Increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events due to climate change that can lead to industrial accidents and unchecked urban and regional development could together be a recipe for disaster, warn the UN and the governments of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.
Recognizing these and related risks for health and the environment, all five South-Eastern European countries have agreed to strengthen “joined-up” approaches by continuing to establish or revise legislation that integrates land-use planning and industrial safety. In this endeavour, countries have committed to strengthen their implementation of the UNECE Industrial Accidents Convention, as well as the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context and its Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment, and to make use of the policy guidance and tools developed under the UNECE Committee on Urban Development, Housing and Land Management.
“Industrial safety and land-use planning are matters of national and regional concern”, stated stressed Ms. Francoise Jacob, UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia, at the UNECE Sub-regional workshop on land-use planning and industrial safety, in Belgrade, 27-29 October 2021 – a recognition shared by all five countries. Major industrial accidents – such as the Sandoz chemical spill that occurred 35 years ago in Switzerland – can cause significant harm to the environment, people and their livelihoods, and may easily affect the population living closely nearby in the same country, or in neighbouring or riparian countries further away. At the Sandoz warehouse in Schweizerhalle, a fire broke out that destroyed the entire storehouse, contaminating the environment with more than a thousand tons of chemicals, released into the air. The water used to extinguish the fire accidentally leaked into the Rhine River along with highly toxic pesticides, which formed a red plume, travelling into France, Germany and up to the Netherlands, and exterminating flora and fauna up to more than four hundred kilometers downstream. It was this accident which triggered the negotiation of the UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents.
Representatives from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia representing authorities in charge of land-use planning, industrial safety and environmental impact assessment recognized that land-use planners need to take into account the accident risks posed by industrial activities, and industrial safety experts need to consider urban developments and land-use plans when making decisions on siting, namely the location of industrial plants – in order to limit the exposure of the population. Participants agreed to enhance cooperation among the two areas nationally, in order to mitigate the disaster risk arising from industrial activities involving hazardous chemicals in South-Eastern Europe, including in the automotive, agrochemical, textile and mining sectors. They also agreed to enhance their cooperation among each-other, recognizing that industrial accidents could easily lead to wide-spread, cross-border effects, either through air or through transboundary water pollution via the rivers connecting several countries in the region.
Ms. Torill Tandberg, Chair of the Industrial Accidents Convention, from Norway, stated: “I would like to encourage all countries of South-Eastern Europe, as Parties to the Industrial Accidents Convention, to establish and review their policies on siting and land-use planning, in accordance with Article 7, in cooperation among land-use planning and industrial safety experts. I would also like to encourage countries to notify their hazardous activities – both existing and planned – to potentially affected countries, in order enhance awareness of hazards and risks in a transboundary context, which need to find consideration in land-use plans.”
Mr. Fredrik Zetterquist, Chair of the UNECE Working Party on Land Administration, from Sweden, encouraged countries “to take advantage of the geospatial data revolution for transparent, collaborative and trusted data-driven land use planning and land development processes to the fulfil digital land-use plan regulations and building permitting. The volume of geospatial data is expanding rapidly, the granularity of the data is improved and new data themes are produced. The drivers behind these developments are digitalization, new technologies and ecosystems of collaborations and the strive to achieve the SDGs. Efforts for establishing nationwide access to fundamental geospatial data within an interoperable platform environment will facilitate these endeavours.”
Mr. Cédric Bourillet, Director-General of Risk Prevention at the French Ministry of Ecological Transition highlighted that “France is pleased to support the efforts by countries in South-Eastern Europe, under UNECE’s auspices, to strengthen policies and cooperation on industrial safety and land-use planning. We have ourselves witnessed the devasting impacts of industrial accidents, such as the one in Toulouse 20 years ago in 2001, and have learned important lessons, by revising our land-use planning policies and governance in France, and for the entire European Union. It is so essential to invest in continuous efforts to prevent industrial accidents, and mitigate technological disaster risk, so as to protect the population and our environment – nationally, and across borders.”