Environmental issues in Belarus
The cities of Belarus are heavily polluted, especially industrial centers such as Salihorsk and Navapolatsk, largely because of the development of heavy industries in the years following World War II (1939-1945). Automobile exhaust is now the source of about half the air pollution in the cities. While Belarus was a part of the USSR, government controls on industrial pollution were virtually nonexistent. In recent years the government has turned its attention to the problem, although somewhat belatedly. Energy conservation and recycling have yet to be implemented in any sustained manner.
Belarus imports around 84% of its energy demands, 95% of its natural gas, 73% of its oil, and 20-25% of its electricity. The country is almost entirely dependant on Russian federation. The collapse of Soviet Union in 1989-91 had led to the shutting down a number of inefficient and heavily-polluting industry facilities. The outcome was that, by 1997 industrial gases emissions had dropped dramatically from 1990 levels, in some cases by nearly 50%.
Nevertheless, harmful impact of industry on environment is very broad. Chemical industry, petrochemical industry including oil refineries and machinery industry are the biggest polluters with extremely high emission of carbon and nitrogen oxides. Another significant issue in Belarus is industrial waste.
The most serious environmental problem in Belarus is the contamination after the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl’ nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, 16 km south of the Belarusian border. More than 60 percent of the high-level radioactive fallout of cesium, strontium, and plutonium that was spewed into the atmosphere landed in Belarus, affecting about one-fifth of its territory and more than 2 million people. The explosion initially posed its greatest threat in the air, as winds immediately carried the radioactive plume over Belarus. Long-lived radioisotopes then settled in the soil, posing a long-term danger to groundwater, livestock, and agriculture. More than 160,000 Belarusians were evacuated from their homes in the most heavily contaminated regions of Gomyel’, Mahilyow, and Brest. In the villages in the contaminated zones, food and other goods are now in short supply and radiation-linked diseases are on the rise.
Belarus has vast forest areas such as pine, fir, and birch forests, dominant in the north, and oak, elm, and white beech prevalent in the south. Little of the country’s woodland is protected, however, in total, 4.2 percent of Belarus’s land area is protected. Biodiversity, soil pollution, and other related issues are areas of concern. Another area of concern is the number of threatened species. For example, wisents were once plentiful in Belarus but are now endangered and protected by government decree. The government has ratified international environmental agreements pertaining to air pollution, biodiversity, environmental modification, and ozone layer protection.
The country has a big potential for renewable energy use. It has 9 million ha of forest out of which 53% are for commercial use. Wood production residues may provide with up to 23 TWh per year. Another solid potential is held in biogas, with 4.22 million cattle in year 2000. it is expected that the energy gained from cattle digestive processes is around 25 PJ per year. As for the wind power, Belarus has a capacity of 3.3 TWh per year.
The output of solar energy systems in Belarus is estimated to be 40% and 10% of the in-coming solar energy for solar heating and solar electricity (PV), respectively. This gives annual outputs of approximately 400 kWh/m2 and 100 kWh/m2 for solar heating and electricity, with 1000 – 1100 kWh/m2 solar influx in Belarus.
The hydro power potential is estimated to be 10 PJ with only 80 TJ used today. In this vision only 15% of the potential (1.5 PJ) are used. The reason for the limitation is the uncertain environmental effects on some of the potential sites.
Being locked between other European countries, with flat terrain suitable for agricultural use, Belarus is already suffering consequences of climate changes reflected on yield, river flow and average annual temperature rise. Today floods represent a great problem for the country. Sudden and premature dramatic seasonal changes (transition from winter to extremely warm spring, already in March) cause snow pack to melt and river overflow, flooding the surrounding terrain. Heavy storms occasionally occur, forcing evacuations, causing great damages on electric grids and great financial damage in general.