European Affairs

The Baltic Sea – Heavy Pollution Galvanizing Action Now     Print
By Jari Luoto

The Baltic Sea is generally imagined in people’s minds as part of a pristine northern Europe, but sadly it is actually one of the most polluted seas in the world. Its condition is a challenge for the nine littoral states and their populations – 90 million people -- living in its catchment area.

Given the scale of the challenge, the problem requires joint international action and new kinds of partnerships to find effective solutions to the multi-faceted pollution. This has been forthcoming in the EU’s first-ever “macro-regional strategy”: the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region. Adopted in late 2009, the overall program includes an action plan focused on environmental and maritime affairs, which is rooted in practical projects coordinated by the countries in the region and by the European Commission.

The poor state of the marine environment is largely due to the fact that the Baltic “flushes” badly. As there is only one narrow ocean entrance between Sweden and Denmark, the water in the semi-closed sea can only refresh itself about every 25–30 years. The Baltic is brackish (a mixture of salt and fresh water) and shallow (with an average depth being only 55 meters compared to the Mediterranean Sea’s average depth of 1500 meters). So it is exceptionally sensitive to external “load’ in the form of run-off and other pollutants.

High population density, intensive agricultural production and other human activities, including fossil fuel combustion from energy production and transport, result in large inputs of nutrients;  mainly compounds of nitrogen and phosphorus, mark the key sources of pollution affecting the Baltic.

This combination of a large catchment area, high levels of human activity, and a small body of water that exchanges over long periods of time makes the sea very sensitive to nutrient enrichment and eutrophication (a phenomenon that occurs when an overload of nutrients is added to the marine ecosystem by human activity, killing much marine life and altering the ecosystem). Other serious problems include hazardous substances that have accumulated in the sea bed. The levels of dioxin in the Baltic herring, for example, have been staying at alarmingly high levels despite curbs.

A growing risk is embedded in the otherwise healthy development of growth in maritime traffic. The sharp and continued increase of maritime traffic is the result of economic growth in the region, but also a reflection of Russia’s policy of developing its own capacity to export oil and gas directly from their own soil to consumers. Russia’s aim is to reduce dependency on ports of the Baltic States and pipelines through transit countries. This policy has led to the development of modern new ports with oil terminals in the Gulf of Finland.

If you add the fact that the water is perpetually cold and a sheet of ice coats the surface throughout a substantial portion of the year, it is easy to understand that the risks included in a major oil spill are much higher than they would be on the shorelines of an ocean.

The shipment of crude oil has grown from 45 million tons annually some ten years ago to 175 million tons in 2010. New oil terminals will allow for annual shipments of 250 million tons by 2015. Although maritime safety has improved, the risk of accidents is a serious concern in the sensitive Baltic Sea waters, where the current number of commercial vessels is nearly 2000 a day and expected to grow by a significant amount, perhaps by as much as 50% by 2030.

A particular area of concern is the Gulf of Finland, with it narrow shipping lanes and ice coverage for many months, which is now in the vicinity of so many of the new oil terminals.

The bad state of the marine environment and the growing risks have been getting attention since the mid-1970s, when Helsinki Commission for the protection of the Baltic Sea was created to serve as a joint platform for the coastal states. Because of slow progress in the economic recovery on the one hand and growing environmental consciousness on the other, there has been increased attention during the last few years from leading politicians, private actors and ordinary citizens engaged in trying to improve the ecological state of the Baltic Sea.

All of the coastal states have made a political commitment to the Helsinki Commission's Baltic Sea Action Plan in 2007 to restore a healthy ecological state of the sea by 2021. Now this political commitment needs to be supported by many legislative and practical measures.

Significant improvements have been made – for example, with wastewater treatment in the Baltic states, in Poland and in Russia’s St. Petersburg. But we have plenty more to do: untreated wastewater is still being discharged into the sea from the Kaliningrad enclave and many smaller cities in the region.

At the same time, intensive farming fuelled by the EU common agricultural policy, is expanding the run-off of fertilizers and other pollutants. Reductions in the agricultural load are a challenge for countries like Finland, which has invested significant resources in pollution control but needs farm production. Such diffuse sources are much harder to deal with than “point sources” like municipal wastewaters or industrial sites.

One example of joint problem solving is the Gulf of Finland’s reporting system (GOFREP) for vessel traffic run jointly by Finland, Estonia, and Russia. Operational since 2004, the system has significantly improved maritime safety. The EU is now supporting a project for improved maritime surveillance of the northern seas (the MARSUNO project), which has attracted 10 states to join forces in this effort aimed at enhancing maritime safety. (Previously discussed in European Affairs).

The building of the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany on the seabed raised some tensions in the region. But environmental impact assessments were carried out in accordance with the provisions of the Espoo Convention. The 44-party treaty, adopted in 1991, was set up to ensure that states adequately calculate the environmental impacts of certain projects and communicate with neighbouring states to avoid adverse environmental effects across borders. In the Baltic region, this has led to a transparent process and information-sharing among the littoral states that have eased concerns. Although Russia has not yet ratified the treaty, it has agreed to comply with the Convention’s regulations.

And finally, the fact that 11 states – eight of them represented by their heads of state or government and including Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – gathered in Helsinki in February 2010 for the Baltic Sea Action summit demonstrates a new willingness to act collectively on Baltic issues. The summit launched some 140 projects, most of them commitments by private entities, and started a new era of public-private partnerships for the benefit of the Baltic Sea.

All of the participating states made their own commitments, the implementation of which will be continuously followed up. Direct support from the highest political level for speeding up the recovery efforts combined with practical measures by a variety of actors is a recipe for a healthier future for the Baltic Sea. It is vital that the states in the region act together and diligently while there is still a chance to reverse the deterioration of this seriously ailing sea.

 

Jari Luoto was Finland’s Ambassador for Baltic Sea Issues, until mid-September, when he became Finland’s Ambassador to Brazil.