UNUnited Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Press Releases 2000



Geneva, 15 February 2000

The Aurul mining company of Baia Mare in northern Romania accidentally spilled over 100,000 cubic metres of cyanide-polluted water into the River Lapus at the end of January. This river is a small tributary of the River Somes, which flows into the Tisza, one of Hungary’s largest rivers. Several countries are now counting the cost of the devastation, as the spill affects not only Hungary’s environment, but also that of the Danube’s other downstream countries. Their fish stocks are being wiped out and their water supplies are threatened.

This shows that an industrial accident can have severe transboundary effects even if it happens at a location far from any international border. These effects can be caused by the accidental pollution of transboundary rivers and groundwaters.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE) has drawn up international environmental legislation to prevent this sort of thing happening in the first place, such as the UN/ECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents, the UN/ECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes and its recently adopted Protocol on Water and Health. They also set up multilateral frameworks for cooperation within the UN/ECE to prepare for and respond to industrial accidents. But some of the countries worst affected by this spill did not sign up to the international conventions that could have helped them. For instance, only one of the affected countries – Hungary – has ratified the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents, which contains provisions to force its Parties to notify neighbouring countries promptly of any such accident, giving the latter more time to respond adequately. The Convention also obliges its Parties to draw up cross-border contingency plans that immediately come into operation following an accident with transboundary effects.

So although both these UN/ECE Conventions are in place, more needs to be done to ensure that all UN/ECE member countries ratify and apply them, and cooperate more closely to prevent such accidental water pollution in the future.

The recent accident also shows that both Conventions should not be seen in isolation. On the contrary, countries should now take serious steps to implement their common provisions. There is much they can do. They need to cooperate on technologies to prevent accidental transboundary water pollution, and lay down strict safety measures and technical requirements. They also need to take part in international early-warning and alert systems and networks of institutions responsible for responding to transboundary water pollution. Notification procedures already exist and countries should use them and help each other in the event of an industrial accident. They also need to work together on methodologies for identifying hazardous activities along transboundary waters. Finally, the sharing of safety technology and technological advances should be made easier.

As was the case with past accidents, such as the fire at the Swiss chemical company Sandoz in 1986, the recent accident in Baia Mare will undoubtedly raise awareness and strengthen the commitment at all levels to develop and introduce preventive measures. The Sandoz accident gave rise to the Rhine Action Plan and has made all countries bordering the Rhine work together to restore its damaged ecosystem. It is to be hoped that the same will happen this time round.

For more information about the UN/ECE Conventions, please contact:

UN/ECE Environment and Human Settlements Division
Palais des Nations, office 411
CH - 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Phone: (+41 22) 917 23 73
Fax: (+41 22) 907 01 07
E-mail: rainer.enderlein@unece.org


UN/ECE Environment and Human Settlements Division
Palais des Nations, office 409
CH - 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Phone: (+41 22) 917 31 74
Fax: (+41 22) 907 01 07
E-mail: sergiusz.ludwiczak@unece.org
Website: http://www.unece.org/env/welcome.html


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