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Crisis 1999
News Archive 1999

Balkans task force recommends immediate
environmental action as part of humanitarian aid

Four environmental hotspots found in Serbia

NAIROBI/STOCKHOLM, 14 October, 1999 - In its report released today, the Joint UNEP/UNCHS (Habitat) Balkans Task Force (BTF) concludes that the Kosovo conflict did not cause an environmental catastrophe affecting the Balkans region as a whole, but that pollution detected at four environmental "hot spots" (Pancevo, Kragujevac, Novi Sad and Bor), is serious and poses a threat to human health. At these sites, all in Serbia, immediate clean-up action, which should be seen as a part of humanitarian assistance to the region, is called for.

The BTF report, "The Kosovo Conflict - Consequences for the Environment and Human Settlements," also concludes that much of the pollution identified pre-dates the conflict and that there is widespread evidence of long-term deficiencies in the treatment of hazardous waste. It also concludes that in Kosovo the human settlement problem is not just about reconstructing houses but a question of establishing administrative procedures that will give people security of tenure.

The BTF was set-up by Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and UN Centre for Human Settlements, UNCHS (Habitat), in May 1999, to assess the environmental and human settlement consequences of the Balkans conflict. Under the leadership of the former Finnish Environment and Development Cooperation Minister, Pekka Haavisto, the BTF acted on the recommendation of an earlier UN mission to the region that a detailed assessment of the full extent of the environmental impact of the conflict be urgently carried out.

"In a post conflict situation, such a neutral, objective and scientific assessment of the real situation on the ground is essential," said Toepfer. "The BTF report not only acts as a much needed and reliable source of information to the peoples affected, but also provides a management tool to the international community for the overall emergency humanitarian effort. It clearly highlights the important links between environmental concerns and humanitarian assistance."

"As part of the humanitarian aid to the region, the international community should assist the relevant authorities in dealing with the key environmental hot spots, thus avoiding further harm to human health and the environment in Yugoslavia and the wider Balkans region," said Haavisto. "Although the Yugoslav government, which has the main responsibility for clean-up efforts, can deal with some of the priorities we've identified, others will require assistance from the international community."

The BTF focused its work on five areas. To this end, four field missions were carried out between July to September:

  • Environmental consequences of the conflict on industrial sites
  • Environmental consequences of the conflict on the Danube river
  • Consequences of the conflict on biodiversity in protected areas
  • Consequences of the conflict for human settlements and the environment in Kosovo - field assessment and project development/implementation

The exact sites visited by the various field missions were selected after systematically reviewing information from a wide range of sources. During the "industrial sites" and "Danube" missions, BTF scientists took samples of air, soil, water, and biota, and held meetings with environmental experts, and representatives of local NGOs and local authorities. The 'Biodiversity' mission visited four protected areas in Serbia and Montenegro.

The fifth area of work concerned the possible consequences for the environment and human health of depleted uranium (DU) weapons used in the conflict. Because of the lack of information on actual use of DU, this subject was covered by carrying out a Geneva-based "desk assessment," with an expert group comprised of representatives from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Swedish Radiation Protection Institute and UNEP.

BTF Report: Recommendations

The recommendations contained in the report highlight activities that are urgent and needed to halt or mitigate the further degradation of the state of the environment in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), and diminish the risk to human health.

At all the industrial sites visited, the report recommends: further studies to determine whether pollution has contaminated sources of drinking water; the treatment or removal (if necessary) of surface soil contaminated with heavy oil, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals and other hazardous substances; the development and implementation of detailed waste disposal plans; and continued monitoring of air, water, soil, agricultural products and human health.

Concerning the identified "hot-spots," the report recommends:

  • At Pancevo (industrial complex), urgent remedial action should be taken at the wastewater canal which flows into the Danube and which is seriously contaminated with 1,2-dichloroethane (EDC) and mercury. Also, immediate clean-up of the mercury spill at the petrochemical factory.

  • At the Zastava car plant in Kragujevac, immediate steps should be taken to clean-up PCB and dioxin contamination, and improve storage of significant quantities of hazardous waste.

  • At Novi Sad (oil refinery next to the river Danube) detailed studies should be carried out to determine whether oil product pollution has contaminated the groundwater/drinking water supplies.

  • At Bor (ore smelting complex), immediate action should be taken to prevent further releases of large amounts of sulphur dioxide gas in the atmosphere. Damaged equipment containing PCB oils should be removed and stored securely.

Danube River

The BTF scientists found no evidence of an ecological disaster for the river Danube as a result of the conflict. However, the report states that the analysis of samples taken from the Danube sediment and biota revealed significant chronic pollution, both upstream and downstream of the sites directly affected by the conflict. Further monitoring and investment in appropriate production and waste management processes is recommended. Also, it recommends the urgent need for the FRY to be integrated within international agreements for water quality monitoring, pollution reduction and emergency response.


The report says that the physical damage from the air strikes is significant within limited areas, but of relatively minor importance when seen in relation to the overall size of the protected areas and the ecosystems which surround the sites which were hit. However, it warns that unexploded ordnance is both an immediate safety issue (risk to staff working in protected areas) and a possible long-term constraint to future tourism in and around protected areas.

Depleted Uranium

Since very little information was available on the actual use of DU in the Kosovo conflict, the expert BTF "desk assessment group" was forced to rely on available published information. Given these circumstances and taking a precautionary approach to the issue, the BTF report recommends that at places where contamination has been confirmed, measures should be taken to prevent access. And, the local authorities and people concerned should be informed of the possible risks and appropriate precautionary measures.

The report states, however, that its assumptions have not been verified and the results are subject to some uncertainty. It stresses that immediate action is necessary to obtain information from NATO confirming if, how and where, DU was used during the conflict. This is a prerequisite for verifying initial risk assessments, making necessary measurements, and taking precautionary actions. The report recommends that a thorough review of the effects on health of medium and long-term exposure to DU should be undertaken under the auspices of the WHO.

Human Settlement

In Kosovo, the Habitat-led assessment found that, apart from considerable damage to the infrastructure and housing, rehabilitating returning refugees is complicated by the collapse of municipal administrative systems, including the destruction or loss of all property records. Furthermore, the province lacks a legislative and policy framework on housing and property consistent with accepted international standards.

The recommendations of the report include providing ongoing technical support to UNMIK in order to produce guidelines and procedures for municipal administration. This should include procedures to regularise housing and property rights including the establishment of an independent mechanism to deal with conflicts. Technical support should also be given to develop a cadastral information system and to upgrade property registries and documentation.

Since it was established, the BTF has worked as an integral part of the UN system and in Kosovo continues to work within the framework of UNMIK. Sixty experts, drawn from six UN agencies, 19 countries and 26 scientific institutions and NGOs, have been involved in the various BTF assessment missions. Funding for the BTF work (in the form of voluntary contributions) came from Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Additional in-kind support was provided by Russia and Slovakia, and NGOs including Greenpeace, WWF, IUCN, Green Cross and the WCMC.

The BTF report was presented to the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, in Geneva last Saturday. It is available on the Web at

Note to journalists: From 2.30-4pm on 14 October, Pekka Haavisto will be taking telephone calls from journalists on his mobile: 41-79-2218072. Pasi Rinne, Senior Advisor to Mr Haavisto will be taking calls from 1-6pm on his mobile: 41-792218073.

For more information contact: Robert Bisset, Office of the UNEP Spokesman and BTF Press Officer on mobile: 41-79-206-3720,

In Nairobi, contact: Tore J. Brevik, UNEP Spokesman on tel: (254-2) 623292, fax: 623692, email:, or Sharad Shankardass, Ag. Head, Media and Press Relations, Habitat, tel: 623153, fax: 624060, email:

In Geneva contact Gertrud Attar on 41-22-9178234 In New York, contact Jim Sniffen on tel: 1-212-963-8094

UNEP News Release 1999/112

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