Environmental Wastelands: Seven Countries on the Brink of Environmental Disaster

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Despite the recent attention paid to global environmental problems (e.g., global climate change, ozone thinning and the rapid loss of biodiversity), for most people environmental problems are local. The quality and length of their and their children's lives depends on solving local environmental problems.
The causes and consequences of human-created environmental problems are not evenly distributed over the earth. Some countries face a greater range of and more severe environmental difficulties than others. Unsurprisingly, the countries facing the direst environmental threats are poor. Unlike wealthy nations, the nations facing the worst environmental problems usually don't have the resources or institutional capacity necessary to improve their environmental situation. Countries on the verge of environmental disaster are handicapped by poverty, and this poverty is partly the result of and partly a factor in the institutional incapacity to deal with environmental problems. Almost none of the countries facing the most pressing environmental problems have stable political/social/economic structures. Those that aren't currently undergoing civil strife have only recently emerged from periods of substantial civil unrest and political change, and their fledgling governments face uncertain futures.

All of the countries analyzed below face a myriad of environmental woes. In most of them, the sheer number of problems and the extent of environmental degradation threaten both current human well-being and the ability of inhabitants to use the local environment sustainably in the long term. This article examines several countries that are among the worst representative examples of environmental crises facing entire regions.

Some people might expect Russia to appear on any list of countries facing severe environmental crises, however it is not analyzed here. Though Russia does have serious pollution problems, they are not as severe as those in other former Soviet bloc countries. In addition, it has vast natural resource reserves and a very low population growth rate- so Russia doesn't have to exploit these resources in an unsustainable manner simply to feed a burgeoning population. Also, relative to other former Eastern bloc countries and Soviet republics, Russia has a high per capita gross national product (GNP). Finally, unlike its attitude toward many other countries in the throes of environmental crisis, the developed world has a substantial interest in seeing Russia's government remain stable, its economy improve and its environmental problems subside. As long as Russia's experiment with democracy continues, in all likelihood, it should be able to solve its environmental problems.

Haiti. Haiti may be a dying nation from an ecological perspective. By almost any standard it is in dire straits: it has a high population growth rate (+ 2 percent); the lowest gross national product per capita in North and Central America (less than $375 a year); a negative annual economic growth rate; the lowest life expectancy (56.6 years); and the highest infant and toddler mortality rates in the Americas (86 and 140 deaths respectively per 1000 live births). Many of Haiti's problems have environmental origins and/or effects.

Although groundwater is plentiful, safe drinking water is scarce. Less than 30 percent of the population outside of the nation's capital has access to safe drinking water. Even in Port-au-Prince, sewage systems and sewage treatment are largely nonexistent. As a result, deadly forms of water-related diseases and parasitic infestations are widespread.

Deforestation and the resulting soil erosion are Haiti's greatest environmental threat. At the turn of the century more than 60 percent of Haiti was forested; but less than 2 percent remains and deforestation rates top 3.9 percent.

Because more than 85 percent of Haiti is mountainous, much of the deforestation has occurred on steep, nutrient-poor, highly erodable slopes. Haiti's agricultural practices have long been unsustainable because of archaic Napoleonic legal principles of land inheritance and tenure which specify that upon a persons's death his land must be equally divided among all of his children. This and deforestation have resulted in serious soil erosion. Over 6 percent of Haitian land is completely stripped of arable soil - and may be permanently unable to support crops or life. More than the last 15 years a third of Haiti has seriously eroded, facing imminent conversion to desert. In some places the land resembles a moonscape with topsoil so shallow it can only support bonsai-scale plant growth.

Haitian deforestation was exacerbated by the military overthrow of the Aristide regime in 1991. The U.S. - led international embargo largely ended reforestation efforts and increased the rate of deforestation. After the embargo, Haiti's main export cash crops (coffee and mangoes) had little value. These crops had provided environmental benefits. Coffee slowed soil erosion and mangoes, even during the worst times, had been left untouched by peasant loggers. Rural Haitians harvest trees for charcoal. At the onset of the embargo, fuel prices rose sharply, making even mangoes more valuable as charcoal than for fruit. In addition, the subsistence crops that replaced coffee did not have its soil retention qualities. This shift in use made survival possible in the short term but made agriculture less viable in the present and future. Although the new Haitian government recognizes that soil erosion and other environmental problems are serious, they do not have as high a priority with the people whose food, fuel and housing needs must be addressed before scare resources can be spent on less immediate, if no less serious, environmental needs.

Kazakhstan. The stains of communist rule on the environment of Kazakhstan will be evident for decades to come. As with other former Soviet bloc countries, the disastrous environmental results of Soviet rule have only become fully apparent since the breakup of the U.S.S.R.

Of the number of severe environmental problems confronting Kazakhstan, perhaps the most serious are the disappearing Aral Sea, increasing water and land salinization and lingering radioactivity. The most visible problems relate to the Aral sea, once the world's fourth largest lake. Its shores were once dotted with cities and it supported a thriving fishing industry. In the 1960s the Soviet Union began to divert water from the two main rivers flowing into the sea to irrigate lands for intensive cotton production.

This effort caused the Aral Sea to shrink in area by more than half since the 1960s (from 68,300 square kilometers to 34,800 square kilometers) and in volume by more than two-thirds (from 1,066 cubic kilometers to 304 cubic kilometers). The results have been tragic for both the people and wildlife of Kazakhstan. Ports literally dried up and entire villages stand abandoned. Rusting hulks of ships are embedded in the former seabed miles from the nearest shore. The fisheries have collapsed because the salinity of the remaining water more than tripled, wiping out entire fish species: only five out of 20 native species remain.

The Aral Sea's decline has had other serious consequences. Winds blow 42 million tons of salt from the seabed every year, damaging produce, rice and cotton crops. Wind-blown salt is also making the soil unfit for continued agriculture. The highly saline water used for irrigation has also contributed to dangerously high groundwater salinity levels on irrigated lands. Sixty to 70 percent of irrigated land in Kazakhstan is highly salinized. Salinization has made much of Kazakhstan's water unsafe for drinking. Land and groundwater salinization has also caused a decline in the number of and population density of animal species on irrigated lands.

Compounding this tragedy is the fact that the irrigation techniques and processes were woefully wasteful. By most calculations between 30 percent and 45 percent of the water diverted for irrigation was lost due to leaks in the irrigation system and evaporation in Kazakhstan's highly arid environment.

Kazakhstan's average life span is low: only 52 years compared to 70 for the average Russian. This average is even lower (48 years) in regions near former Soviet nuclear test sites. At one site, Semipalatinsk in eastern Kazakhstan, more than 467 nuclear weapons were detonated from 1949 to 1989, of which 167 were exploded above ground. Often the Soviets didn't remove residents of towns within the radiation fallout zones. Politicians in the region have noted that every family has a member who is seriously ill, usually with some form of radiation-related cancer. In addition, children in the region suffer from abnormally high rates of birth defects such as being born unable to speak or without limbs. The mortality rate of children in the test site region are the highest in all of Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan's radiation problems are not limited to its people. Biologists suspect that at least part of the steep population decline of endangered animals, for instance the saiga antelope and the black eagle, is due to effects of radioactivity. Domestic animals have also been harmed by radiation. Kazakhstan has been an exporter of meat to most regions in the former USSR. However, as meat came under increasing scrutiny after the Chernobyl accident, many food shipments from Kazakhstan have been refused for being too radioactive for human consumption.

Poland and the Former Czechoslovakia. Poland and the former Czechoslovakia have a different set of problems than Kazakhstan - industrial pollution. They are probably the most polluted countries in the world (most data do not distinguish between the two republics formed after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia). Under communist rule, they followed the Soviet pattern of industrialization regardless of the costs. Uncontrolled by the discipline of market prices, their heavy industries were grossly inefficient. Their factories used almost three times as much energy and produced from three to six times as much air pollution per dollar of GNP as those in market economies. Most of this pollution came from the nations' power plants that use coal with a high sulfur content.

Air, water and soil pollution, especially in southern Poland have harmed people and forests and damaged buildings. Industrial pollution has contributed to the generally poor health of the Polish and Czech people. The average life expectancy in Poland is one of the shortest in all of Europe, four to seven years below the average, and the infant and toddler mortality rates are among the highest in the industrialized world. Czechoslovakia is not far behind with a life span three to six years below the European average. In Bohemia, among the most polluted regions of Czechoslovakia, the average life span is even lower (at 63 years, it is almost nine years less than the average for the rest of Czechoslovakia).

The problems are most severe in the two countries' major urban areas. By 1992, more than 11 percent of Poland's land had been designated as ecologically hazardous, most of it in the cities where more than 40 percent of Poland's population lives. In Krakow, life expectancy during the later 1980s fell while infant mortality rates and leukemia rates rose. Air pollution is so bad in some Polish cities that schools keep children inside during recess, with windows and doors closed and oxygen on hand for the students on the worst air days. In addition, doctors prescribe medical vacations in salt mines for workers and residents from industrial areas. Workers typically spend 100 hours over the course of a 24-day treatment underground. One sanitarium for respiratory patients moves its patients underground every evening to give them relief during sleep.

Czechoslovakia's air pollution problems are just as alarming and better documented. In Prague in 1982 the maximun daily average SO2 levels were 40 times the U.S limit.!

When air particulates exceed 250 micrograms per cubic centimeters in the city of Most, yellow flags are posted to warn the elderly and infants not to venture outdoors. Radio announcements warn families to wear their respirators on the way to work or school and gym lessons are canceled. These days are alarmingly common - about 120 a year.

Poland's rates of cancer and birth defects are higher and their children's intelligence tests lower than the rest of Europe, largely due to the high levels of heavy metals (including lead and mercury) in the air and soil. Around Krakow and Warsaw, locally grown produce is too contaminated with heavy metals to be edible. But it is eaten anyway because the food distribution system is so poor that fruits and vegetables aren't available from elsewhere.

The same is true in Czechoslovakia, where food contamination - from toxic organics like PCBs and heavy metals like lead and cadmium - is rife. For instance, the average concentration of PCBs in breast milk is more than three times that found in Yugoslavia or Scandinavian countries and the average lead concentration in children's blood is three times greater than the level certified as neurotoxic in the United States.

Human health problems are not the only results of Poland's air pollution problems. Historic architecture in Poland's cities is visibly eroded by acid rain. In addition, with almost three-quarters of all trees showing moderate to severe damage from air pollution, Poland's forests are considered among the worst in Europe.

Czechoslovakian forests are also degraded with about three-quarters of all trees showing evidence of defoliation due to air pollution. It is estimated that 54 percent of the forests in the Czech Republic have suffered irreversible damage. A 42-year buildup of heavy metals in the soil is thwarting foresters' attempts at reforestation.

Poland's water resources are also in bad shape. By U.S. and European standards, the country has virtually no potable water. Official statistics claim that 94 percent of the urban population and 82 percent of the rural population has access to safe drinking water, but many Poles pay extraordinary amounts relative to their income to buy bottled water. In 1983 only 6 percent of river water was considered safe for municipal use.

In Czechoslovakia, 70 percent of all surface water is considered heavily polluted and 30 percent is unable to sustain aquatic life. Over 2.5 million people have no domestic wastewater treatment - effluents, including human wastes, are discharged directly into streams. Oily substances exceed Safe Drinking Water Standards for more than a million people and radioactive substances for more than 300,000.

Heavy nitrate concentrations in drinking water come from several sources: agricultural runoff; metals and organics in the surface water from industry and mining; and oil, gasoline and machinery lubricants in freshwater aquifers, rivers and groundwater supplies from above-ground dumping by the Soviet military. When the 75,000 Soviet troops stationed in Czechoslovakia departed, they left behind waste problems that will take more than 50 years to clean up. In addition to the visible slag heaps and crumbling military installations, the Soviets dumped leaking fuel tanks, expired munitions, toxic chemicals, chemical weapons and land mines in unmarked pits . Recent evidence shows that the Soviets polluted at least 5,000 to 8,000 square miles of Czechoslovakia. At one maintenance depot for tanks, the Soviets emptied their 15,000-gallon fuel tanks directly onto the ground. The groundwater is covered with eight to 10 inches of diesel oil. Czechoslovakian tests since the Soviet withdrawal (they were not allowed to test groundwater during Soviet occupation) have indicated that almost all contaminants are present at 30 to 50 times allowable levels.

Madagascar. The island of Madagascar off the southeastern coast of Africa contains less than .4 percent of the earth's land surface but , more than 5 percent of the world's species, due to a unique geologic history and varied geography and climate. It is home to one half of the world's chameleon species, 1,000 species of orchids, almost half of Africa's primate species and the rosy periwinkle - a flower that provides the key ingredient in the treatment of childhood leukemia. Most of these species are found nowhere else. Most of this biodiversity is contained in Madagascar's magnificent tropical forests.

Despite the country's wealth of biological resources, much of its population lives in abject poverty. As of 1992, Madagascar faced a high population growth rate (3.6 percent) and a low and falling per capita GNP of $180 annually. Infant and toddler mortality rates are high (110 and 176 per thousand live births, respectively); access to safe drinking water is low in both urban and rural areas; and access to sanitation is almost nonexistent.

Although poverty is the foremost threat to Madagascar's unique environmental resources, they also are threatened by: a large foreign debt, a weak new democratic government and harmful, culturally ensconced agricultural practices. These combined factors have led to an atrocious amount of deforestation - between 75 percent and 90 percent of the country's rain forests have been cut since the beginning of the century. At current rates of deforestation, total denudation is expected on all but the steepest inclines within 35 years. Deforestation threatens many species with extinction; for instance, more than half of Madagascar's mammal species face near-term extinction. It also increases soil erosion.

Forests are primarily cleared for agriculture and fuel for cooking and heat. In fact, the island depends on wood for more than 80 percent of its energy needs.

Traditionally, the majority of Malagascay farmers were sharecroppers on land granted by government to a social elite. Since only a small portion of currently cultivated land is owned by the farmers, they have had little incentive to preserve the soil. This is beginning to change, since farmers are now becoming freeholders of land that they homestead. Unfortunately, when combined with the country's recent political disorder and destructive agricultural methods, this simply expands the area of environmental degradation. Malagascay farmers typically don't plow the soil. It is considered taboo because it "turns the earth's back on God." However, without plowing, the productive life of a field is shortened, a significant portion of the seed washes away and the red clay, becomes compacted in the tropical sun. As the population grows and fields become infertile, more forests are cut to create farmland.

In addition, cattle are grazed on family or communal commons, which typically leads to overstocking and attendant overgrazing. Finally, since land tenure has been extremely insecure and cattle and crop theft has been rampant, there is simply little incentive for farmers to engage in costly conservation measures. Even the 2 percent of Madagascar's land in protected forests is threatened with destruction. Illegal logging and poaching in these areas are common. Some is done by peasants for food and energy. However, analysts believe a significant portion is for less noble purposes. Trees are cut to supply exotic tropical wood for the affluent and animals are taken for the exotic pet trade and use in folk medicines. Some of this occurs with the help of corrupt government officials. There is also pressure to mine one protected area containing a large, recently discovered titanium deposit that could help alleviate Madagascar's foreign debt.

Rwanda. The current status of the environment in Rwanda is a mystery although the horrible plight of its people is public. The genocidal civil war forced most outside observers, including those working on Rwanda's environmental problems, to flee the country and there simply isn't much current information available. However, what we do know is alarming.

Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries on earth. However, it doesn't have the industrial capacity, the financial resources, the economic infrastructure or the strategic political importance of some other densely populated countries, such as Japan and Singapore. Accordingly, poverty is the norm for the majority of Rwandans. The per capita GNP is less than $285 annually. Civil strife and genocide have been periodic features of Rwandan political life since the 1960s, and since the civil war began again its usually anemic economy has had a negative growth rate. The few sanitation services and safe drinking water systems that existed before the recent conflict have been decimated.

At the same time, Rwanda's demographic indicators are appalling: on average every woman has 8.6 children; the population growth rate is 3.4 percent; and life expectancy is below 47 years and declining. More than 40 percent of the children born in Rwanda don't live to see their fifth birthday, and, unlike most of the world, this figure has actually worsened since 1960. The average Rwandan eats less than 1,500 calories per day - less than the U.N. says is necessary for a person to sustain light to moderate activity. In addition the U.N. has listed Rwanda among countries facing severe water scarcity. By almost any measure, life in Rwanda is getting worse.

Poverty threatens Rwanda's environment in three main ways. First, wood and charcoal currently provide Rwandans with 90 percent of their fuel needs. Thus, the remaining forests seem critical to meeting Rwanda's future energy demands. On the other hand, Rwanda possesses vast, undeveloped hydroelectric potential. However, developing this would exacerbate or create a host of new environmental problems.

Second, even before the war, poaching was a significant threat to the country's wildlife and more than 2,000 people illegally mined within the Nyungwe National Park. polluting the rivers and erroding the river banks. In the current period of current social unrest, what few anti-poaching, anti-mining activities had taken place under the previous regime have ended and it is unclear what researchers will find after the war is over.

Finally, Rwanda's forests are threatened by subsistence farming, since all of the arable land is exhausted, making even the poor soils of Rwanda's remaining forests seem attractive. In sum, energy, resource and agricultural needs and warfare threaten irreversible damage to Rwanda's remaining forests and wildlife.

Until recently, Rwanda was the darling of environmentalists who worry about deforestation and biodiversity problems on the African continent. Its previous repressive government locked up 20 percent of its land in national parks, most of it in the mountainous and heavily forested northern part of the country. Volcanoes National Park was founded largely through the Herculean efforts of Dian Fossey. Her work brought the lives and plight of the Rwandan mountain gorilla to public attention. Scientists later realized that getting tough on poachers and locking up large, commercially valuable portions of a country facing severe population and poverty problems was not feasible in the long run. Conservationists would have to find ways to make the parks pay their way. They saw that unless the parks were more valuable to the adjacent communities in their natural state than the trees, wildlife and mineral (mostly gold) resources were if developed, the government would be unable to protect them in perpetuity - except by using harsh measures that violated human rights.

Conservationists have largely failed at this task. They promoted tourism as a way to give rural citizens a stake in the parks' successes. However, most tourist dollars flow to government coffers and urban-based tour companies. In addition, there are few park ranger jobs available, and they do not pay as well as illegal activities such as mining, logging and poaching. Local villagers resent the rangers' interference with traditional uses of the land and view them as supporting government efforts to keep the disfavored ethnic populations of rural areas impoverished.

China. The vast size and population of China magnify its environmental failures and successes. Unlike the countries examined earlier, China's government, though repressive, is relatively stable. China's people fare well in many respects compared to much of the rest of Asia, Central and South America and former Soviet Bloc countries - for example, the average life span is longer and its infant and toddler mortality rate is lower. China's per capita GNP is low, but its economy is healthy, having a sustained 9.7 percent growth rate since 1980 (growth has been even faster since 1992).

These numbers hide the terrible toll paid by China's people and the environment. Since the success of the Communist revolution in 1949, industrial development and production have superseded environmental protection. Combined with its booming population, this focus on development regardless of the costs has created severe environmental problems and irreparably damaged much of China's arable land, forests and water resources.

Since 1957, China has lost an estimated 2.3 percent of its arable land (at a time when its population doubled), mostly to erosion and development. Sandstorms from China's growing deserts directly cost the economy more than $800 million annually. China's forests are also dwindling. Currently forests cover 13 percent of its acreage, compared to a world average of 31 percent. China is the second largest importer of timber. However even before recent austerity measures increased domestic logging, annual cutting exceeded growth by 44 percent. China has lost more than 2 percent of its remaining forests since 1974, despite recent large-scale reforestation efforts. The survival rate of reforested trees in China is less than 40 percent. Where forests once stood, deserts have begun to appear.

China's water supplies are also critically degraded. Its Yellow River is the most silt-laden river in the world, carrying over 1 billion tons of eroded soil each year. Only 40 percent of urban dwellers and less than 7 percent of rural Chinese have access to safe drinking water. Even contaminated water is scarce in some parts of the country. Yet, analysts estimate that leaking toilets waste more than 200 million cubic yards of water a year. Faulty toilets have contributed to water rationing in 50 major cities, in a country where 300 of 570 cities are chronically short of water. Less than 20 percent of China's industrial and residential wastewater receives treatment. The biggest polluters are state-run enterprises. China's factories dump 36 billion tons of untreated waste into the nations lakes, rivers and coastal seas each year. This has made the water in more than a quarter of the freshwater lakes and rivers unsuitable even for irrigation, much less domestic use. Fish from 80 percent of China's rivers are unfit for human consumption. Entire inland fisheries are dying.

China's air quality is the worst in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the 1980s the average daily total of suspended particulates in Northern China was six to nine times greater than WHO safety standards and in Southern China they were three to five times greater. In the industrial city of Benxi, smog is so bad that visibility is limited to 40 to 50 yards six months a year. Air pollution is one of the primary causes of premature death in China. In 1988, 26 percent of all deaths in China were caused by lung disease, more than five times the U.S. rate. Medical experts argue that air and water pollution are the principal causes of China's high incidence of hepatitis, bronchial disease, eye diseases and cancers of the stomach, liver, lungs and intestines.

In recent years, the Chinese government has taken actions to reduce pollution and increase efficiency. It has instituted strict new standards for effluent release and it is implementing market-oriented pollution charges and taxes. These actions are having some effect in China's most visible plants and cities. Some Chinese firms have found that less polluting, more fuel-efficient technologies or recycling not only reduces pollution but also increases their plant's productive efficiency. However, enforcement has been lax, especially in rural areas and cities not normally visited by foreigners. There, managers of state-owned firms have either ignored the central government's call for pollution control because the fines imposed are lower than the cost of compliance or they have gained waiverss from pollution standards in order to meet state-set production goals.

Because most of China's air pollution is a result of its use of coal for fuel, some have suggested that China develop other energy sources. For instance, some have proposed that China develop its vast reserves of clean burning natural gas and reduce its reliance on high-sulfur coal. However, the vast pipeline or network of railways or roads that would be necessary to transport the gas would be enormously expensive to build and maintain, making this option unfeasible for the near future.

One highly contentious option that China is pursuing to supply its increasing energy needs is the development of the Three Gorges dam project. Upon completion, Three Gorges dam will be the world's largest, most complex hydroelectric dam and water delivery system. The project will reduce the periodic flooding along the lower reaches of the Yangtze river that cause large losses of life. Also, it will reduce reliance on coal by 40 million tons annually, thus substantially reducing the emissions of sulfur and carbon dioxide.

But Three Gorges dam has some serious social and environmental costs as well. The reservoir created by the dam will inundate two cities, 11 counties and 1,351 villages. In addition, it will submerge almost 24,000 hectares of cultivated land and require the resettlement of more than 1.1 million people. Among the more important ecological harms, the dam will flood some of China's finest scenery, harming an important tourist attraction. In addition, and more importantly from an ecological standpoint, it will threaten the continued existence of important wetlands and further endanger the nearly extinct Yangtzse Dolphin and the rare Chinese sturgeon.

Sadly, it may be too late to save the environment in some of these countries. For instance, Haiti simply may not have the time, public will and economic and political infrastructures necessary to halt current environmental degradation, much less to restore their environment to levels capable of sustaining long-term, intensive human habitation and use. Even in those countries where there is more hope, the struggle to protect and enhance the environment upon which their citizens depend will be a long one, requiring resources that the countries' citizens may not possess, and calling for sacrifices that they may be unwilling or unable to make.