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Mysterious fish die-off sparks calls for change

October 07, 2022
tags:#Poland, #Germany, #water pollution, #fishing
located:Poland, Germany
by:Robert Bociaga
Poles were horrified by the sight of hundreds of tons of dead fish floating on the Oder River. But the mass die-off was merely the tip of a much larger crisis.

The view was dismal: on one kilometer of the Oder, Poland's second-largest river, 40,000 dead fish were counted.

Their carcasses were slowly decomposing, and, as many witnesses described, the foul odor was intolerable. This outraged people who until that point paid little attention to the condition of rivers in Poland. 

Since early August, anglers had been fishing dead fish out of the Oder, but all mechanisms seem to have been failed. And while an investigation by the prosecutor's office is still underway, local media and politicians have already been pointing at possible causes. 

"The government is already doing everything to dilute responsibility," Paweł Augustynek told FairPlanet on behalf of the Save the Rivers Coalition (Koalicja Ratujmy Rzeki), "and for three weeks has left citizens alone with the problem of contamination of the Oder River."

"Three independent reports have been released confirming that the contamination of the Oder River and the disappearance of biological life in it was the fault of human activity," he added. "All of this may indicate that the tragedy on the Oder River was the fault of state-owned companies."

In the meantime, the government has partially lifted the fishing ban that had been introduced in response to the catastrophe, and public attention has also shifted away.

But is the waning attention on the case justified? 

Who's to blame?

A recent report by the Polish Academy of Sciences states that "in no way can it be claimed that the ecological disaster on the Oder had a natural cause," refuting allegations made by some government officials. 

Activists say the environmental disaster in the Oder demonstrated the sluggishness of Polish public institutions and the government's failure to fulfill its obligations for environmental protection. 

According to the report, the pollution of the Oder River resulted from a number of overlapping factors. Chief among them, the authors stated, is most likely the excessive discharge of industrial wastewater, which did not comply with legal permits. They concluded that identifying violators should remain a priority in the authorities' investigation.

Extremely low water levels have increased the river's vulnerability to incoming pollution; that, along with the effects of global warming, is raising the likelihood of similar extreme dry spells to take place in the future - the report's authors state.

The researchers also argue that it is necessary to strengthen environmental and water management services so that they can effectively respond and enforce the protection of the water resources.

"The system failed," Iza Sałamacha, spokesperson of The Operation Clean River (Operacja Czysta Rzeka), told FairPlanet. So far, in 2022 alone, the organisation has conducted almost 500 garbage cleaning operations across Poland, collecting as many as 220 tons of litter. 

According to Sałamacha, "mechanisms for effective notifications at the local, municipal and national levels did not work," while "at the civic level, people also did not do well, because fishing communities did not disclose the problem widely enough."

"In our opinion," she added, "what happened on the Oder River is symbolic. Every day on each river in Poland, there is daily drama on a smaller scale, related to garbage, with uncontrolled discharges of industrial wastewater. And unfortunately, there are no effective monitoring tools in Poland."

A systemic problem

The authorities' lack of concern for the environment poses a major challenge to activists, as this translates into tolerating the constant or occasional introduction of pollutants into the river and a poor water-quality monitoring system in addition to a non-functional and politicised environmental control mechanism, said Augustynek of Save the Rivers Coalition.

"The catastrophe would have been avoidable if all of the above had been in place and algal contamination had been detected at an early stage," he said. "Pollution and destruction of the natural environment of rivers takes place with the government’s acquiescence on all of Poland's rivers, not just the Oder."

The government has also pursued investments in outdated techniques around dams, artificial reservoirs and construction of waterways, mostly in order to make the rivers passable for small cargo boats. This hindered the resilience of rivers' ecosystems to pollution and the effects of climate change

The planned construction of barrages and a container terminal on the Oder River has become a source of contention between Poland and Germany, who also controls a segment of the Oder (the river forms the border between the two nations for a stretch of 187 kilometers).

Steffi Lemke, head of the German Ministry of Environment, urged Poland to abandon these projects for environmental reasons, but faced rebuke from Polish government officials who accused her of trying to block the country’s economic development. 


"The Oder has suffered, but let's not let this happen again," said Sałamacha of Operacja Czysta Rzeka. 

The catastrophe on the Oder has brought the subject of public water management in Poland into the spotlight, and activists are now trying to use this momentum to raise awareness about the health of rivers and the nature as a whole. However, media attention on the issue seems to have decreased with the passing weeks. 

"The media outrage and the indignation over the lack of [timely] reaction from the authorities led to a symbolic, admittedly, but nevertheless, dismissal of officials," said Augustynek, "as well as forced to finally dispatch working teams to the Odra River." 

"The government has also committed the funds of PLN 250 million (62 million euros) for the construction of a modern system of river monitoring," he added, highlighting the necessity to implement river restoration projects in cooperation with NGOs.

"The people, aware of the importance of the river, will hold the politicians accountable," Augustynek argued, "and the interest in the subject should not evaporate."

Image by Nina Grebowska.

Article written by:
Robert Bociaga
Poland Germany
Embed from Getty Images
40,000 dead fish were found along one kilometer of Poland's second-largest river.
Embed from Getty Images
"The people, aware of the importance of the river, will hold the politicians accountable [..] and the interest in the subject should not evaporate."
Embed from Getty Images
According to the Polish Academy of Sciences, the excessive pollution of the Oder River was caused by a number of overlapping factors, chief among them is most likely the excessive discharge of industrial wastewater.
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