Country Listing

Poland Table of Contents


Environmental Conditions and Crises

In 1991 Poland designated five official ecological disaster areas. Of the five, the densely concentrated heavy industry belt of Upper Silesia had suffered the most acute pollution. In that area, public health indicators such as infant mortality, circulatory and respiratory disease, lead content in children's blood, and incidence of cancer were uniformly higher than in other parts of Poland and dramatically higher than indicators for Western Europe (see Health Conditions , this ch.). Experts believed that the full extent of the region's environmental damage was still unknown in 1992. The situation was exacerbated by overcrowding; 11 percent of Poland's population lived in the region. With 600 persons per square kilometer, Upper Silesia ranked among the most densely populated regions of Europe. In 1991 the region's concentrated industrial activity contributed 40 percent of Poland's electrical power, more than 75 percent of its hard coal, and 51 percent of its steel.

A variety of statistics reflect the effects of severe environmental degradation in Upper Silesia. In 1990 the infant mortality rate was over 30 deaths per 1,000 births, nearly five times the levels in some countries of Western Europe; some 12,000 hectares of agricultural land had been declared permanently unfit for tillage because of industrial waste deposition; and between 1921 and 1990 the average number of cloudy days per year had increased from ten to 183. Average life expectancy in southern Poland was four years less than elsewhere in the country (see Health and Welfare , this ch.).

Water and air pollution affect the entire country, however. A 1990 report found that 65 percent of Poland's river water was so contaminated that it corroded equipment when used in industry. After absorbing contaminants from the many cities on its banks, the Vistula River was a major polluter of the Baltic Sea. River water could not be used for irrigation. In 1990 about half of Poland's lakes had been damaged by acid rain, and 95 percent of the country's river water was considered undrinkable. Because Polish forests are dominated by conifers, which are especially vulnerable to acid rain, nearly two-thirds of forestland had sustained some damage from air pollution by 1990. In 1989 Polish experts estimated total economic losses from environmental damage at over US$3.4 billion, including soil erosion, damage to resources and equipment from air and water pollution, and public health costs.

In 1988 about 4.5 million hectares, or 14.3 percent of Poland's total area, were legally protected in national and regional parks and reserves. But all fourteen national parks were exposed to heavy air pollution, and half of them received substantial agricultural, municipal, and industrial runoff.

A special environmental problem was discovered when Polish authorities began inspecting the military bases occupied by Soviet troops for forty-six years. Uncontrolled fuel leakage, untreated sewage release, noise pollution from air bases, and widespread destruction of vegetation by heavy equipment were among the most serious conditions observed when inspections began in 1990. The government of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki was late in pursuing the issue with the Soviet government, however, and in 1991 the Soviet Union continued its longstanding refusal to pay fines and natural resource usage fees required by Polish law. In 1992 the Poles dropped all demands for compensation as part of the withdrawal protocol (see Threat Perception , ch. 5).

Data as of October 1992