Progress creeps along in sea rescue efforts

  • 2010-02-18
  • By Ella Karapetyan

HIGH PRIORITY: Leaders of the Baltic Sea countries agree that co-operation is needed to solve the region’s environmental problems.

TALLINN - The Baltic Sea is unique: it is the largest body of brackish - low salinity - water in the world; it is also distinguished by its division into a series of basins of varying depths, separated by shallow areas, or sills. The many rivers flowing into the sea are the reason for its brackish character.

In fact, the Baltic has always been characterized by the interaction of fresh and saltwater sources. Geologically a young sea, it has undergone enormous changes since the last ice age. It is almost totally surrounded by land, and therefore more endangered by pollution than other marine areas. The Baltic is considered to be the most polluted sea in the world.
The sources of marine pollution are municipal and industrial waste, discharged directly into the sea, or via rivers. Other atmospheric inputs come mainly from road traffic and agriculture. The increase of inorganic plant nutrients causes eutrophication and the consequent oxygen depletion in coastal seabed waters, as well as in the depths of the open sea.
As late as 1950, the Baltic Sea was still regarded as environmentally ‘healthy.’ Large-scale industrialization had not yet made its impact; there were few automobiles, and intensive agriculture and forestry, with their widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides, was only commencing. However, since then, the situation has changed dramatically. Pollution now threatens the waters, land and air in the entire catchment basin, and ultimately the health and well-being of the 90 million people who live in the countries bordering the sea.

The health of the sea has been seriously damaged since the 1960s due to excessive pollution from the countries in its catchment area. The pollution, such as untreated human
waste, toxic materials, and metals, has resulted in stratification of the sea water. This process, has left certain layers of the Baltic mostly freshwater while rendering other layers saltwater. The sea, when it is stable, is a mix of freshwater from the rivers of Europe, and saltwater from the North Sea, which flows in through the straits around Denmark. The source of much of the pollution was, and still is, however, from the Baltic States. This pollution, in turn, harms a variety of other industries, including fishing and tourism.

Because of unrestricted and (environmentally) unregulated industry, factory waste was disposed of directly into the Baltic, or into rivers which feed the Baltic. Another major problem is agricultural run-off, all from western European countries. These chemicals run off the farmland and into the water supply, eventually ending up in the Baltic Sea.
Many positive steps are being taken by the countries which either border on the sea, or are in its catchment area. In November 2007, the countries bordering the sea adopted a road map (the Baltic Sea Action Plan by HELCOM) which identifies the actions needed to restore the health of the Baltic Sea.

The European Union’s Baltic Sea Region Program 2007-2013 promotes regional development through transnational cooperation. Eleven countries around the sea work together to find joint solutions to common problems.
Helsinki played host to various political and business leaders on Feb. 10 in a further bid to take action. The meeting followed the 2007 Helsinki Commission, which aimed to restore the Baltic’s “good ecological status,” by 2021.
The summit was a success in the opinion of the organizers. The summit attracted a large and high-level group of participants to Finlandia Hall to talk about their commitment to protect the sea. Around 500 persons showed up for the event.

The summit was hosted by Finnish President Tarja Halonen, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen and Ilkka Herlin, Chairman of the Baltic Sea Action Group, who together convened the summit. “Today, some of the richest and most environmentally conscious countries on earth live on the shores of one of the world’s most polluted seas. Isn’t it a tragedy?” said Halonen, opening the one-day meeting. “It is clear that we need co-operation of all the countries in the region to work together to solve the environmental problems of the Baltic Sea. The Baltic Sea is a route for travel and trade, but decades of exploitation and sheer irresponsibility have taken their toll on its vulnerable eco-system. It is clear that something has to be done quickly,” she said.
The summit was attended by heads of state and government and ministers from eleven countries. President Halonen urged leaders of the nine countries to take quick action to help clean the Baltic Sea.

Participants included King Carl XVI Gustaf and Minister of the Environment Andreas Carlgren of Sweden, President Valdis Zatlers of Latvia, President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen of Denmark, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip of Estonia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia, Deputy Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak of Poland, Federal Minister of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Ilse Aigner of Germany, Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Vitali Kulik of Belarus and EU Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn.

Numerous NGOs and businesses also took part in the summit and made their own commitments to protect the sea. This was the first time such a summit, focusing on concrete commitments and bringing together the private and public sectors, has been arranged in Finland. About 140 commitments were made at the summit. The commitments are concrete and the Baltic Sea Action Group will monitor their implementation.

“Now promises have been made and measures must be taken to fulfill them. We will go on working and monitor the situation constantly, since protecting the Baltic Sea is a continuing process,” emphasized Herlin. The Baltic Sea Action Group is a part of the Foundation for a Living Baltic Sea, devoted to rescuing the body of water with carefully chosen projects.
During the summit the Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip and the Minister of Environment Jaanus Tamkivi confirmed Estonia’s intention to compile a sea environment protection law. The country is concerned about the status of the sea, and both Ansip and Tamkivi stressed in their speeches of the importance of keeping it free of contamination.

“It’s serious. We are worried about the dioxins and other poisons on the seabed,” said Ansip.
He also stated that “This is a highest priority for us, considering that, if compared to our total territory and population, our coastline is long and the sea area is too big” to continue not caring about it.
The protection law, which will be compiled by 2012 and come into force in 2014, will seek to regulate various aspects such as pollution, international cooperation, usage of sea areas and scientific marine research. Environment Minister Carlgren pledged to double Sweden’s contribution to the Action Plan, to 9 million euros. He said that scientists have described the sea as “at the edge of ecological collapse.”

Organizers of the summit said they had received commitments from companies, NGOs and individuals ahead of the Summit and were focused on keeping the political will strong, to follow through on past promises. “To really make it happen at the ministerial level and at every other level, we need this kind of joint push so it gets critical mass,” said Saara Kankaanrinta, secretary-general of the Action Group foundation, a summit organizer.

Kankaanrinta said organizers were not seeking cash donations from business participants, but rather pro-bono work, or contributions. She cited, as an example, work done by IBM on improving navigation technology for Baltic sea traffic.
Political interest in the Baltic has grown of late as the start of construction nears for the Nord Stream pipeline, which will transport 55 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Russia to Germany, when completed in 2012.

The environmental group WWF said it was a good sign that the meeting had reached such a high political level, and the focus should be on enacting past promises rather than making new ones. “We have never been happy on the same day that something has been written or agreed, only when the implementation starts,” said Sampsa Vilhunen, marine program head at WWF Finland. “It will probably take 25 or 30 years for the marine basin to get better. People also have to realize that we are not going to reach a pristine environment ever again, because there are nearly 90 million people living on the Baltic sea,” Vilhunen added.