Poland's Progress

A case for cautious environmental optimism 18 years after communism

Since the demise of communism in 1989, many eastern European countries have invested heavily in environmental technologies and cleaner production facilities. The primary factors driving this growth have been the accession to the European Union (EU) and its commitment to integrating member country economies.

Poland is the largest of 10 new states that joined the EU in 2004. With 38 million people, it has become one of the largest economies in central Europe, tallying an impressive gross domestic product (GDP) of $320 billion (244 billion euros) in 2005.

The communist government disregarded the environment, and the push to develop heavy industries meant that Poland became one of Europe’s most polluted countries. In 1990, 50 percent of Poland's rivers did not meet the standards for quality class III. Water assigned to Class I would be suitable for supplying populations with potable water and for breeding fish such as salmon. Waters of Class II would be suitable for breeding other types of fish, for consumption by domestic animals, and for bathing. Waters of Class III would be suitable for industrial purposes (with the exception of processes which require water of high quality, i.e. potable water) and for irrigation of agricultural land and orchards.

The Silesia region in southern Poland - with its coal mines, steel plants, coal power plants and polluted environment became the symbol of the communist government's emphasis on maximum industrial activity regardless of the environmental cost.

Industrial wastewaters originating from mine dewatering and released by ore processing and smelting plants caused extensive heavy metal contamination of two major rivers, the Vistula River and the Odra River, which traverse the entire country and flow to the Baltic Sea. Concentrations of zinc, lead, and cadmium in river sediments in the Silesia region approached the highest levels recorded anywhere in Europe. Due to the devastating air pollution, southern Poland along with parts of northern Bohemia and eastern Germany earned the infamous nickname, "The Black Triangle". The sulfur dioxide emissions from brown coal-fueled power plants concentrated in this region accounted for 20 percent of the total European emissions of this compound.

Positive Signs
Since early 1990s, Poland has implemented political and economical measures, which have resulted in a significant improvement of the environment. Notably, many inefficient, polluting factories have been closed down. Also, new policies promoting environmental protection were introduced and continue to be implemented, including the “polluter pays” principle. The best illustration of the encouraging effects of these actions is a consistent reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions, while GDP continued to grow (Figure 1). In fact, recent projections for 2010 show that Poland is on track to meet its Kyoto targets.

  1. In addition, wide-scale investment has increased the number of newly commissioned wastewater treatment plants and improved the effectiveness of existing ones. For example, Polish Bureau of Water Resources reports that, in a period between 2003 and 2005, 38 new municipal treatment plants were constructed as well 128 facilities were upgraded or expanded . The percentage of the Polish population served by wastewater treatment plants has increased from 40 percent to 60 percent between 1995 and 2005.

The quantity of wastewater generated by both industrial and municipal sources between 1990 and 2005 decreased by 48 percent, from 4,115 million m3 in 1990 to 2,115 million m3 in 2005 (Figure 2). The observed decrease can be attributed to the closure of obsolete factories, introduction of modern, clean technologies, and implementation of water conservation measures. At the same time, the percentage of untreated industrial and municipal sewage discharged to surface waters decreased by more than 90 percent, from 1,950 million m3 in 1990 to 186 million m3 in 2005 (Figure 2).

  1. With the observed radical decrease in the total volume of untreated sewage discharge, the relative contribution of municipal sources remained essentially unchanged, at about 70%, between 1990 and 2005 (Figure 3). This proportion is an indirect indication that the improvements in the industrial sector, financed by private capital in a free market economy, have been consistently matched by government investments in municipal level treatment facilities. Treatment effectiveness of municipal sewage has also improved which resulted in an appreciable decrease in the loads of biogenic constituents discharged to surface waters (Figure 4).

Figure 3: Discharge of untreated sewage to surface water by source 1990 and 2005.

Figure 4: Pollutant loads from municipal sewage treatment plants discharged to water or to ground between 1995 and 2005. BOD – biological oxygen demand, COD - chemical oxygen demand.

Current Status and Needs
Despite notable reductions in emissions of pollutants to atmosphere and surface waters during the current period of economic growth, Poland still lags behind other western European countries with respect to a number of environmental indicators. Excessive sanitary pollution and discharge of biogenic substances causing eutrophication remain the major challenges. Polish Chief Inspectorate for Environmental Protection estimates that between 20 percent and 40 percent of Polish surface waters do not comply with class II surface water quality requirements.

As of 2006, wastewater treatment plants in 1,416 municipalities still required upgrading and/or extension, while 161 municipalities have neither sewage nor wastewater treatment systems. According to the Central Statistical Office, about 70 percent of current environmental investment in the public sector is currently earmarked for the water and wastewater sector. In October 2001, Poland was granted several transition periods to ease the burden of adjusting to EU standards. The longest transition period extends to 2015, by which time Poland must meet all EU standards for municipal wastewater treatment.

Over the past five years, annual expenditures on environmental projects in Poland have been estimated at about $2 billion. About 50 percent of these disbursements have been financed from the EU Cohesion Fund. Still, the total cost of bringing Poland’s environmental standards up to EU standards over the next 10 to 15 years has been estimated at between $40 billion and $45 billion.

Selected statistical indicators presented here show that over the last two decades Poland has implemented political and economical measures that significantly reduced the industrial and municipal discharge of airborne and water contaminants. With the current financial commitments and political obligations stemming from the accession to the EU, the country is on course to reversing the environmental damage inflicted during the communist era.

Rybicka, E.H., 1996. Impact of mining and metallurgical industries on the environment in Poland. Applied Geochemistry, Vol. 11, pp. 3-9.
Inspection for Environmental Protection, 2006. “The state of environment in Poland vs. European Union objectives and priorities.” (web publication: www.stat.gov.pl).
Central Statistical Office, 2006. “Ochrona ?rodowiska 2006.“ (web publication: www.gios.gov.pl).

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Andrzej Przepiora is an environmental scientist with The Adventus Group, which provides a portfolio of field-proven remediation technologies to the international environmental industry.

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