Environmental Problems—Signs of the Collapse of the GDR

By the 1980s, certain regions of the GDR—the industrial areas centered around Leipzig and Halle foremost among them—were facing catastrophic environmental conditions as a result of the revival of lignite mining, the consequences of its use in the chemical industry, accelerating deterioration of manufacturing facilities, the burning of lignite as heating fuel, and the continued policy of intensive farming and forestry.

In the late 1980s, the GDR’s main energy sources were, as a share of total power generation, lignite at 70 percent, followed by petroleum at 12 percent, and natural gas at 10 percent. The country’s gross domestic energy consumption, at 233 GJ per capita, was one of the highest in the world. Only Canada, the United States, Scandinavia, and Luxembourg consumed more energy per person. The GDR had the highest levels of sulfur dioxide and particulate pollution in all of Europe, with annual emissions amounting to approximately 2.2 million tonnes of particulates and 5.2 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide per unit area.­ The principal industrial polluter was the coal and energy sector, which was responsible for 58 percent of SO2 emissions and 41 percent of particulate emissions, followed by the chemical industry at 12 percent of SO2 and particulate emissions. The emissions were concentrated in the Bezirke of Cottbus, Frankfurt/Oder, Halle, Karl-Marx-Stadt, and Leipzig.

Industry in the areas around Halle and Leipzig largely used pre-war technology. Over half of the facilities operated by large chemical manufacturers here, such as Leuna and Buna, were over 20 years old in 1990 (Nyssen 1992, 15, footnote 11). One of the consequences was that a large number of the plants’ employees had to be assigned to repairs. Prisoners and conscientious objectors (called Bausoldaten, or construction soldiers) were also assigned to these jobs, which were sometimes quite dangerous (Vesting 2003).

Between 1974 and 1989, regions with particularly high air pollution levels were found to have an increased incidence of respiratory and other illnesses. In some cases, there were quite significant increases. For example, the number of children suffering from bronchitis in these areas jumped by approximately 50 percent during this period. Thirty percent of the children had endogenous eczema. It was estimated that the main impacts on health in these regions, apart from respiratory diseases, were psychosomatic disorders.

The principal causes of environmental pollution and land “misuse” in the industrial problem regions of the GDR were lignite mining and the chemical industry, in particular product lines (such as carbide) which had been discontinued in other countries for economic and ecological reasons. The country’s often dilapidated factories were a hotbed of health problems, occupational accidents, environmental hazards, and state surveillance (Plötze 1997; Thielbeule 1983; Hülße 1986; Landkreis Bitterfeld 1996).

In 1989, 54.3 percent of the forests in the GDR showed evidence of negative environmental impacts, 16.4 percent to a moderate or extreme degree, and 37.9 percent to a lesser degree. The environmental report of the GDR shows an increase in negatively impacted wooded areas from 31.7 percent in 1987 to 54.5 percent in 1989.

Significant funds and effort were needed to make the GDR’s scarce natural water resources usable as a stable and sufficiently high-quality water supply for the general population, industry, and agriculture and to protect the water in watercourses that crossed international borders or ran into the Baltic Sea. The state of the main watercourses in the GDR was such that in 1990 only 20 percent of classified river sections could be used for drinking water abstraction when normal water treatment technologies were applied. Complicated and very expensive treatment technologies were required for 35 percent, and 45 percent were no longer usable for drinking water at all. In early 1990, 67 percent of industrial wastewater requiring purification was processed in wastewater treatment plants. Of municipal wastewater, 85 percent was treated. Of the wastewater discharged into watercourses, 14 percent was untreated. Mechanical processes were used in 36 percent of wastewater treatment, and a combination of mechanical and biological processes in 52 percent. Phosphorus was removed from 14 percent of the total wastewater. A great many of the wastewater plants and pipelines were in need of repair. Of the existing 36,000 km of wastewater pipelines, approximately 26,000 km were damaged, in some cases badly damaged. More than half the organic pollution load was discharged into watercourses untreated.

In 1988, the GDR produced 91.3 million tonnes of solid industrial waste and secondary raw materials (compared to 80 million tonnes in 1980).­ Of this waste, 39.9 percent was recycled (compared to 36.4 percent in 1980).­ Part of the remaining 60.1 percent was stored with a view to foreseeable recycling opportunities that would allow the material to reenter the economy and be reused. A considerable amount of unusable waste was released directly or indirectly into the environment, however.­­­ In 1989, approximately 3.9 million tonnes of solid municipal waste were recorded, of which 2.9 million tonnes were household waste.­ There was not a complete record made of the number and state of waste disposal sites for industrial waste and municipal waste in 1989, but according to data for 1988, there existed at least 13,000 waste disposal sites, of which approximately 2,000 were for industrial waste and approximately 11,000 for municipal waste. In all, 87 percent of investments in waste disposal were targeted at the creation or expansion of capacity for the safe disposal of industrial waste­; these investments were aimed at safeguarding continued production, above all in the energy, chemical and mining industries.­ Municipal waste was handled locally and disposed of for the most part in unregulated sites. Of the approximately 11,000 municipal waste disposal sites, only 120 were sanitary landfills. Another 1,000 were regulated landfills and the rest were created and operated without authorization or regulation (see Petschow, Meyerhoff, and Thomasberger 1990 on the environmental performance of the GDR).


Hülße, C. 1986: Wirkung von Luftfremdstoffen auf den kindlichen Organismus und Ergebnisse der Dispositionsprophylaxe bei Schulkindern aus Industriegebieten; Konzentrationsvermögen u. Untersuchung der erythropoetischen Reaktion. Habilitation. Humboldt-Universität Berlin.

Landkreis Bitterfeld (Hg.) 1996: Umweltreport Bitterfeld 96. Akten aus dem Archiv des Landkreises Bitterfeld.

Nyssen, S.: Die sozialistische Arbeitsgesellschaft in der ökologischen Transformation: Arbeit und Umwelt in der ehemaligen DDR. In: Nyssen, S. (Hg.): Modernisierung nach dem Sozialismus: ökologische und ökonomische Probleme der Transformation. Marburg 1992.

Petschow, U.; Meyerhoff, J. & Thomasberger, C. 1990: Umweltreport DDR. Bilanz der Zerstörung – Kosten der Sanierung – Strategien für den ökologischen Umbau. Frankfurt/M..

Plötze, H.-J. 1997: Das Chemiedreieck im Bezirk Halle aus der Sicht des MfS, Landesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen DDR Sachsen-Anhalt. Sachbeiträge 4. o.O..

Thielbeule, U. 1983: Beitrag zur Ausarbeitung praxisrelevanter Methoden zur Beurteilung des Einflusses der allgemeinen Luftverunreinigung auf ausgewählte Bevölkerungsgruppen in Ballungsgebieten. Habilitation. Wittenberge.

Vesting, J. 2003: Mit dem Mut zum gesunden Risiko. Die Arbeitsbedingungen von Strafgefangenen und Bausoldaten in den Betrieben der Region Bitterfeld, Buna und Leuna unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des VEB Chemiekombinat Bitterfeld, Sachbeiträge 30, hrsg. von der Landesbeauftragten für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen DDR in Sachsen-Anhalt. Magdeburg.

Literatur zum Weiterlesen

Institut für Umweltschutz (Hg.): Umweltbericht der DDR. Information zur Analyse der Umweltbedingungen in der DDR und zu weiteren Maßnahmen. Berlin 1990

Petschow, U.; Meyerhoff, J.; Thomasberger, C.: Umweltreport DDR. Bilanz der Zerstörung. Kosten der Sanierung. Strategien für den ökologischen Umbau. Frankfurt am Main 1990.

Institut für Umweltgeschichte und Regionalentwicklung e.V. (Hg.): Umweltschutz in der DDR. Analysen und Zeitzeugenberichte

Band 1: Politische und umweltrechtliche Rahmenbedingungen

Band 2: Mediale und sektorale Aspekte

Band 3: Beruflicher, ehrenamtlicher und freiwilliger Umweltschutz

München 2007.