Down to earth
Fears of global warming and 30 billion Euro needed so half of Romania has access to running water and sewage are the main concerns for Minister of Environment and Water Management Sulfina Barbu
When it comes to the tricky issue of global warming, Sulfina Barbu, Minister of Environment and Water Management (MMGA), holds to the European Union’s fears of the earth burning up slowly, rather than the American Government’s more suspicious take on the science of climate change.
“Global warming caused by greenhouse emissions is probably the biggest challenge we face,” Barbu tells The Diplomat. “This is a scientifically proven fact and the negative impact of climate change, such as flooding, storms, prolonged droughts, melting of the icecaps and rising sea levels cannot be questioned.”
|Who is Sulfina Barbu?
Minister of Environment and Water Management since 2005
Age: 40, married with one child
To help combat this, Barbu uses the current buzzword of ‘sustainable development’, with the aim of improving living standards for all Romanian citizens. But it is hard to compromise the needs of a developing country, which still has a strong manufacturing base, with the imperatives of cutting pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
“The Ministry of Environment supports
the ‘the polluter pays’ principle”
“We have to intensify the connection between environmental protection and a competitive economy through flexible and realistic legislation, and by trusting private initiatives,” she says.
The Ministry plans to give “special attention” to limit citizens’ exposure to noise and air pollution, traffic and waste.
“All people are entitled to a healthy environment, but many catastrophes in the past years [in Romania] dramatically violated this basic right,” she says.
“We need a system that guarantees that the one who pollutes is punished and that the damage incurred is repaid. The Ministry of Environment still supports the unconditional application of the ‘the polluter pays’ principle.”
But Romania is not just a host of environmental problems for the European Union. The country brings to the 27 member bloc a unique blend of natural scenery and biodiversity.
Barbu says five out of the EU’s 11 bio-regions, which define an individual natural environment, are on Romanian territory, including unique sea areas and dry lands.
“We have enriched the EU through these bio-regions, which are nowhere else to be found in the Union. We also have unique species and habitats and we boast the Danube Delta,” she adds.
The Delta, Romania’s only natural UNESCO World Heritage site, is also under threat, argues the Romanian Government, from the Ukrainian development of a navigable canal at Bastroe near the border of the two countries, which could upset the fragile biodiversity of the region.
“Romania has fought this issue ever since it started,” says Barbu. “Despite numerous complaints and research on the subject, Ukraine is still going ahead with the canal, which will destroy this international reservation.”
There are rumours that work has continued on the canal despite the concerns of Romania. Bucharest last submitted a complaint to the Investigation Committee of the UN’s Espoo Convention, which determines the environmental impact of controversial developments. This was issued on 18 January this year and Ukraine has until 18 April to answer concerns raised by Romania.
“[Until we receive the answers] we can’t really know if works have stopped or if they are continuing,” says Barbu.
Romania faces a huge gap in the development of its environmental policy in comparison with that of the European Union.“The biggest problem we have to solve is people’s access to water infrastructure,” says Barbu.
“We need networks of water supply and sewage all over the country. Romania was disadvantaged because of policies of the Ceausescu regime – at that time water supply to villages was never a priority.
This is also a reason for which we lag behind countries in the former Communist bloc.”
Now only 51 per cent of Romania’s population has access to an integrated water supply system, with both running water and a sewage outlet in the building. Unsurprisingly, EU directives state every household must have such access.
The investment needed for this is 19 billion Euro by 2008, argues Barbu, and the Ministry has negotiated transition periods with Brussels to try and qualify for this measure. Meanwhile the entire investment needed to integrate the water system by 2018 is 29.3 billion Euro.
“Our first priority by 2013 is to access EU funds, which means finalising the negotiations for the environment sector programme,” she says. “We expect the plan to be approved in six months’ time and then we can access the funds.”
When anyone keywords ‘Romania’ and ‘environment’ into Google, a splatter of articles will emerge detailing all the reasons for and against a proposed gold-mining project in Alba county by a Canadian firm.
The construction of the mine will mean the displacement of the village of Rosia Montana and the destruction of some natural habitat, but also a huge financial and employment boost to a disadvantaged rural area. However the campaign against the project has become a touchstone for nascent environmental activism in Romania.
Barbu is one of the gatekeepers for allowing a final approval for the project.
“We have drafted up a set of questions following the public debate on the Rosia Montana subject and these questions have been sent to the developer of the project [Gabriel Resources],” says Barbu.
A special Government commission will analyse the answers of Gabriel Resources and then, based on this and other information, will draft the Environmental Impact Assessment study, which will determine whether or not the Canadians win their construction permit.
But as for any opinion on what could happen, Barbu cannot say anything yet.