Human Interaction with the Environment
Humans, like all other life forms, depend on the unique relationships of the biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere. We need air to breathe, water to drink, and land to grow the food we eat. But the balance between people and place is fragile. When humans interact with the natural environment there are always consequences. Some of these are intended; some are not. Some consequences are positive and beneficial; some are negative and costly.
For the inhabitants of Lithuania, the beautiful and tempting blue expanse of the Baltic Sea, with its lazy curving beaches, is no longer pure. Into this sea flows the urban and chemical waste from the Baltic States and beyond.
Marine life has suffered as a direct result of Soviet fishing policies. The natural balance has been destroyed by over fishing, and during the 1980s spawning fish levels in the entire Baltic fell by more than 50 percent. In the past 20 years the concentrations of nitrate from improperly treated waste water have trebled and quadrupled during the winter months. This has increased organic material on the sea bottom, which has reduced oxygen levels and led to the decline in numbers of fish. Stocks of whitefish and smelt have dropped, and cod reproduction has been seriously affected.
Naturalists say that some of the Soviet mismanagement of coastal areas has actually protected the whole coast from development. For nearly two generations, most coast land remained unused. For the first time in 50 years, people are re-discovering beautiful beaches, especially the dune-backed Neringa Spit. Soviet control also saved large tracts of woodland and wildlife, sustaining habitats that have completely disappeared elsewhere in Europe. Fortunately, Lithuania has several natural parks and special areas set aside for the study of plants, animals, and geological sites.
Energy is a crucial question, and the search for it has been a major contributor to the pollution of Lithuania and the other Baltic states. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine stirred fear in Lithuania and other Baltic States, not only because the 1986 explosion caused fallout across the three countries, but also because a plant of similar design was under construction in Ignalina, Lithuania. No geographic survey or seismic studies were carried out before the plant was started. Two reactors are now up and running, but plans for another two at the same site were halted following the demonstrations organized in 1988 by the Lithuanian Greens, an environmental group, and the pro-independence Sajudis movement.
Lithuania has no natural fuel resources and consumes twice as much energy as it produces at the Ignalina nuclear station and at a thermoelectric power plant in Elektrenai near Vilnius. Officials do not plan to close down Ignalina, which produces more than half the electricity generated in Lithuania, but, with the help of Swedish and American experts, they are trying to increase the reactors’ safety. Little has been done to promote heat and light conservation at home. Windows are badly fitted and buildings are poorly insulated. Government attempts to control fuel use during energy shortages have not been successful. Lithuania’s forests are already threatened by a burgeoning black market for timber exports, and with the fuel crisis, they will increasingly be looked to for fuel to heat homes during the long, dark days of winter. Wood and peat currently supply about four percent of Lithuania’s energy needs.
Concerned with environmental deterioration, Lithuanian governments have created several national parks and reservations. The country’s flora and fauna have suffered, however, from an almost fanatical drainage of land for agricultural use. Environmental problems of a different nature were created by the development of environmentally unsafe industries, including the Ignalina nuclear power plant, which still operates two reactors similar to those at Chornobyl’ (Chernobyl’ in Russian), and the chemical and other industries that pollute the air and empty wastes into rivers and lakes. According to calculations by experts, about one-third of Lithuanian territory is covered by polluted air at any given time. Problems exist mainly in the cities, such as Vilnius, Kaunas, Jonava, Mazeikiai, Elektrenai, and Naujoji Akmene–the sites of fertilizer and other chemical plants, an oil refinery, power station, and a cement factory. Water quality also is poor. The city of Kaunas, with a population of more than 400,000, still has no water purification plant. Only one-quarter of sewage-contaminated water in the republic is processed because cleaning facilities are not yet available. River and lake pollution also is a legacy of Soviet carelessness with the environment. The Kursiu Marios (Courland Lagoon), for example, separated from the Baltic Sea by a strip of high dunes and pine forests, is about 85 percent contaminated. Beaches in the Baltic resorts, such as the well-known vacation area of Palanga, are frequently closed for swimming because of contamination. Forests affected by acid rain are found in the vicinity of Jonava, Mazeikiai, and Elektrenai, which are the chemical, oil, and power-generation centers.
Human Interaction with the Environment