In the early 1990s, the Black Sea -- the major natural and economic resource for over 160 million people -- was declared nearly dead. The Washington Post labelled it "the toilet bowl for half of Europe". Today, all countries sharing the Black Sea have signed a UN-brokered accord and, together with a multitude of donors, launched a rescue mission. The UNDP/GEF Black Sea Environmetnal Programme (BSEP) got underway in 1993. Among the participating partners was the IAEA, which is helping to develop capabilities within the region and providing support, through TC projects, in the use of various nuclear techniques to analyze contaminants and their behaviour, and to increase understanding of the Black Sea's problems.

Click here for a printer-friendly version
Helping to Save the Black Sea

The Black Sea once supported a rich and diverse marine life. Its coastal inhabitants prospered from abundant fisheries, and millions of visitors were drawn by its beauty. But by 1990, this resource was on the brink of extinction. In less than 3 decades, 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 6 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. Tanker accidents and operational discharges caused oil pollution, and coastal industries discharged wastes directly, with little or no treatment. 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, reportedly carried in the ballast water of an American ship, 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 multiplying at a monstrous rate. They quickly reached a mass of 900 million tons as estimated by the GEF (10 times the annual fish harvest from the entire world!).

Forging an Environmental Partnership

The first decisive step towards a co-operative framework was taken in 1992 when representatives of the 6 Black Sea countries drafted the "Convention for the Protection of the Black Sea Against Pollution" with help from the international community. Entering into force in early 1994, the Convention includes a basic agreement and 3 specific protocols aimed at: (1) controlling land-based sources of pollution; (2) curbing the dumping of waste; and (3) 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.

In June 1993, the BSEP was established as a 3-year initiative with US$ 9.3 million funding from GEF and collateral funding from the EU, Netherlands, France, Austria, Canada and Japan. Its primary objectives were to: (1) create and/or strengthen regional capacities for managing the Black Sea ecosystem; (2) 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 (3) facilitate the preparation of sound environmental investments.

The BSEP provided the context for environmental assessment and capacity-building activities. The UNDP took the lead in forging partnerships between the relevant specialized agencies of the UN system and setting up a Programme Co-ordination Unit in Turkey.

As with most problems related to water and marine pollution, isotopic investigations were essential to diagnose the underlying causes. UNDP and the UN Office For Project Services (UNOPS) solicited the assistance of the IAEA, 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 WHO (World Health Organization) to conduct a regional survey of beach and bathing water quality.

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 EU. In addition to joint investigations, the Agency 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 CRP 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 (see below).

Identifying pollutants: non-radioactive and radioactive

The assessment of non-radioactive pollutants was carried out under an IAEA/OPS Inter-Agency Agreement within UNDP's GEF administration. The objective was to assist the countries in obtaining high-quality analytical data for special and routine monitoring. IAEA's Marine Environmental Studies Laboratory (MESL) is providing comprehensive technical support including training, quality assurance missions, organization of expert meetings and inter-comparison exercises, production of reference methods, distribution of reference materials and standards and instrument maintenance.

The 1992 "Convention on the Protection of the Black Sea Against Pollution" classified radionuclides among "hazardous substances and matters". An evaluation of the current status of Black Sea radioactivity was required for assessing any radiological effects and, with a view to future studies, for establishing a baseline record and identifying the gaps in knowledge which need to be addressed.

To empower the concerned countries in this regard, the IAEA approved a regional TC Project entitled "Marine Environmental Assessment of the Black Sea", which was designed to support a regionally co-ordinated marine radioactivity monitoring programme over the period 1994-99. As radionuclides are also useful for assessing the fate of pollutants and understanding marine processes, the project also aims to enhance capabilities to use isotopic tools to investigate marine phenomena.

Diagnoses: Health, Endangered Species, Fisheries and Tourism

The work of a special pollution monitoring group resulted in the first comprehensive review, "The State of Pollution of the Black Sea". The information serves as a basis for 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. Of the 35 "hot spots" for which there are already data, 33 have a rating of 3 or more on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 being most severe in terms of their threat to public health. Twenty-one of these are rated from 4-6. One of the severe problems is the lack of systematic reporting on the condition of bathing water for the public.

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 2000 species of plants, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, are also endangered. Overfishing has depleted the Sea's fish. The study revealed that between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, annual catch value for the fishing industries declined by at least US$ 300 million.

The sad state of the Black Sea's beaches is causing ongoing loses. In terms of revenue from beach tourism alone, economic evaluation of the effects of pollution in the "hot spots" of each country indicate that action leading to a 20% improvement in Black Sea water quality could generate US$ 550 million in yearly benefits to coastal communities.

The review concludes that: "Abatement of the above hot spots should result in an estimated 74% reduction of total pathogenic bacteria discharged to the Black Sea and will therefore contribute considerably to the improvement of public health".

The Black Sea Can be Saved

The BSEP served as a call to action and provided a basis for planning strategies. In October 1996, the Environment Ministers from the 6 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. 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 "musselwatch" programme. A second inter-agency agreement was signed between IAEA and UNOPS in 1998. The IAEA is planning for further assistance to riparian countries in carrying out their Black Sea Strategic Action Plan.

Foreword: Mohamed ElBaradei
Foreword: James G. Speth
Introduction: Building Development Partnerships
Better Feeding for Better Breeding
Ending Africa's Rinderpest Plague
Defeating the Medfly
More Rice from Less Land
Helping to Save the Black Sea