Kosovo casualty: environment

It is a cruel fact that while thousands of people's lives in Kosovo have been affected by conflict, the sorry state of its environment - largely ignored over the years by Slobodan Milosevic - has been exacerbated by the recent war.

Kosovo's problems include air pollution, created by outdated power plants that lack filters; poor water quality and an inadequate water supply, caused by corroded, leaking water pipes; and few - if there are any working - waste treatment facilities.

Indeed, on a recent trip to this capital city, my third since last July, it was startling how much the air quality in the city had changed in just seven months. The smog was immediately evident, even arriving at night by shuttle bus from Macedonia.

The air was clogged by coal dust and the stench of fumes from burning garbage and car pollution.

It is not hard to fathom why. In the last year, Pristina's population has more than doubled from 200,000 to 450,000 because of the growing presence of United Nations personnel, NATO peacekeepers, international relief agencies, as well as internally displaced persons.

This population explosion, in turn, has had a severe impact on an already crumbling infrastructure. Garbage lies everywhere; the streets are choking with too many cars; the increased demand for electricity and water has placed new burdens on the country's antiquated systems.

The war has also created new problems such as lack of sanitation and trash removal, exposure to land mines, and potential soil contamination around military targets and from the use of depleted uranium ammunition by NATO during bombing.

The UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), the body established to administer the province of Kosovo on an interim basis, recently formed a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) under its civil administration. Along with several non-governmental organizations and experts, it has begun to respond. An environmental-awareness campaign, which will be run by the DEP, began last month on Earth Day. It will run through World Environment Day, June 5.

This may seem like progress in a region with no history of environmental protection or civic-institution building - not to mention being consumed by war just last year - but Kosovo's environmental problems are far too severe; the DEP's effort too modest.

Environmental issues are beginning to get some attention through two other UN areas of development - institution building under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and reconstruction under the European Union. But more needs to be done by the international community - namely, the United States and its NATO partners, the United Nations and other international organizations and non-governmental relief agencies.

In the short term, even to capitalize on the DEP's environmental-awareness campaign, the UN needs to address Kosovo's waste- management problem by creating a system for regular trash pick-up and a place to put refuse. To take on the more intractable problems, the international community needs to devise adequate budgets to support facilities, equipment, and personnel.

Above all, the international community needs to demonstrate its leadership by backing a well-funded, coordinating authority on environmental issues which will develop an institutional and legal basis for environmental management.

This will necessitate a new mindset in the international community, which considers environmental concerns less important during humanitarian crises and initial reconstruction efforts.

The time has come to integrate the environmental effects of conflict with humanitarian concerns in a more direct and concerted way in the overall emergency effort in Kosovo and other war-torn areas.

From the destruction caused by military campaigns to the impact of the humanitarian crises, the consequences of conflict on the environment are plainly evident and bear directly not only on the environment itself, but in stark and sobering ways on people faced with reconstruction.

The environment is central to rebuilding Kosovo in terms of security and safety issues, public- health problems, and the restoration of its civil administration. It should be a priority.

In a larger sense, the situation in Kosovo demonstrates a point central to the environmental movement. As the gap between haves and have nots continues to grow, two realities emerge. On the one hand, communities living in peace and prosperity are in a position to assist with problems beyond their borders, and have an obligation to do so. On the other hand, communities like Kosovo - devastated by war and poverty - face pressing environmental concerns that they must incorporate into their local reconstruction efforts.

*Rhoda Margesson is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. She is writing her dissertation on the impact of conflict on the environment and third-party intervention in the Balkans.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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