P erhaps the most endangered natural resource in times of war is truth. This became very evident during the Kosovo Conflict. When the Rambouillet accord failed and NATO air strikes started on 24 March 1999, alarming reports began to appear about the environmental damage caused by the bombing. Images of Panc˘evo and Novi Sad oil refineries on fire, toxic chemicals leaking into the River Danube, and bomb craters in protected areas were competing with those of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing their homes in Kosovo.
Whilst the immediate humanitarian consequences of the conflict were clear, public opinion was more divided over the possible consequences for the environment. On one hand, there was fear of widespread ecological damage and destruction in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and neighbouring countries. On the other hand, NATO argued that its use of sophisticated weapons against carefully selected targets would minimise environmental and other ‘collateral’ damage. This was the dilemma the Joint UNEP/UNCHS (Habitat) Balkans Task Force (BTF) faced from its establishment in early May 1999.
The Kosovo Conflict also had wider regional impacts: Albania and The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia had to receive huge numbers of refugees from Kosovo although they were unprepared for the scale of the influx. Other neighbouring countries, especially Bulgaria and Romania, downstream along the Danube, feared the effects of transboundary pollution from targeted industrial facilities. The fires in the oil refineries and oil storage depots sometimes lasted for many days and created clouds of pollution over wide areas, whilst news of the leakage of dangerous chemicals to air, land and water were prominent in the international media.
In Kosovo, Serbian forces systematically emptied and destroyed many towns and villages. The damage to living quarters, infrastructure, clean drinking water supply and waste systems was obvious. When the Kosovan Albanians fled their homes, much of the documentation setting out legal ownership of land and property was lost or taken by force, in turn complicating the return of the refugees to their home areas.
Although addressed largely by other UN bodies, environmental problems caused by the stream of refugees also became an issue, with sanitation and drinking water services under enormous pressure in the overcrowded refugee camp