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Environmental Issues

Environmental Overview




© 2000 PAT O'HARA,

There are two aspects to the issues that confront Georgia as it tries to preserve its natural resources. One is the effect of the country's own development, or lack thereof; and the other, the global pressures that affect every nation on earth, such as climate change, acid rain, nuclear accident and other manifestations of pollution. The recent past of Georgia as a member republic of the former Soviet Union has created an unfortunate legacy of environmental dangers, but to some degree the country shares its precarious future with all nations, great and small.

Nuclear Dangers
The 1986 Chernobyl accident, for instance, took place well outside Georgia's political borders, some 1200 kilometers (750 miles) to the northeast in the Ukraine. But prevailing winds drove background radiation across the Black Sea, and Western Georgia has seen a documented increase of up to 20% more incidents of such conditions as anemia in pregnant women, primary endocrine system diseases in both adults and children, cancer rates, and other related sicknesses since that date.

The impact of nuclear power continues to haunt Georgia in other ways as well. In the early 1990s, an expired radioactive medical container was supposed to have been returned to Russia, but was returned to Georgia due to what was termed the "general failure of transportation routes." The box was left near a railway cargo station, where passersby ignored it for years. In 1996 three people decided to see what the box held - and two of them were killed and the third severely stricken. In another incident, at least nine servicemen on a former Red Army base just outside Tbilisi developed radiation burns from improperly stored uranium bullets, leading to angry anti-Russian demonstrations in November 1998.

Environmental Degradation
Georgia's healthy, ancient and extensive forests are threatened by acidification and climate change, as is the viability of established agricultural areas. These risks are also the result of worldwide industrial development, conditions not specific to Georgia but influential nonetheless. Still, Georgia's dependency as a republic in the USSR did lead to severe environmental degradation, especially in urban areas, as heavy industrial development took precedence over environmental concerns.

The immediate and lasting result of these policies was increased pollution, both in atmospheric conditions and water quality. Emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) reached their highest levels in 1988 from industry, energy facilities and automobiles, especially in the heavily populated Tbilisi-Rustavi region. Ironically, the general economic paralysis of the years 1992-1995 relieved this problem, and allowed the government some "breathing room" to reconsider their priorities in national development.

Water quality is another area of great concern, again due in large measure to industrial development during the Soviet era. The Black Sea is badly polluted because of industrial and agricultural run-off not only from Georgia but other Soviet republics as well. Yet surface water pollution in Georgia itself actually improved over the past decade, once more due to the downturn in the nation's economy and the declining use of pesticides and fertilizers. Still, municipal sewage, industrial and medical discharge continue to compromise the once-vaunted quality of Georgia's waters, and power shortages often prevent the effective delivery of drinking water to population areas.

Population Pressures
The health of Georgia's forests and wildlife has suffered in recent decades from a variety of pressures caused by people. The economic downturn of the 1990s hit the Caucasus region hard - due to lack of reliable energy resources, the population now consumes three times more firewood than it did ten years ago. Overgrazing by sheep and other domesticated range animals has affected 30% of pastureland with erosion, and poaching of large mammals has increased significantly.

The June 1998 assessment from Georgia's Ministry of the Environment frankly outlined some of these pressures on wildlife and their habitat:

"Since the 1920s there has been a significant decline in all large mammal populations and ranges. This can be attributed to human pressures, and in particular to the increase in uncontrolled hunting and over-utilisation of the land for agriculture, as well as overgrazing. The intensive development of the timber trade, together with uncontrolled forest cutting during the past few years due to the energy crisis, has caused significant damage to habitats, causing ungulate populations to decline (red and roe deer, for example). Another reason for the decline in large mammal populations has been past government hunting policy, which especially affected predator species as their killing was encouraged through a bounty system. The bounty system was abolished in 1993."

The report also noted the ambivalent impact of tourism itself on Georgia's natural resources.

"Mass tourism during the Soviet era has caused considerable damage to Georgia's biodiversity. [Yet] Georgia has great potential for ecotourism, and it is therefore very important to ensure that tourism is sustainable in the future."

It is this recognition of Georgia's own endangered assets, and the willingness to take steps to preserve or even recover them, that gives cause for hope that the country's near future will look different than its recent past.

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