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Helping to Save the Black Sea

The Black Sea - the major natural and economic resource for over 160 million people—was declared nearly dead a decade ago. The Washington Post labelled it “the toilet bowl for half of Europe.” Today, all countries sharing the Black Sea have joined a UN-brokered accord and, together with a multitude of donors, launched a rescue mission. Among the partners is the IAEA, which is helping to develop local capabilities and providing support, through TC projects, in the use of various nuclear techniques to analyze contaminants and increase understanding of the Sea’s critical problems.

Black sea mapThe Black Sea is widely recognized as one of the regional seas most damaged by human activity. Almost one third of the entire land area of continental Europe drains into this sea. It is an area that includes major parts of 17 countries, 13 capital cities and some 160 million persons. The second, third and fourth major European rivers, the Danube, Dnieper and Don, discharge into this sea, while its only connection to the world’s oceans is the narrow Bosphorus Strait. The Strait is as little as 70 metres deep and 700 metres wide but the depth of the Black Sea itself exceeds two kilometres in places. Contaminants and nutrients enter the Black Sea mainly via river run-off and by direct discharge from land-based sources.

The Black Sea once supported a rich and diverse marine life. Coastal inhabitants prospered from abundant fisheries, and millions of visitors were drawn by its beauty. But by 1990, the Sea’s environment had deteriorated in terms of its biodiversity, habitats, recreational value, and water quality. Its fish supply had been plundered and it had become a dumping ground for solid and liquid waste.

All 17 countries comprising the Black Sea basin contributed to its near-demise; but the damage has been most seriously felt by the six surrounding countries—Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, the Russian Federation, Turkey and the Ukraine.

Pollutants, including agrochemicals, toxic metals and radionuclides, made their way into the sea either through the atmosphere or river discharges. Increased nutrients caused an overproduction of phytoplankton, which block the light reaching the sea grasses and algae. Industrial activity, mining, shipping, and offshore oil and gas exploration further contributed to the sea’s destruction. Some countries dumped solid waste into the sea or onto wetlands. Urban areas flushed untreated sewage; and poor planning destroyed much of the aesthetics of the coastlines. The Chernobyl accident also aroused concern regarding radionuclides and their bioaccumulation characteristics.

These problems were compounded when several jellyfish-like species accidentally slipped into the Sea sometime in the 1980s. The new species thrived, devouring fish eggs and other tiny animals that small fish feed upon, and were multiplying at a monstrous rate.

The IAEA has supported over 50 research cruises throughout the Black Sea, including two multinational scientific cruises, to gather information about the sea's environmental status. Radioactivity was the main focus of investigation. In addition, complex marine pollution studies were carried out using both non-nuclear and nuclear techniques.

Forging an Environmental Partnership

In 1992, representatives of the six Black Sea countries drafted the “Convention for the Protection of the Black Sea Against Pollution” with help from the international community. The Convention includes three specific protocols aimed at: controlling land-based sources of pollution; curbing the dumping of waste; and forging joint actions in the case of accidents (e.g. oil spills). To launch environmental protection activities and develop a longer-term Action Plan, the riparian countries sought support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a special fund established in 1991 and managed by UNDP, UNEP and the World Bank.

The Black Sea Environment Programme (BSEP) was established as a three-year initiative in 1993 with US$ 9.3 million funding from GEF and collateral funding from the EU, Netherlands, France, Austria, Canada and Japan. Its objectives: create and/or strengthen regional capacities for managing the Black Sea ecosystem; develop and implement an appropriate policy and legal framework for the assessment, control and prevention of pollution, and the maintenance and enhancement of biodiversity; and facilitate the preparation of sound environmental investments.

The BSEP provided the context for environmental assessment and capacity-building activities. As with most problems related to water and marine pollution, isotopic investigations were essential to diagnose the underlying cause. Assistance from the IAEA was provided through its Marine Environment Laboratory in Monaco (IAEA-MEL), to backstop pollution assessment work and build capacity among participating countries in applying nuclear and isotopic techniques to analyse and monitor the Sea.

Scientific institutions in the region needed new facilities, know-how and quality control mechanisms. Therefore, the BSEP pollution monitoring programmes encompassed both targeted research and capacity-building. Among six priority activities pursued by BSEP, two Pollution Monitoring programmes were established and a Working Party helped to co-ordinate the first regional assessment of land-based sources of pollution. It also teamed up with the WHO to conduct a regional survey of beach and bathing water quality.

In the early 1990s, the Black Sea was labelled “the toilet bowl for half of Europe.” Its fish supply had been plundered and it had become a dumping ground for solid and liquid waste.

Radionuclides and environmental isotopes can be used as tracers for assessing the behaviour of contaminants, for evaluating trends in radioactive pollution and in studying physical circulation and eutrophication processes. IAEA thus began to play a critical role in the two pollution monitoring programmes, through several activities implemented for the GEF and the European Union (EU). In addition to joint investigations, IAEA provided technical and scientific support for research and capacity building in the Black Sea region concerning both radioactive and non-radioactive pollutants through two projects: a Co-ordinated Research Programme helped set the stage for co-operative scientific work and to provide training; and an IAEA TC project, which is building capacity in radionuclide measurement and radioisotope assessment techniques.

Identifying Pollutants: Non-radioactive and Radioactive

The IAEA launched a TC Project, “Marine Environ-mental Assessment of the Black Sea”, which supported a regionally co-ordinated marine radioactivity monitoring programme during 1994-2001. As radionuclides are also useful for assessing the fate of pollutants and understanding marine processes, the project also has enhanced capabilities to use isotopic tools to investigate marine phenomena.

A special pollution monitoring group issued a comprehensive review that has served in identifying problems requiring immediate action and for the design of long-term monitoring programmes. Toxicity in the Black Sea poses a rising threat to the health of people dependent on its water resources. Waterborne diseases are common all along the Black Sea coast and outbreaks of cholera have caused beaches to be closed in numerous locations.

The GEF-BSEP analysis includes land-based pollution sources in each coastal country and identifies “hot spots” which are contributing to negative effects on human health, ecosystems, sustainability and the economies.

More than 60 plant and animal species essential to the Black Sea ecosystem, including dolphins and seals, are endangered or nearly extinct, as well as 13 types of commercial fish encompassing many species. Wetland communities, home to over 2,000 species of plants, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, are also endangered. Overfishing has depleted the Sea’s fish. The annual catch value for the fishing industries declined by at least US$ 300 million between the 1980s and 1990s.

The Black Sea Can Be Saved The BSEP has served as a call to action and provided a basis for planning strategies. In 1996, the Environment Ministers from the six countries endorsed the Black Sea Strategic Action Plan, the most comprehensive programme ever undertaken to save one of the world’s most polluted seas. “Black Sea Day” was declared in all six countries.

Now armed with the factual basis for understanding the demise of the Black Sea, the participating countries are better equipped to co-operate and design effective countermeasures. The diagnostic component of the BSEP is thus expected to yield immense impact on the region’s future.

The Black Sea monitoring system got underway in 1997. Two international scientific cruises were organized by the IAEA in 1998 and 2000 to investigate marine pollution and foster regional collaborative research. Over 30 scientists from all six Black Sea countries participated, and 14 institutes contributed to the joint assessment.

Capacity-building along with targeted research continue to be top priorities for the IAEA and inter-agency support. Joint sampling missions between the IAEA and other BSEP contributors are being planned within the framework of the “mussel watch” programme. A second inter-agency agreement was signed between IAEA and UN Office of Project Services in 1998. The same year Environment Ministers of all Black Sea countries met to endorse the IAEA's Black Sea programme.

The coordination of environmental programmes received additional momentum with the establishment of the Black Sea Commission’s Permanent Secretariat in the year 2000.

The GEF launched the Black Sea Nutrient Reduction Programme in 2001 with two components. The first is a Strategic Partnership with the World Bank, which is preparing country investment projects aimed at nutrient reduction. The second component includes regional activities for the Danube and the Black Sea supporting capacity building and policy, legal, and institutional reforms aimed at nutrient reduction.

Efforts to clean up the Black Sea have brought together six countries under the Black Sea Environment Programme, sponsored by the GEF and the IAEA.

The IAEA is planning for further assistance to riparian countries in carrying out their Black Sea Strategic Action Plan. After almost a decade of concerted actions, evidence is emerging that the tide is beginning to turn.

“Recently, slight improvements in the Black Sea ecosystem —like observation of biological species that were almost extinct, fewer algae blooms—were reported,” says Ms. Sema Acar, Coordinator of the GEF BSEP Implementation Unit.

“The concerted actions of governments, investors, businesses and non-governmental organisations are making a difference. Saving the Black Sea is in progress.”

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  Strengthening Nuclear Safety and Security

Combating Illicit Trafficking
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Promoting the Safety and Security of Research Reactors
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Working to Secure Radioactive Sources
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The IAEA provided scientific support for research and capacity building in both radioactive and non-radioactive pollutants

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