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Making the Tisza River basin a safer place

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Local communities in the Tisza River basin have recently been confronted with several serious toxic spills and ecological disasters along the river. Regional scientists, within a NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) project, have therefore started to develop a monitoring system to increase the chances of predicting environmental crises and improving disaster response.

From one disaster to another

The Tisza River is one of Central Europe’s main rivers, releasing its water into the Danube. The basin is shared by five countries (Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine) and has experienced several disastrous spills of toxic chemicals. Often related to leaks from mining facilities, these incidents created emergency situations for the local population - largely dependent on the Tisza River as a main source of drinking water.

In 2000, two dams broke, releasing thousands of tonnes of sediments containing toxic heavy metals, as well as heavily contaminated water into tributaries of the Tisza River. A few years later, in 2004, a pipeline at a goldmine broke and polluted sludge streamed towards the Tisza River; as a precautionary measure, the water supply of five towns in the Ukrainian Transcarpathian Region had to be cut off. Today, industrial pollution remains a constant threat in the region.

A joint effort to tackle pollution

In the SPS project (“A model to predict and prevent possible disastrous effects of toxic pollution in the Tisza River watershed“) experts from the region are working together to develop a joint monitoring and forecasting system for improved detection and management of toxic pollution in the upper Tisza River basin. The resulting data and model will be transferred to regional authorities, providing them with situational awareness at an early stage when preventive actions can still be taken in order to limit the disaster and its impact. Modern equipment aimed at detecting specific types of pollution in water samples will also be installed in Ukraine. These activities will greatly improve the security situation for the local population and the ability of authorities to respond faster and better in case of an incident.

Moreover, the project strengthens scientific cross-border cooperation in a region where political tension often complicates effective collaboration. The project is led by experts from Ukraine and Romania, who share a joint interest in the common water resource. “The Tisza River area is an important water artery for our two countries,” says Hlib Burkovskyi, Deputy Chief of Civil Emergency Service in the Transcarpathian Region in Ukraine. “Therefore, it has been decided to exercise joint monitoring of the water quality, as the Tisza River is our region’s main source of drinking water for the populated areas all over Transcarpathia.”

The project kicked-off in February 2014 and is expected to be completed in spring 2017. “This is a three-year project. However, it has already brought a number of practical achievements,” says Dr Simion Beldan Gaela, an environment expert from the Romanian Babes-Bolyai University and the NATO country director of this project. A methodology has already been developed and a common research database is to be set up over the next two years.

As part of the project, in late May 2014 leading experts in the field of chemical and radiological safety from the region met for the second international conference on “Chemical and Radiological Safety: Challenges and Solution”. The main purpose of the event was to exchange knowledge on the topic and to discuss further steps in addressing environmental problems in the Transcarpathian Region and in Ukraine. Discussions focused, in particular, on how to prevent negative effects of pollution with toxic substances in the Tisza River basin. The conference was organised by the Uzhgorod Institute of Electron Physics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Participants were unanimous in their agreement that only the combined efforts of and close cooperation between Romania and Ukraine will make it possible to effectively address the environmental challenges to the Tisza River.”Our collaboration permits approaching environmental safety issues of the trans-border Tisza River basin and the Transcarpathian area more generally,” announced Dr Heorhyi Lysychenko, who is Director of the Environmental Geochemistry Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and the partner country director of this SPS project.