Environmental disaster: fish deaths in the Oder: a German-Polish drama

It is a mixture of crime and drama that has happened on the Oder in the past few weeks.

Environmental disaster: fish deaths in the Oder: a German-Polish drama

It is a mixture of crime and drama that has happened on the Oder in the past few weeks. And if the consequences weren't so devastating, the events could be followed from a certain distance - just like in a performance. But reality looks different. Because at the end of this performance there are hundreds of tons of dead fish - and a German-Polish cooperation that failed with a bang. Even if neither side wants to say it so openly.

Instead of presenting a joint final report on the massive fish kills in the border river, two national expert groups present their respective analysis results independently of one another. The Polish group does this even the day before the German release. And how she does it is remarkable. The press conference to present the Polish report is broadcast on the Facebook page of the local environment ministry - the camera shows rows of empty seats because most journalists apparently didn't even notice the event.

No coordinated German-Polish analysis

The water biologist Agnieszka Kolada from the Institute for Environmental Protection gives a lecture with many complicated diagrams. After about half an hour she gets to the point: "The reason for the fish death was most likely the toxic effect of an algal bloom." It thus confirms previous theses, which largely correspond to those on the German side. Including the conclusion that "multi-causal connections" had led to the catastrophe.

However, there is no coordinated German-Polish analysis. Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke (Greens) emphasizes the role of "human activities" that led to this "serious environmental disaster". Salt discharges are primarily responsible for the massive and unusual growth of toxic algae. The Polish experts, on the other hand, do not speak explicitly of "salt discharges" and instead emphasize that the river has long been polluted and the low water level has led to a higher salt concentration.

The all-important question of who exactly is responsible for these unusually high amounts of salt in the Oder remains unresolved on both sides. The Polish newspaper "Gazeta Wyborcza" ran the headline on Friday: "The Oder has died, there is no one to blame." In his own words, Lemke is now hoping for the investigations of the Polish public prosecutor's office.

But whether this will ultimately solve the mystery of the high concentration of common salt is at least questionable. The fact is: when the disaster was discovered in the summer, a lot had gone wrong. On the German side, the fish kill only became known on August 9th. The Polish authorities are said to have sighted dead fish at the end of July - but did not report this. The plot for the German-Polish drama was already foreseeable.

In Poland, the environmental catastrophe revealed the failure of the authorities very early on. This is especially true for the central water authority Wody Polskie. A few days after the death of the fish became known, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired the head of the authorities - because he had reacted too slowly to the environmental disaster. A media-effective signal - but which has not led to the exact source of the mass extinction to be identified.

dissent between the two sides

What remains is enormous damage. And the intention to further clarify the catastrophe. Environment Minister Lemke points out that the Oder is not an isolated case. Climate change also affects other rivers. Extreme drought means that substances are now found in too high concentrations in the rivers. Now the focus is on the regeneration of the Oder, says Lemke. And here, too, there is disagreement with the Polish neighbors: while Germany insists on river recreation, the other side wants to continue with expansion work. So the drama is likely to continue.

After all, both sides promise to take a closer look in the future. Polish scientists advise creating a system of constant water quality control. All companies that discharge wastewater into the Oder should be checked. Appropriate approvals would have to be revised, it said. According to Polish information, several hundred companies currently have permission to discharge wastewater into the Oder.

The German experts are also pushing for more control and the improvement of cross-border warning and alarm plans. On the very first pages of their report, they state why a rethink is urgently needed: "The actual extent of the environmental damage and the long-term effects on the ecosystem cannot yet be quantified."

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