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15 September 2017
15 - Life on land

By Leonid Kalashnyk

Last year, the world commemorated the 30th anniversary of the worst nuclear disaster in the history of mankind. The explosion on 26 April 1986 in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere that spread over much of the western part of the Soviet Union and Europe and affected the lives of millions of people for years to come.

Addressing the consequences of Chernobyl has required enormous efforts on the part of the governments concerned. The international community, NGOs and private initiatives have also provided substantial assistance. Yet the legacy of the disaster persists. Radioactivity continues to pollute some areas in the region of Polesie, which straddles Ukraine and Belarus and includes parts of Western Russia. A number of assessments, for example by the Environment and Security (ENVSEC) Initiative, of which the OSCE is a member, indicate that the region is vulnerable to floods, droughts and forest fires. Each such event brings with it the risk that residual radioactive contamination is spread over larger areas, to the detriment of human health, economy and the environment. Climate change aggravates the risk. In a participatory assessment completed by the ENVSEC Initiative in 2016, more than 200 stakeholders from Eastern Europe identified Polesie as one of the most vulnerable areas in Eastern Europe in terms of the potential impact of climate change.

OSCE participating States are strongly committed to the alleviation of the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, as documented by high-level political commitments, including the 2005 Ministerial Declaration on the 20th Anniversary of the Chernobyl Disaster and the 2007 Ministerial Declaration on Environment and Security.  Over the years, the Organization has taken important steps to translate these political commitments into action.

Reducing the risk of spreading contamination through wildfires

Last year the OSCE started a project to reduce risks that wildfires in Chernobyl-affected areas in Belarus and Ukraine pose for communities, firefighters and the environment. Wildfires burning on contaminated terrain result in the lifting of radionuclides deposited on vegetation and organic layers. Depending on the wind direction and other atmospheric conditions, radionuclides may be carried over considerable distances with the risk of affecting territories outside of the Chernobyl-affected area and posing a danger for firefighters and communities.

Recommendations for setting up a system for regular exchange of transboundary information on wildfire management in and around the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and for a joint response system for forest fires are among the expected outcomes of the project. The experts participating in the project will also produce guidelines for firefighters on the suppression of forest fires in the Chernobyl-affected areas, which will include educational activities for working with local communities.

Funded by Austria, Germany and Liechtenstein, this project is being implemented by the OSCE in collaboration with the Global Fire Monitoring Center and several national agencies in Belarus and Ukraine. It builds on the OSCE’s long and fruitful engagement in supporting participating States in strengthening their capacity to manage wildfires, particularly in the South Caucasus, and is one of a set of projects the OSCE is conducting in co-operation with Belarus.

Raising environmental awareness

Also relevant to Chernobyl is another project in this set initiated last year. It focuses on strengthening the role of Aarhus Centres in addressing environmental challenges in Eastern Europe. The Aarhus Centres assist the public in exercising its rights to information, participation and access to justice with respect to environmental matters under the Aarhus Convention. Currently, the OSCE-supported network of Aarhus Centres embraces 60 Centres in 14 countries, including Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. They are an effective tool for addressing Chernobyl-related challenges by helping to raise awareness about wildfire risks and other environmental challenges at the community level and contributing to reducing such risks.

Mapping radiation risks

Both of the above-named projects benefited from the experience that the OSCE acquired in an earlier project completed in 2015, which supported the efforts of national agencies to more effectively protect their personnel and the people in Polesie from radiation risks. In close co-operation with governmental authorities and national experts from Belarus and Ukraine, the OSCE supported a mapping of radioactive contamination in the Chernobyl-affected areas along the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. A radiation safety regulation for staff of national agencies working in these areas was also developed as part of the project.  

Continuing international co-operation

As the post-Chernobyl period enters the fourth decade, international co-operation to mitigate the consequences of the disaster is set to continue. The Chernobyl site is currently going through a transformation. The shelter which was built after the accident as a temporary measure is being enclosed by a new structure, the so-called New Safe Confinement. It has been designed to make the site safer and allow for the dismantling of the aging shelter and management of the radioactive waste within it. This unique and ambitious undertaking, financed via the Chernobyl Shelter Fund and managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development on behalf of the contributors to the Fund, is expected to be completed in 2017.

At an international conference entitled “Thirty years after Chernobyl. From an Emergency to a Revival and Sustainable Socio-Economic Development of Affected Territories” organized by the Government of Belarus in Minsk in April of last year to mark the 30 years that had passed since the disaster, the international community, including the OSCE, gathered to review progress and promote further initiatives for the sustainable socio-economic development of the affected territories.  Speaking about the OSCE’s contributions in this area, the Co-ordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities, Yurdakul Yiğitgüden, said: “Chernobyl has demonstrated how important it is for the international community to co-operate in addressing the risks and consequences of devastating disasters. We have taken concrete steps in translating relevant political commitments into action on the ground.” 

In December, the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus a resolution, initiated and prepared by Belarus, entitled “The Persistent Legacy of the Chernobyl Disaster”. The resolution acknowledges the need for continuing international co-operation on the Chernobyl-affected areas under the auspices of the United Nations. Such co-operation can also contribute to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Developed and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030.

The experience of dealing with the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident has clearly demonstrated how important it is for the international community to co-operate in addressing the risks and consequences of devastating disasters. Mitigating the long-term effects of Chernobyl in the affected areas will remain an important part of the OSCE’s activities to foster sustainable development in Eastern Europe in the years to come.

Leonid Kalashnyk is an Environmental Programme Officer in the Office of the Co-ordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities.