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Articles and Columns, 12/01/2010

Working together to save the Baltic Sea

By Salla Korpela, thisisFINLAND

The Baltic Sea Action Summit, scheduled for February 2010 in Helsinki, focuses on a single issue: If we wish to save the Baltic Sea from an ecological disaster, then there is no time to lose. The event brings together top politicians, business figures, scientists and civil society representatives.

The Baltic is the world's most polluted sea. Its waters are shallow – with an average depth of just 59 metres – and they are replenished only slowly. Its catchment area is home to some 90 million people, living in 14 industrialised countries. The Mediterranean Sea, by contrast, has an average depth of 1.5 kilometres, and its waters could fill the Baltic 159 times. If the catchment of the Mediterranean had as many people in ratio to its total water volume as the Baltic does, it would be home to some 14 billion inhabitants – twice as many people as the whole world today!

A ship makes its way across the Baltic Sea, through algal blooms caused by the water´s phosphorous content in combination with warm weather (photo: Lehtikuva).A ship makes its way across the Baltic Sea, through algal blooms caused by the water's phosphorous content in combination with warm weather (photo: Lehtikuva).

The consequent pollution loads are an enormous problem that increasingly affects everyone who lives around the Baltic's shores. In many places during the late summer children can no longer safely swim in the murky seawater contaminated with toxic algae. If we do not start taking determined action now, the condition of the Baltic will become critical – and the cost of saving the sea will become many times higher. Measures urgently need to be launched.

From words to deeds

Since marine pollution originates from many sources, problems must also be solved on a wide front. In November 2007, the Baltic coastal countries came together through HELCOM (the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission) to agree on a Baltic Sea Action Plan, designed to improve the state of the Baltic Sea. Soon afterwards, a private foundation known as the Baltic Sea Action Group (BSAG) was set up in Finland to speed up the necessary actions at all levels.

The foundation was launched by industrialist Ilkka Herlin, chairman of the goods handling systems corporation Cargotec, together with his associates Saara Kankaanrinta and Anna Kotsalo-Mustonen. "I have been working for the good of the Baltic Sea since the early 1990s," says Herlin. "Now the time is ripe for a wider initiative to bring together everyone who can act to make changes happen: countries, cities, institutions, companies and individuals."

The active involvement of Finland’s President Tarja Halonen and Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen has enabled the foundation to set up a Baltic Sea Action Summit, to be held in Helsinki's Finlandia Hall on February 10, 2010. The summit aims to get straight down to business. Invitations have been sent out to some 400 prominent politicians, business figures and scientific experts.

The Baltic Sea coastline includes fourteen different countries, a catchment area inhabited by 90 million people (photo: Aarno Isomäki/Vastavalo).The Baltic Sea coastline includes fourteen different countries, a catchment area inhabited by 90 million people (photo: Aarno Isomäki/Vastavalo).

Participants in the summit will commit themselves to new, concrete measures to benefit the Baltic Sea. Existing commitments will not suffice. There will be no distinction between speakers and spectators – everyone can play an active part. The process aims to get all stakeholders to make their own activities more environmentally friendly, rather than setting up any new environmental projects.

 "In some cases this may mean reducing emissions and adopting cleaner technology, but for other people it may involve devising political solutions or increasing awareness of vital issues through their own influence and visibility," says the action group’s cofounder and secretary-general Saara Kankaanrinta.

Hope for a sea change

The initiative focuses on four main fields: agriculture and bioenergy; clean and safe maritime activities; hazardous substances; and innovative environmental solutions. Participants will be provided with ideas and options to help them make suitable commitments. The commitments made at the summit will be published on the BSAG website, where their fulfilment will then be monitored. "We're not interested in lofty words," emphasises Saara Kankaanrinta. "Success can only be measured through improvements in the condition of the Baltic Sea."

A number of ferry lines ply the Baltic Sea. Consumers should ensure that they travel on lines that do not dump sewage (photo: Tarja Hoikkala/Vastavalo).A number of ferry lines ply the Baltic Sea. Consumers should ensure that they travel on lines that do not dump sewage (photo: Tarja Hoikkala/Vastavalo).

The initiative's next task will be to reach out to ordinary people. All of us who live in the catchment area of the Baltic Sea can make our own personal commitments to act in ways that will help the sea to recover – for example by no longer using detergents that contain phosphates, by choosing sustainably produced goods and services, by supporting responsible fishing, and by only travelling on shipping lines whose vessels do not dump sewage into the sea. The BSAG also welcomes donations, ideas and other support from anyone willing to contribute to the good of the Baltic Sea.

"To save the Baltic Sea, we will need robust, long-term commitments," says Herlin. "Over just a few years we might not be able to notice any dramatic changes in the sea, but I believe that we will still be able to curb the most serious emissions and reverse crucial trends."

Links:

Baltic Sea Action Group 
Baltic Marine Environmental Protection Commission HELCOM
Cleantech Finland
Launch of the Baltic Sea Action Summit initiative, spring 2009

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Updated 12/01/2010


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