Environmental Needs Assessment for Central and Eastern Europe
“Strategic environmental issues in CEE countries are the result of both the past, centrally planned economic system and the new political, social and economic realities these countries are facing. […] With old environmental problems persisting and new challenges appearing, environmental issues are becoming critical due to the threats they pose to human health, natural capital and sound future economic development.”
— Strategic Environmental Issues in Central and Eastern Europe, Regional Report, 1994
In May 1994, the REC published two slim volumes that proved an instant hit with the donor community. Strategic Environmental Issues in Central and Eastern Europe (Volume 1: Regional Report; and Volume 2: Environmental Needs Assessment in Ten Countries) was the end result of research that began in 1993 immediately following the Second Ministerial Conference “Environment for Europe” in Lucerne, Switzerland. Held during a period in which support programmes for Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) were being developed or adjusted, the conference was heavily focused on the Environmental Action Programme for CEE, a manual with guidelines for environmental policy development supported by the World Bank.
The idea of a needs assessment for the region was initially met with scepticism, but the novel approach of the REC soon justified the effort. REC head office and country office staff conducted several interviews exploring the regional status of the environment and priorities for action, recording the opinion of prominent governmental, academic and NGO representatives in each country.
The collected opinions of this multi-stakeholder expert group were edited and presented according to the Chatham House Rule — that is, without attributing viewpoints to particular individuals. Country profiles were published as consecutive chapters in Volume 1, while Volume 2 included comparative tables highlighting country differences in a number of fields such as water quality, air quality and waste management.
“The basic assumption initiating this project was that environmental problems in CEE countries cannot be solved in isolation from political, economic and social issues”, the then REC executive director Stanislaw Sitnicki wrote in the preface to Volume 1. “New mechanisms driving forces which are contributing to the ongoing transformation of the CEE countries must be considered. Therefore, the environmental perspective presented here has been described in conjunction with the challenges and achievements of the market-driven social and economic systems being established in the CEE countries.”
The executive summary in Volume 1 offered the following assessment:
Although they are facing the same historical heritage, the CEE countries are not cooperating with each other to address common problems. Attempts to cooperate are further complicated because the CEE countries are in various phases of the transition process. In addition, they are progressing at different rates and along different pathways, which results from their distinctive social and political situations. The CEE region is not unified with respect to the various strategies and actions employed to develop market-driven economies and democratic societies. This differentiation also applies to environmental protection programmes. The diversity among the respective countries can offer unique experiences which could be shared among the countries. A coordinated approach to solving environmental problems in the CEE countries may stimulate their economic and political cooperation, as well as reduce the risk of conflicts.
The summary then went on to identify three basic requirements for realising environmental improvements in the CEE region:
- the adoption of the sustainable development principle while creating new political, social and economic systems;
- effective cooperation in addressing and approaching similar environmental problems; and
- the maintenance of foreign interest and assistance in critical environmental programmes.
Problems and solutions
In order to face the myriad challenges in the region, the REC project team put forward a number of critical steps to be taken in order to initiate the process of establishing a coherent and integrated approach to environmental problems:
- The methodological and managerial capacity of environmental decision makers must be improved through extensive training and advice. A comprehensive step-by-step procedure for approaching environmental problems needs to be formulated and put forward.
- The organisational and legal basis for environmentally related activities must be created. The ability of the public and government administrations to act depends not only on their own capacities, but also on the existing legal and organisational framework, as well as the demand for such actions created by environmental pressure groups and the media.
- Long-term national environmental policies must be established. They should integrate economic and environmental activities and call for the sufficient enforcement of proposed steps and measures.
- All relevant social sectors, including governments, citizens organisations, scientific experts, businesses and the media should cooperate and actively participate in the development and implementation of environmental programmes.
Volume 2 contains environmental needs assessment reports on the following countries: Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, based on information gathered between October 1993 and May 1994. Special attention was given to the relationship between environmental problems and the particular characteristics of the transformations occurring in each country.
Among the several benefits arising from the information presented in these volumes, the following can be highlighted:
- The assessed countries were able to identify their strengths and weaknesses in addressing environmental issues in comparison with their CEE neighbours.
- Opportunities and strong encouragement were provided to establish contacts, exchange experiences and offer mutual support in solving environmental problems within the region.
- The environmental impacts of the transition processes then taking place in CEE countries were thoroughly investigated.
- Suggestions were given on how Western environmental assistance programmes could be improved and on how CEE countries could more effectively use and attract such aid.
Contributor: Janos Zlinszky