to find out that there is a problem if a big city or a heavy-metal or chemical industry just dumps all its waste water directly in the river with no treatment at all," Sorensen says.
In the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, construction on a huge water-purification system stopped when the Soviet authorities left the republic. The half-finished complex has Soviet technology that is not up to Western standards, but Kruger has decided to recommend completing the system anyway, supplementing it with Kruger technology.
Kruger's Vilnius project is one of a long list of other water-purification projects around the sea ready for implementation - if they can be financed. Most of the projects will not be implemented without assistance from Western governments, development banks, and other financial institutions.
The Scandinavian countries have directed most of their Eastern European assistance to funds concerned with environmental projects. With the Roenneby initiative, the political will has been manifested to channel more money to cleaning up the Baltic Sea, a project that could set an example for the upcoming Rio Conference on international cooperation on environmental problems.