Focus and courage are needed for saving the Sea

Marjukka Porvari,
Director / Clean Baltic Sea projects,
John Nurminen Foundation,

In 2007 the countries belonging to the Baltic Sea Marine Protection Commission HELCOM agreed to return the Sea in good ecological status by 2021.  Despite good intentions, the launch of the new HELCOM decade in October 2021 had to be started by admitting the failure in reaching the needed nutrient reductions, and the new time limit was set to 2030. It was a pity, as the climate change ridden Baltic Sea is suffocating in high nutrient loads which are also the main threat for its fragile biodiversity.

Striving for a more successful outcome in 2030, there are lessons to be learned for the next ten years. Some of the past policy approaches and areas of HELCOM have been more successful than others.  The Hot Spot list with 162 main pollution sites, established after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, has certainly been one of the success stories. Coupled with financing from countries and international financing institutions, it has enabled major reductions in pollution load. The power of the Hot Spot list has stemmed from its strong policy focus and message which have effectively steered national decision making among various political priorities and resource needs.

HELCOM is often described as a regional policy setting institution. After the former Eastern Bloc countries joined the EU, HELCOM lost some of this significance – especially as its policy instruments, on the contrary to the EU directives, are not legally binding.  However, the fact that Russia is a part of HELCOM has provided added value. Also, although non-binding, the HELCOM recommendation on wastewater treatment which is stricter for phosphorus discharges than the EU directive has been important policy-wise and driven nutrient reductions in the whole Baltic Sea region.

The John Nurminen Foundation has been an active player in improving wastewater treatment in the Baltic Sea region since 2005 and has financed investments in several former Soviet countries. Our experience confirms that the HELCOM wastewater recommendation and international financing were for many years important drivers of wastewater investments especially in Russia and Belarus.  Phosphorus is the main challenge for the eutrophied Sea, and therefore the achieved reductions in phosphorus load have been essential for its survival.

On the verge of the new decade, the questions of focus and impact become decisive for HELCOM’s legitimacy. After the Crimean conflict cooperation with Russia has changed its nature. Russia formally participates in HELCOM but the active and impactful years of sweeping Hot Spots jointly with westerners are gone. This is due to sanctions which prevent financial support from the West, and the new political distance between Russia and Europe.

Another issue hindering the progress has been the status and fate of the Hot Spot list, considered for several years an instrument which had outlived its political relevance.  Ending the name-and-shame business would have been short-sighted, as it has certainly been the most successful and operational part of the HELCOM cooperation. Luckily, the Hot Spot list was rescued in the Baltic Sea Action Plan’s renewal and will be updated in 2025.

Apart from the successes in municipal wastewater treatment, there have been major challenges. HELCOM has been unable to deal with some of the largest industrial pollution sources in the region. Fertiliser industry and especially its waste handling have proven to produce significant risks for the Sea. This was understood in 2012, when a phosphorus leakage from the Phosphorit fertiliser factory to the Luga River was revealed in Kingisepp, Russia.  Before it was directed to treatment, the estimated discharge was nearly 10% of the total phosphorus load to the Sea. The magnitude of the discharge shows that the phosphogypsum waste stacks should have been immediately addressed in the whole region. Unfortunately, 10 years after the Luga incident phosphogypsum still seems to paralyse HELCOM. No coherent and comprehensive up-to-date information and monitoring data has been provided, and no environmental investments have been realised to prevent leakages of the high-risk stacks on the Polish coast.

The other paralyzing theme is agriculture which has become the largest source of nutrients to the Sea. The most wicked problem is legacy phosphorus in soils, coupled with concentrated animal production. High animal numbers induce more phosphorus accumulation, as phosphorus-rich manure is dumped into soils. This keeps the high agricultural phosphorus load up and running.

Manure phosphorus is regulated in the Annex III of the Helsinki Convention which sets a limit of 25 kg/ha for manure phosphorus application. However, although the Convention and its annexes are legally binding for the contracting parties, a recent review revealed that Sweden is the only HELCOM country implementing the manure limits.

The key problem is that industrial scale animal husbandry has separated plant and animal production. And when transported away from animal production regions to plant cultivation areas, manure phosphorus easily becomes 10 times more expensive than mineral phosphorus. The price disparity turns manure nutrients into waste which is left to pollute soils and waters in the areas of intensive animal husbandry. The efforts to change the situation by making nutrient recycling strategies and roadmaps are bound to fail if the root problem – the fact that the value of transported nutrients is way too low to cover the processing and transport costs – remains unsolved. Legislative whips and economic carrots are urgently needed to solve the issue.

The clock is ticking and 2030 approaches soon. The old paralyzing challenges remain ahead of the HELCOM community, and its credibility depends on the ability to respond. It will require persistence and courage to raise the same difficult issues on the table, and it would certainly be tempting to switch to something fresh and diplomatically lighter. That, however, would not get far in terms of results and legitimacy. Nutrients remain the life and death question for the Sea, and climate change just adds our urgency to reduce the load.


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