Only a few years ago a purple haze of toxins hung over Albania's Elbasan Valley - effluents of a massive industrial complex built in the 1970s.
Once the pride of communist planners, the complex produced much of the country's heavy industrial output while blighting the crops of what were once the most productive farms in the country.
Elbasan breathes freely these days, but at a high price. Like the rest of Albania's industry, the dirty, antiquated complex lies virtually idle, and two-thirds of its 11,000-person work force has been laid off.
Shepherding is a major occupation in the area now. Shepherds tend sheep and goats that graze among the slag heaps and silent foundry halls.
This is how Eastern Europe's environment has improved since the collapse of communism.
In the absence of massive foreign aid, cash-strapped governments from Albania to Russia have had to make do with what the invisible hand of the market has seen fit to clean. As unprofitable factories, mines, and power plants close, the environment has gained, at least in the short term.
But many of the most severe environmental problems, exposed when Communist regimes collapsed from 1989 to 1991, remain unaddressed for lack of financial and human resources, with serious consequences for East Europeans.
"The Western countries made it clear early on that 95 percent of the resources for cleaning up the environment would have to come from the East European countries themselves," recalls Jnos Zlinszky, head of external relations at the Budapest-based Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe.
"We had been hoping for grants or soft loans, but found only commercial loans would be available," he adds. "Most countries already have serious debt burdens and are unable to take on new loans, especially since most environmental projects don't generate revenue with which to repay a loan."
Because of this lack of funding many critical problems have been ignored, especially in poorer countries in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union.
Take the Black Sea, for example. For millennia its bountiful fish and shellfish stocks nurtured the human civilizations that populated its shores - ancient Greece, Byzantium, the Ottoman and Russian Empires, contemporary Turkey, Romania, and Ukraine to name a few. In the past two decades, modern fertilizers, industrial effluents, untreated sewage, and fishing trawlers have radically altered its aquatic life.
Twenty of 26 commercial fish species have vanished since 1970; the anchovy harvest fell more than 95 percent between 1984 and 1989. In their place are monstrous blooms of photoplankton, which feed on human waste, and the North American jellyfish that preys on the photoplankton.
Pollution is also damaging the regional tourist industry as raw sewage washes onto the beaches of the resorts that ring the sea.
Reducing Black Sea pollution is expected to require tens of billions of dollars. The funds would be used to build sewers and water-treatment plants for hundreds of communities, improve irrigation and livestock feed-lot drainage systems, and supply pollution controls at factories now dumping toxins directly into the rivers that feed the sea.
Merely to fix the 177 priority hot spots along the largest such river - the Danube - will cost at least $10 billion, according to studies funded by the World Bank. But poorer countries like Romania and Bulgaria have little hope of generating their share of the cleanup costs in the foreseeable future. And the Danube is just one tiny part of the overall environmental crisis.
$23 billion called for
Another Western-financed study of the critically polluted Baltic Sea identifies 124 environmental "hot spots" requiring about $23 billion to rectify. Other pressing concerns include the consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, refurbishing or closing other decaying nuclear-power plants, cleaning up soil contamination and illegal dumping sites at former Soviet military bases, and saving Central Asia from the rapidly expanding deserts fed by windblown dust from the exposed bed of the Aral Sea. Nobody is sure where the investment capital is going to come from.
"We in Eastern Europe learned that we would have to fund environmental projects ourselves," says Istvn Tks, director of international economic coordination at the Hungarian Ministry of Environment. "In former Soviet Republics they still expect the West will provide grants for clean up projects. They're going to be disappointed."
Hungary and Poland have discovered that spending money can be just as hard as acquiring it. Unlike many of their neighbors, both countries now generate healthy revenues to support environmental projects through new taxes on packaging, toxic wastes, batteries, gasoline, and used tires. Hungary's environment fund now has more than $100 million waiting to be spent, but the government is proceeding slowly and carefully.
"Just like in the banking system, you need appropriate managerial skills to assess risks and priorities and administer projects," Mr. Tks says. His environment ministry is moving carefully, making sure that trained personnel are in place before spending hard-won funds. Finding those professionals has taken time. "We didn't even have checking accounts or mortgages [a few years ago], so how can you expect us to have financial gurus in just a few short years?"