Pollution of the Oder as a symptom of toxic Polish-German relations – The Irish Times

Somewhere in the turbulent brown waters of the Oder River, which separates Poland from Germany, lurks a disturbing summer mystery: what is killing all the fish?

Since mid-July, millions of dead fish – including at least 250 tonnes – have been recovered from the 742-kilometre-long river that flows north from the Czech Republic to the Baltic Sea.

Experts say a combination of factors is responsible for the ecological and economic disaster: record low water levels, higher temperatures, oxygen shortages for fish and a rare bloom of toxic “golden” algae. Other as yet unknown impurities have not been ruled out.

But every extra day without clear answers adds pressure on the historically strained relationship between Poland and Germany. Some here believe that the situation is now as bad as it has ever been in the last 30 years, even more poisonous than the water in the river that separates them.

The last desperate intervention of the Polish Baltic coast in Western Pomerania involved the installation of 21 aeration pumps in the river, which oxygenated the water and, it was hoped, prevented fish from suffocating.

But Zbigniew Bogucki, the West Pomeranian Voivode, has no illusions: “We are not able to completely reverse these unfavorable conditions.”

Both the Zachodniopomorskie Voivodeship and the Lubuskie Voivodeship, east of Berlin, have appealed to Warsaw to declare a state of natural disaster and release crisis compensation for regional businesses and fishermen facing economic ruin.

While they wait for a decision, all they can do is stretch the nets, usually used to trap oil spills, across the river to catch the rotting fish being washed downstream.

Demands for action are also being made by hundreds of black-clad demonstrators who staged silent “Mourning Marches” in Warsaw and other cities to highlight what they see as “years of environmental neglect” in Poland.

“It’s not just an ecological disaster, it’s a disaster for the Polish state,” Marshal Krzysztof Smolnicki told Gazeta Wyborcza.

During the crisis, all eyes were focused on the actions – and omissions – of Wody Polskie, a state-owned waterway management body established in 2020 but with little visible capacity to monitor industrial pollution. Its director was fired earlier this month for failing to respond adequately to the crisis. Now, his acting successor, Krzysztof Wos, admitted that about 1,400 sewage pipes operate without permits in the country. Of these, 282 – one fifth of the total – flow directly into the Oder.

Combined with the exceptional environmental conditions this summer, his body has intensified factory inspections. But the identification of sources of illegal wastewater, as he stressed at a press conference this week, “is not within the competence of Polish Waters … but primarily the responsibility of the Ministry of Climate and Environment.”

Environment Minister Anna Moscow focused this week on criticism of what she called “more fake news from Germany.”

She was referring to weekend reports in the German media about higher-than-normal levels of pesticides and other substances in river water that were described as harmful but not fatal to fish.

For Moscow, these reports were “unjustified attacks” on Polish agriculture and companies. On Twitter, she asked, “What’s next?”

In response, Berlin said it “regrets that the Polish side came to such a conclusion”, but stressed that there was “never and from anyone” in Germany a claim that Polish pesticides caused mass deaths of fish.

Berlin’s federal environment ministry complained of slow responses to requests for information; Warsaw replies that Germany has not installed enough nets to catch dead fish.

A joint Polish-German committee has been set up to prevent further “unrest” during the crisis. But as next year’s parliamentary elections approach, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party appears to be focused on securing a third term, fueling unrest in its neighbour.

In the latest in a series of recent interventions, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau stressed this week that the EU is threatened not only by an external threat from Russia – but also by “internal imperialism” led by Germany.

The EU’s plan to move from consensus decision-making – and national vetoes – to majority voting was, Rau said, part of a “German-Russian plan to rule Europe.”

A few days earlier, NBP president Adam Glapiński warned that Berlin was seeking to regain territories lost to Poland after 1945 “and to subjugate the entire belt of states between Germany and Russia.”

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