25/10/2004 - The countries of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia are at an environmental crossroads, according to a new OECD assessment. At present, the situation is grim, threatening human health and natural resources.
After more than a decade of neglect, water infrastructures are collapsing. Outbreaks of water-related diseases are on the increase. In many countries more than one in three people are drinking polluted water and less than 30% of the population in rural areas has water and sewer systems.
However, rebounding economic growth, EU enlargement, security concerns linked to shared environmental resources, and the new international development agenda offer opportunities for improving environmental conditions in this diverse and geo-politically important region.
Environment ministers of the region met in Tbilisi with ministers from the EU and representatives from partner countries, international organisations, the private sector and NGOs to discuss how stronger partnerships could address environmental challenges. An environmental strategy launched last year in Kiev provided the focus for discussion.
The Prime Minister of Georgia, Mr. Zhvania, called on governments in the region to provide leadership in environmental protection and warned of the high costs of delaying action. To avoid those costs he advocated that environmental concerns be factored into all government decisions.
Ministers vowed to establish clearer priorities and realistic targets to help focus their domestic resources and guide international co-operation. To move from good intentions to results, they see a need to draw up detailed implementation plans and financing strategies. It is encouraging that some countries are refining environmental targets in the view of available resources.
The meeting placed special emphasis on capacity building. Ministers stressed that countries value knowledge transfer and institutional strengthening above financial aid. Regional networks of experts and twinning arrangement with more developed countries were put forward as possible solutions. Adoption of international guidelines in reforming policies was also seen as a key steeping stone.
Environmental organisations attending the meeting called for more active involvement of business, and denounced governments for suppressing civic activities under the pretext of counter-terrorism measures. Ministers admitted that progress is proving difficult and pledged to improve their often confrontational relations with business.
OECD analysis shows that better harmonised co-operation is needed. More than half of the 300 reported environmental co-operation initiatives relate to water because it is high on development agendas these days. By contrast, urban air pollution remains a largely ignored killer even though transportation—responsible for up to 70% of emissions— is increasing rapidly. The Caucasus, the Black Sea wetlands and the Central Asian mountains are important to global biodiversity, but relatively low-cost capacity for biodiversity management is collapsing.
Though environmental issues are a growing concern for both the public and politicians, progress is slow. Poorly funded environmental institutions in the region face an uphill struggle. For example, Kyrgyz environment inspectors earn 30 dollars per month and cannot afford the transportation costs to reach the facilities they are supposed to inspect. So, though formal environmental standards are more stringent than in OECD countries, there is little incentive for private businesses to stop polluting.
For additional information on the Tbilisi Ministerial Conference, please contact: Ms. Eija Kiiskinen (tel. +33 1 4524 1840) or Roberto Martín-Hurtado (tel. +33 1 4524 142) in the OECD's Environment Directorate.