|The Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disaster (UNU, 1996, 307 pages)|
|7 The Chernobyl disasters Its effect on Belarus and Ukraine|
|Regeneration and recovery|
What are the possibilities that the affected population will recover during the next 10-15 years? Can the stricken communities of Belarus and Ukraine absorb the effects of Chernobyl? The answer is difficult to provide because of the scope of recent societal changes and the uncertainties that pervade the region's future. Many observers have pointed to the resilience of these same communities during and after the German invasion of 1941-1944: within 10 years of the war's end, the region had fully recovered from massive losses. But Chernobyl raises a different type of challenge. As was pointed out by the authorities, politicians, and journalists, the invisible threat posed by radiation was more dangerous than the average German soldier. Moreover, it was the now-defunct Soviet community, led ostensibly by the Communist Party,30 which mounted the recovery campaign against the nuclear disaster. The future of its successors is cloudy.
Moreover, no country and no industry in history has experienced anything similar to Chernobyl, an accident whose principal effects will occur in the future. Comparisons with previous events are difficult and may be specious. The psychological impact is particularly hard to evaluate because it must be measured against a background of fundamental political and economic upheaval. The resolution of Chernobyl-related problems now involves three governments rather than one, and each state is lacking in political stability. Nevertheless, some trends can be postulated.
First, the locally resident community is likely to shrink because of out-migration. A substantial outflow of population from the villages to the towns was evident since the early 1970s throughout the USSR, and that movement is unlikely to cease during the present period of economic hardship. This will increase the difficulty of monitoring people affected by Chernobyl. It may lead to the creation of ghost towns in rural Belarus and Ukraine. Moreover, the demographic make-up of village communities is generally older than that of the towns, so the loss of younger village residents will soon impose severe burdens on rural areas. There has already been an alarming drop in the birth rates of Belarus and Ukraine, to levels below the replacement rate. In other words, the national populations are declining. Moreover, the mortality rate in Belarus is rising. Total deaths in 1992 rose to 106,040, compared with 104,910 in 1991, while the birth rate dropped from 122,952 (1991) to 116,943 (Mikhaylov 1993: 6).31 Similar trends have been evident in all three Slavic republics of the former Soviet Union. Medical equipment is also decades out of date, compared with Western Europe (see Moscow News No. 5, 1993; Marples 1993a).
These problems were evident before the Chernobyl accident occurred and are not necessarily related to its effects. They exist in other former Soviet areas that were not contaminated by radioactivity. Nevertheless, they exacerbate the region's predicament.
What is being done to cope with the impacts of Chernobyl? Officially, the Ukrainian and Belarusian governments gave high priority to the elimination of Chernobyl's consequences. Ukraine, for example, created a Ministry specifically for such a mission, while both the Ukrainians and Belarusians established State Chernobyl Committees. There was also a plethora of other bodies at lower governmental levels, including Children of Chernobyl organizations (the largest of these is based in Moscow). In Belarus, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs set up a special section for Chernobyl. The governments of all three states also put forward very similar programmes to deal with the disaster and to ensure the safety of those citizens compelled or resolved to live in areas that had been contaminated. Largely as a result of financial problems, such programmes proved much easier to design than to put into practice.
The initial actions taken by Belarusian authorities provide a clear picture of the efforts and limitations of government aid. Seven types of emergency actions occurred:
1. Evacuation of up to 24,700 people from the worst-affected regions (Begin, Narovlia, and Khoiniki of Gomel Oblast) and rapid resettlement, complete with compensation funds and new careers.
2. Construction of new apartments, and service and cultural facilities for the evacuees. Eventually this included secondary schools, kindergartens, and day-care centres for 8,500 children.
3. Construction of roads and upgrading of existing roads.
4. Decontamination of settlements, including 450 in Gomel region, 189 in Mogilev region, 214 cattle-breeding farms and 96 machine stations. About 4,600 dilapidated buildings were destroyed, and 254,000 hectares of land "were subject to double-dose high hydrolithic acidity liming" to prevent the spread of radiation.
5. Dispatch of "clean" food to contaminated areas by various trading organizations.
6. Purification of the water supply in May-June 1986 by cleaning over 3,000 pit wells, connecting some artesian pools to city networks' and building new pumping stations.
7. Creation of an all-Union (later National) Register, which by 1990 had 173,000 names of people under regular care from health establishments (Chernobylskaya katastrofa i tragediya Belorussii 1990: 6-10). These figures pertain only to those areas of Belarus that were designated as badly contaminated. In fact, they encompassed only a small fraction of the total areas and numbers of people affected.
In 1991, on the fifth anniversary of Chernobyl, Konstantin Masyk, then the first Deputy Premier of Ukraine, issued an impassioned appeal for international aid for the victims of Chernobyl, because the government of Ukraine was unable to provide funds.32 The situation was no better in Belarus, where the government was believed to have disbursed only a fraction of the funds originally allocated for Chernobyl, because these were needed to meet the general economic and financial crisis that beset the country in late 1992 (Gomelskaya pravda, 3 December 1992). According to the Belarusian Minister of Finance, Stepan Yanchuk, the laws adopted by the government to deal with Chernobyl in early 1993 anticipated an expenditure of US$865 million, of which only $450 million could be raised (IPS, 3 February 1993). In short, the unforeseen effects of the disintegration of the Soviet Union have left the new governments financially incapable of dealing with the consequences of a major disasters As a result, two other categories of response have became important - victim action groups and international humanitarian aid.