Preparations for Olympic games in Russia not meeting environmental standards - WWF

Posted on 05 February 2010

Despite a recent visit by the United Nations Environment Programme, preparations for the 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia are failing to meet proper environmental standards, according to WWF.
Despite a recent visit by the United Nations Environment Programme, preparations for the 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia are failing to meet proper environmental standards, according to WWF.

On Jan. 28-30, a UNEP mission visited Sochi to assess environmental impact of preparation for the Games.

UNEP representative Theodore Oben “expressed his satisfaction with the steps taken by the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee to fulfill its environmental commitments in venues construction,” according to a statement from the Committee’s Joint Information Center.

"I am happy with the visit as it left me with the feeling that the entire team, including those doing the construction, are conscious of the importance of fully integrating environmental considerations in their work,” Oben said in the statement. “I also note with optimism the expressions of willingness to listen to and engage all stakeholders in efforts to make the Sochi Games green."

However, WWF and other NGOs, who have been monitoring the environmental damage in Sochi created by construction in anticipation of the Games, were expecting a different outcome from UNEP’s assessment.

“WWF and other NGOs were looking forward to independent judgment of UNEP's mission to Sochi and a full report on environmental damage done and anticipated,” said Igor Chestin, WWF-Russia CEO. “Unfortunately, this did not happen and the environmental destruction continues.”

Just before the visit, WWF informed UNEP that despite very significant progress made by Sochi-2014 organizers in 2009 to garner public input, decisions taken jointly by organizers and NGOs still are not being implemented.

In addition, Sochi-2014 organizers admitted the poor quality of environmental impact assessments for Olympic facilities as early as on 25 Jan. 2009, but still failed to allocate funding to carry out a survey of those impacts, which means that crucial field data is still lacking, according to WWF.

This could lead to serious damage to the Caucasus, a region with the highest level of biological diversity in Russia.

For example, the environmental impact assessment for the combined railway and highway being built for the Games -- by far the largest project related to the Olympics at an estimated cost USD 8 billion -- is based on 2 weeks of zoological and botanical research done by fewer than 10 people. As a result, projects do not have reasonable mitigation plans, or technological solutions to minimize their environmental impact.

During the visit, WWF and other NGOs also called UNEP’s attention to regular breach of laws for the sake of Olympic construction.

In December 2009, they registered two such breaches: The Russian registration service – without any official government decision or a public discussion - changed the borders of the Caucasian biosphere reserve, a World Heritage site, to allow the building of public road to a resort, and Parliament approved an amendment to the Forest Code, allowing for the cutting of endangered species of trees and shrubs for construction of the Olympic facilities.

Meanwhile, environmental activists were arrested twice - in August and October 2009 - near Olympic construction sites on the pretext they were violating the border zone regime without a special permit, although tourists and other visitors to the area are never asked for the permit and are not even aware that it is required.

“Summing up, we believe that for the time being preparation for the Olympics is out of control, construction is of poor quality, vast damage to the environment has already been made, and NGOs are deprived of the ability to provide independent advice,” said Igor Chestin, WWF-Russia CEO.

UNEP signed on in 2009 to act as an independent observer during the Sochi-2014 preperations to assess organizers’ ecological strategy, according to the Committee’s website.

WWF is aksing UNEP and other international institutions to publicly withdraw from the process as further involvement would be seen as blessing for the environmentally and socially unacceptable practices.

Russian Caucasus
© WWF-Russia / Sergey Trepet