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Returning the Black Sea to Blue

February 23, 2012

  • Use of nitrogen-based fertilizers has increased five-fold since 1960
  • There are 405 dead zones, covering 95,000 square miles, an area about the size of New Zealand
  • Sarajevo’s water treatment facility was refurbished

Marine environmental problems can be chronic, complex, politically and economically sensitive-- and reversible. That would be the conclusion from a recent coordinated international push to begin addressing a worsening ecological crisis in the Black Sea.

The Black Sea’s degradation-- in many respects a microcosm of ocean pollution worldwide-- results from contaminants flowing from the Danube River, which courses some 2800 kilometers from southern Germany, through farms, factories and crowded cities. Over a half century, nutrient-rich runoff from farms, plus urban wastewater, have led to eutrophication in the northwestern shelf of the Black Sea, with low-oxygen dead zones expanding. The resulting loss of fisheries and marine habitats disrupted livelihoods and diminished tourism.

As far back as the mid-1980s, local political leaders and environmental specialists began expressing concern about the worsening degradation. But solutions seemed complex, and the trend mostly worsened. The river and its tributaries run through 17 countries, on both sides of the historic Cold War divide, with a number of states subject to the upheaval, instability and violent conflict that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Similarly, for the world’s oceans, pollution and degradation have emerged as significant problems since the mid-1980s. As in the Black Sea, use of nitrogen-based fertilizers has increased five-fold since 1960, but much of it trickles into rivers and eventually the oceans, threatening marine habitats and livelihoods.

A 2008 study published by Science pointed to 405 ocean dead zones, covering 95,000 square miles, an area about the size of New Zealand.

Time for Action

In the case of the Black Sea, the international community decided to act. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) led an international effort to identify the sources of degradation, invest in solutions, and strengthen the policies, regulations and institutions responsible for managing the Danube Basin into the future. The Global Environment Facility mobilized funds. The project built on the Danube River Protection Convention which, in 1998, established the legal framework for cooperation among the Danube Basin countries.

Heavy nutrients-- nitrogen and phosphorous-- could be traced to farms in the region, which, as part of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, massively increased the use of nitrogen-rich artificial fertilizers to increase yields. Urban wastewater was another source of pollution, with many treatment facilities poorly maintained, or, in the case of the city of Sarajevo, destroyed in civil conflict. Detergents, heavy in phosphorous, added to the mix began to kill off species and entire ecosystems.

" It’s a clear first - a successful reversal of dead zones "

Andrew Hudson

Head, Water & Ocean Governance Programme, United Nations Development Programme

Awareness Raised

Under the UNDP-led effort, investments helped refurbish Sarajevo’s water treatment facility. A low-cost public awareness campaign steered waves of consumers away from phosphorous-laden detergents. A pilot program for farmers showed that by recycling manure, farms could cut back on fertilizer, while reducing the runoff from animal wastes-- a double win for the Black Sea.

"It’s a clear first -- a successful reversal of dead zones," said Andrew Hudson, of UN Oceans. In the northern Black Sea, habitats have become healthier, species are returning, and sea-based livelihoods are again generating income for local communities.