By Stephen Cole in Helsinki, Finland
The organisers of the Baltic Sea Action Summit in Helsinki say they are trying to save the most polluted body of water in the world.
Over the last century, the nine countries which border the Baltic Sea – a stretch of semi-enclosed body of water in Northern Europe – have poured tons of toxins, dioxins and various pollutants into the sea and watched as an environmental catastrophe unfolded.
“When I was a boy I could see the seabed far below me, the water was clean and there were fish,” said Pertti Salolainen, the chairman of the Finnish foreign affairs committee and founder of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Finland.
“Now I can hardly see half a metre in front,” he said.
Pertti has to pull the algae away to go swimming – the same algae which are suffocating the sea. The algae, photosynthetic organisms that inhabit most marine habitats, bloom in the summer and in the winter drop to the bottom of the sea where they consume precious oxygen and kill other marine life.
It is not just algae lurking down there – the seabed hides some of Europe’s darkest secrets.
The Finnish government says the bodies of dead German soldiers were thrown into the sea by Soviet troops and the Baltic Sea is also known to be a graveyard for hundreds of fighter planes downed during the Second World War.
There have also been reports of dumped nuclear waste from Russia; quite a few supermarket trolleys probably languish down there, too.
Just this weekend, three containers fell off the back of a Finnish Cargo ship and one of those containers held hazardous material. With the increase in trade and shipping this looks likely to happen again.
The Baltic waterway is also an increasingly vital transport route for Russia; a major part of Moscow’s foreign trade, particularly oil and chemical products, is shipped across the Baltic. In 2006, 140 million tonnes of oil was transported along the Gulf of Finland and that figure is expected to double by next year.
Despite all of this, the countries round the Baltic have only just begun to realise the extent of the environmental catastrophe. They did set up an organisation 30 years ago – called HELCOM – or the Helsinki commission, comprising all the countries bordering the Baltic but it has largely been run by consensus politics.
It can only move as fast as the slowest member and that means no action has been taken until now.
This is why the Baltic Sea Action Summit is by far the most important meeting ever on the future of the Baltic.
Ministers, presidents and a king are meeting alongside business leaders as they try to take a world lead in the new form of environmental thinking.
“The best companies also acknowledge that the problems facing the world are so vast and complex that they can’t be solved with public means alone,” Illka Herlin, a Finnish business leader and convener of Baltic Sea Summit, told Al Jazeera.
“We need all hands on deck,” added Herlin, who is also the first Finnish member of the Clinton Global Initiative, a collaboration of government bodies, media and business leaders to find solutions to global problems.
While smaller in scale, the Baltic Sea Summit is likely to positively foster environmental co-operation between governments and industry. The organisation and commitment made in Helsinki appears set to be far superior to the disunity of mixed messages that came out of the climate change summit in Copenhagen.