What it takes to clean a river

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Romantic Rhine

Salmon returns to the Rhine after decades of absence from the "biggest sewer of Europe"

"I love rivers, carrying ideas as well as goods... of all rivers I most love the Rhine," said Victor Hugo (1839). But if the famous French author was to visit the Rhine 130 years later, he would have discovered a different kind of load. In the mid-1970s, when pollution of the river reached its peak, it carried not only thousands of tonnes of nutrients like phosphorus and ammonium every year, but toxic substances like cadmium, mercury, iron and other heavy metals, dioxins, ddt and chloroform, too, literally turning it into a sewer. One observer calculated that the amount of zinc discharged into the river annually would be sufficient to fill hundreds of kilometre long sewage drains. By the late 1950s, there were no salmon left in the river. But nothing seemed to bother the nine nations it flows through on its way to the North Sea, until the ultimate happened.

Disaster struck on the night of November 1, 1986. A fire broke out in the warehouse of the giant Swiss Chemical Company, Sandoz, near Basel in France. Highly toxic pesticides stored there mixed with the water, extinguished the fire and flowed into the Rhine. Fish and microorganisms downstream, as far as the Lower Rhine, were the first to be harmed. The public was alarmed, especially environmentalists who were afraid that the river would not recover from the disaster. It was only then that the mission to save "Father Rhine" got the necessary boost.

The International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (icpr), which was set up in 1950 but was not so successful in protecting the river, launched the Rhine Action Programme (rap) the following year after the Sandoz disaster. The main objective was to reduce contamination from 45 substances by 50 per cent till 1995 (compared to 1955 levels). Since then, undoubtedly the water quality in the Rhine and its tributaries has improved considerably. In 1993, fisherfolk in Sieg estuary, a small tributary near Bonn in Germany, caught the first salmons, which had returned to the spawning grounds. Three years later, sea trout and salmon were caught several hundred miles further upstream. Father Rhine is surely on the road to recovery.

And quiet flowed the Rhine
Castles dotting its way, vineyards up the steep hills, mediaeval towns, vast fertile flood plains and marshes in the delta - the Rhine has different faces. Originating in the glacial regions of the Swiss Alps, on its 1,320-km journey, it flows from the mountains to the North Sea crossing some of the most densely populated and industrialised areas in Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands.

Over time it has been made into a huge waterway. The river between Basle and Rotterdam in the Netherlands figures among the shipping lanes with the highest traffic density in the world. Worldwide, perhaps no other river system has the density of industrial agglomeration comparable to that of the Rhine catchment area. Big coal and nuclear power stations line the Upper Rhine in industrial regions such as Alsace in France and Ludwigshafen in Germany. Many chemical industries, refineries, pulp and paper units, potash and coalmines dot the river banks. Besides, almost 40 per cent of the catchment area is exploited for agriculture and viticulture. Big cities dump their wastewater into the river or its tributaries like Neckar or Ruhr.

Complaints about the Rhine having been turned into the biggest sewer of Europe started at the end of the 19th century. But the crisis peaked only in the 1970s, when many river fauna species started to disappear. Therefore, Rhine as a source of drinking water for some 20 million people was threatened too.

Draining effluents into the rivers was simply the cheapest way for industries to get rid of dangerous substances, which otherwise would have to be dumped on expensive hazardous waste depots or channeled through equally expensive treatment plants. Half-hearted attempts to force changes upon the industry by introducing wastewater fees had little impact - they were too low, therefore, in many cases it was cheaper to pay fines than construct treatment plants. Thus while private companies saved money, the taxpayer faced the brunt of the pollution. The cost of drinking water increased dramatically because more money was spent to purify it.

The Sandoz disaster was a grim reminder of the fact that it is not the polluter but the people downstream who suffer. The worst hit was the Netherlands. Nearly 40 per cent of the Dutch population is dependent on the Rhine for drinking water because groundwater is saline in most areas. Flower and vegetable farms, a pillar of the Dutch economy, had to spend huge amounts of money for desalination of irrigation water. In the 1980s, it was estimated that cleaning the Dutch part of the Rhine from toxic sludge would cost us $4 million. The city of Rotterdam alone had to annually dredge 10 million tonnes of contaminated sludge out of the harbour basin. During the 1980s, it was estimated that the Rhine contributed 40 per cent of the pollution load of the North Sea. Eutrophication triggered by nutrient run-off culminated in 1988, when carpets of algae covered the waters and huge heaps of foam were swept onto the beaches.

Slow progress
Initially, icpr had limited objectives, mainly to conduct a surveillance mission and to make an inventory about the state of the Rhine. Its recommendations were not binding for the member nations. Major agreements such as the Convention of Chemical Pollution and Rhine-Chloride-Agreement, which were signed in 1976, failed.

Meanwhile, the European Commission came up with some regulations. In 1970, a Convention on the Protection of Waters was agreed upon. The commission was instrumental in issuing guidelines for drinking water quality. Although international cooperation and implementation of agreements remained unsatisfactory, there were some improvements mainly due to individual efforts.

The 1980s saw a marked rise in public consciousness. Greenpeace, for example, equipped a ship named Belugao with modern laboratory facilities and sent it up the Rhine. Not content with water analysis, actions followed