BELGRADE – For Yugoslavia, the Danube River is a lifeline — a source of fish, irrigation and drinking water and an important waterway for barges carrying grain, coal, steel, ore and other freight. But these roles are being threatened as the legendary river reels from the effects of last year’s 78-day war over Kosovo.
Many of the industrial zones targeted by NATO planes were located along the Danube and tributaries like the Sava, Morava and Lepenica rivers. As a result, tons of petroleum products, heavy metals and other toxic substances poured into the rivers from burning industries hit in the bombing raids.
Moreover, Europe’s largest waterway is still blocked by the wreckage of bridges that NATO planes destroyed. President Slobodan Milosevic is linking resumption of normal river traffic to financial help in repairing the damage from the air war.
“This river (Danube) is very disturbed by the recent conflict,” said Radoje Lausevic, a biologist at Belgrade University.
A recent report by the U.N. Environmental Program (Balkan Task Force) says war-related damage to the river has been dramatic. It blames the bombings for high levels of ethylene dichloride in the damaged canals of the Danube and high levels of mercury, petroleum hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the Lepenica.
Fedor Zdanski, head of the natural sciences department at a private Belgrade university called Alternative Academic Network, says he is concerned about the Danube’s future.
“We are very worried about long-term groundwater contamination,” said Zdanski. “I am worried that we will no longer have clean streams and rivers in this country.”
Heavy metals block the ability of organisms to breathe oxygen and may be altering Yugoslavia’s delicate riparian environment, warns Pedrag Polic, chairman of the Applied Chemistry department at Belgrade University.
The scientists point to the following war-related destruction:
— The bombing of the Prva Iskra chemical plant in Baric released 165 tons of hydrofluoric acid into the Sava River.
— The destruction of electrical transformers in Bor resulted in uncontrollable combustion of PCBs and pyralene.
— The bombing of a storage tank in Ripanj caused 150 tons of used transformer oil to spill into the Topciderska River, a tributary of the Sava.
Seven months after the war’s end, the Danube system suffered another devastating setback after a dam in Romania holding over 3 million cubic feet of mud, copper, heavy metals and cyanide broke and emptied into the Tisza River.
Like a lit fuse, the deadly wall of gold-mining wastes moved steadily west through Hungary.
Nine days later, heavy metals and cyanide slipped quietly into Yugoslavia, where they soon rounded the mouth of the Tisza and entered the Danube.
Fortunately, local authorities say they had been alerted by their Hungarian counterparts and managed to close the agricultural gates, water pumps and weirs along the river.
“If (the Hungarian officials) hadn’t alerted us, I wouldn’t even like to think what might have happened,” said Lausevic, a pale, slender man in his late 30s.
Yugoslav scientists, who fear the cyanide spill may turn out to be Europe’s worst environmental disaster since the Chernobyl nuclear accident, say they are frustrated by a lack of resources and little or no access to international aid for monitoring and cleanup.
U.N.-imposed sanctions have prevented many Yugoslav scientists from exchanging even the most basic scientific information with their foreign colleagues.
In 1993, the United Nations decided that Yugoslavia ceased to exist and that each new country created in its breakup should apply for membership in the world body.
The former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia have since done so. But Milosevic refused, arguing that Yugoslavia — now composed of just Serbia and Montenegro — was the successor state and that the others were renegades. As a result, Belgrade has been denied a seat in the U.N. General Assembly.
“Yugoslavia is like a black spot on the map of Europe,” said Lausevic.
“Unfortunately, that includes the technical issue of environmental monitoring.”
Several hundred tons of dead fish were hauled from the Tisza river in Hungary after the mining disaster. The Yugoslav ministry of the environment said another 15 tons were pulled from the banks of the Danube in Yugoslavia.
There is also growing concern that the newest pollutants are lurking like a time bomb in the Danube mud.
Cyanide and heavy metals are heavier than water and can sink and settle in sediment. Stirred by the river’s tides and floods, the pollutants can migrate upstream or downstream, or leapfrog from one destination to the next.
In other words, the next environmental disaster could occur almost anywhere along the Danube’s 1,794-mile journey from Germany to the Black Sea. The Danube flows through or alongside nine countries with a total population of 202 million.
Milutin Milosevic, a project coordinator at the Belgrade-based Regional Environmental Center, says the declining state of the environment has affected public morale. He says that the years of economic sanctions, war and the cyanide spill have created a mix of apathy and cynicism.
“People here are worried about becoming Europe’s dumping ground,” he said.
“If we can’t monitor what is going on around us, how do we know what our neighbors are doing? How do we know what the Yugoslav government is doing? This is also an environmental consequence of war.”
Dusan Vasiljevic, head of the Green Table, a Belgrade nonprofit organization that promotes democracy and the participation of civil society, agrees.
“The main problem is that people in this country are not given even the basic level of information,” he said. “We are not even informed about how much danger we are in.”
Radoje Lausevic says new studies show that the U.N. sanctions have decreased the average living standard in Yugoslavia, halted upgrades to “cleaner” modern technology and may have even lowered people’s resistance to sickness and disease by causing weaker diets and stress.
“But I am even more worried about what will happen here in the next few years,” he said. “Disasters happen so quickly. I am afraid that in the future, nature may simply not have enough time to recover properly.”