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His torically, P oland has had to struggle to maintain its independence from its more aggressive neighbors. After World War II, Poland became a member of the Soviet bloc; but the Solidarity movement, which gained momentum throughout the 1980s, led to a resurgence of nationalism. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Poland instituted major political reforms. Poland’s market economy is still evolving. A per capita income of $12,700 places Poland 73rd among world incomes. Unemployment is high at 18.3 percent, and 17 percent of the population live below the poverty line. The United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports rank Poland 36th among nations of the world on overall quality-of-life issues.
Bordering on the Baltic Sea, Poland has 304 miles (491 kilometers) of coastline. The temperate climate produces cold, rainy, moderately severe winters. Summers are mild with frequent precipitation. Flooding is a common threat throughout the year. Except for mountains along the southern border, Poland’s terrain is mostly flat. Around 46 percent of the land is arable, and over 16 percent of the workforce is engaged in the agricultural sector. Other natural resources include coal, sulfur, copper, natural gas, silver, lead, salt, and amber.
The Soviet presence in Poland resulted in heavy industrialization and substantial environmental damage. The true extent of the environmental attrition was revealed only in the post-Soviet era with a legacy of heavily polluted air, water, and soil and severely damaged forests. Some 60,000 tons of banned pesticides continue to be stored in Poland, and 25,000 tons of these are stored on farms scattered around the country, creating a potential ecological disaster.
In 1991 the government recognized that the most extensive damage had occurred in heavily industrialized Upper Silesia, which is home to 11 percent of the Polish population. Studies revealed that infant mortality was nearly five times the rate of Western European nations and that total life span was four years lower than that of the rest of Poland. Cancer rates were also abnormally high. Rates of circulatory and respiratory disease were elevated, and high levels of lead were discovered in the bloodstreams of children in the area. Indiscriminate waste disposal in the area had also led to 29,653 acres (12,000 hectares) of land being declared unfit for future cultivation.
A study in 1990 revealed that 65 percent of rivers in Poland were polluted enough to corrode industrial equipment. The Vistula River carried these pollutants into the Baltic River, spreading contamination. Such contamination meant that river water could not be used for irrigation, and only 5 percent of river water was potable. Acid rain spread further pollution into the lakes and threatened two-thirds of the nation’s forests. Major damage had also taken place on military bases where raw sewage had been released and vegetation had been annihilated by heavy equipment.
All national and regional parks and reserves had also been polluted. Today, some 12.4 percent of Polish land is protected. Fifteen of 84 mammal species endemic to Poland are threatened with extinction, and four of 233 endemic bird species are endangered. Overall cleanup costs of the Soviet occupation were estimated at $3.4 billion. Predictably, the Soviets refused to bear any of the expense. However, other countries offered assistance through grants, loans, and debt forgiveness and provided expert and technical advice.
In the 1980s, public activism accelerated in Poland in response to the ongoing environmental situation and to the construction of a Czech coking plant near the Polish border and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The government established the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources and began passing new environmental laws. In 1990 Poland announced a new policy of “ecodevelopment” designed to force industries to modernize and restructure using environmentally friendly technology. The following year, the national policy was put in place, with an emphasis on polluters bearing responsibility for the damage they caused. With the help of the United States and several European nations, the ministry developed a list of 80 enterprises most responsible for the pollution and placed them on notice that they would be closed if pollution levels were not reduced. The State Environmental Protection Inspectorate was established to enforce environmental regulations.
Despite the new commitment to environmentalist, air pollution from sulfur dioxide is still emitted from coal-fired power plants, posing serious health risks. Acid rain generated from the same source persists in damaging forests and ecosystems. Almost 62 percent of the Polish population live in urban areas. With 259 cars per 1,000 people, Poland produces 1.3 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Water in Poland is still polluted from industrial and municipal sources. Efforts to meet European Union (EU) standards continue, but the costs of doing so remain high. In 2006 a study by Yale University ranked Poland 38th of 132 nations on environmental performance, in line with its economic group but below the geographic group average. Poland was ranked particularly low on biodiversity and habitat protection.
Poland’s commitment to the global environment is demonstrated by its participation in the following international agreements: Air Pollution, Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Antarctic-Marine Living Resources, Antarctic Seals, Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Kyoto Protocol, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, and Wetlands. The Air Pollution-Nitrogen Oxides, Air Pollution-Persistent Organic Pollutants, and Air Pollution-Sulfur 94 agreements have been signed but not ratified.
- Central Intelligence Agency, “Poland,” The World Factbook, www.cia.gov;
- Country Studies, “Environment: Poland,” www.country-studies.com (cited March 2006);
- Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Europe: A Continental Overview of Environmental Issues (ABC-CLIO, 2003);
- United Nations Development Programme, “Human Development Reports: Poland,” hdr.undp.org (cited March 2006);
- United Nations Environment Programme, Europe Regional Report: Chemicals (Global Environment Facility, 2002);
David Wallace, Environmental Policy and Industrial Innovation: Strategies in Europe, the United States, and Japan (Earthscan, 1995).