Singing the Danube blues

This spring, the Danube, brown and swollen from rains, spilled over its banks where it still can, turning the forests along its channel into swamps. After a few days or weeks the flood waters will recede, as they have for centuries, leaving behind the nutrients and minerals that make floodplains so fertile.

The Danube Basin is shared by 11 countries, connecting them through shipping and transport like an enormous transcontinental highway. It gathers the waters of half a continent - from alpine streams in the Swiss Alps to the sluggish bayous of southern Ukraine - during its 2000-mile journey to the Black Sea.

But where pollution is concerned, the sharing goes in only one direction: downstream.

"Until the early seventies, people were catching six-foot sturgeon around here," Janos Zlinsky recalls, as he walks through the flooded forests on a squishy dirt path. In spring the 10-mile stretch of the Danube between Budapest and Szentendre was once choked with shoals of spawning sturgeon that had migrated a thousand miles upstream from the Black Sea.

Peasants grew tired of eating the caviar-producing fish, which grew to 24 feet long and could feed half a village.

But over the past century, the sturgeon shoals thinned out as kings and nations worked to tame Europe's mightiest river. The Danube was straightened and frequently walled off from its flood plain by ramparts and levees. The sturgeon hung on until 1973 when they encountered a barrier they could not pass: the enormous Iron Gates dam down river from Hungary on the Romania-Yugoslavia border. The sturgeon haven't been seen in Hungary since.

"For Hungarians, that severed our last palpable connection with the Black Sea," says Dr. Zlinsky, now a senior scientist at the Szentendre headquarters of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe. "What we put in the river helped destroy the Black Sea, but most people in Hungary could care less."

Until the mid-19th century, the Danube meandered through floodplains and wetlands, shifting from one bend to another with each spring flood. Fish laid their eggs in them, turning the marshes around Szentendre into enormous hatcheries.

But over the past 150 years, governments channeled and straightened the river, filling in "unhealthy" wetlands and building dams to generate power and improve navigation. During the 20th century, 80 percent of the floodplains were lost, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Hungary and Slovakia are at odds at the International Court in The Hague over a Communist-era hydroelectric program that's triggered a drop in northwestern Hungary's water table and overall water quality. Hungary pulled out of the joint project after the end of communism, but Slovakia pressed ahead with its Gabcikovo dam. In 1992, Slovakia diverted the entire river into an artificial canal and away from a vast Hungarian wetland. Hungary says the river was stolen.

This spring, cyanide spills at Romanian mines flowed into Hungary's Tisza River, killing virtually all aquatic life there, before flowing on into the Danube and the world's headlines. Hungarians were livid, equating the disaster with Chernyobl. But the Romanian government reacted with remarkable complacency; gravity had carried the problem right out of the country.

Bad times for the Black Sea

But the Danube's underlying pollution problems have had far more serious effects. They've triggered the near-total ecological collapse of an entire sea. Eastern Europe's centrally planned economies produced enormous quantities of pollution, and a great deal was simply dumped into the Danube and its tributaries. After World War II, toxic industrial effluents, pesticides, heavy metals, and 50,000 tons of oil poured into the river each year. Mud in the riverbed is so contaminated in many spots that it would be considered toxic waste under Dutch law.

But it was a far more mundane form of pollution that snuffed out much of the life in the Black Sea. Nutrients in the form of fertilizers, livestock wastes, and raw human sewage poured into the Danube and Black Sea in ever-greater quantities, triggering a biochemical disaster.

Fed by the nutrients, huge algae blooms formed in the Black Sea in the early 1990s, smothering bottom life. As these microscopic plants decomposed, they consumed all the oxygen in vast stretches of the sea, suffocating most other creatures. An exotic jellyfish-like creature accidentally introduced to the sea established itself amid the chaos and proceeded to graze the waters clean of survivors.

Today the Black Sea is half-dead, its fishing and beachfront tourism industries in shambles. The economic costs are estimated at $1 billion a year.

"If the Black Sea is to recover, it is absolutely critical that Danubian countries change their farming practices and treat their sewage," says Laurence Mee, professor of marine policy at the University of Plymouth, England, and former director of the multinational Black Sea Environment Program. "There is an extraordinary window of opportunity to take action, but it can easily be lost." That's because the industrial and agricultural sectors of Eastern Europe collapsed in the early 1990s. Pollution levels fell as factories closed and cash-starved farms stopped applying fertilizers. Now Hungary and other countries are recovering, but the harmful agriculture and sewage-disposal practices remain unchanged.

"As the economy recovers, the fertilizer and pesticide rates are increasing again," says Ferenc Laszlo of the VITUKI Institute for Water Pollution Control in Budapest, who says that for now the Hungarian Danube is still cleaner than it was 10 years ago.

The Danube's nutrient problem illustrates how hard it can be for countries to cooperate on international environmental issues. Upstream countries like Hungary and Slovakia are being asked to make expensive investments in sewage treatment plants and change tilling and other farming practices. But the benefits accrue to downstream countries like Bulgaria, Ukraine, Turkey, and Georgia.

"The sad reality is that from a water-management point of view nutrients are the last thing an upstream country like Hungary is going to tackle," says Zlinsky. Here keeping bacteria and toxins in check is the top priority. "Nutrients are something you don't tackle unless you have the time, the money, and you feel like it."

Who pays for the clean-up?

When the cold war ended, many hoped that all the nations along the Danube would find themselves part of an expanded European Union, unifying the Danube Basin under a single polity for the first time since the reign of the Roman Emperor Aurelianus. No longer would one country dump its wastes on its neighbors. West European wealth and expertise would make the middle and lower Danube as clean as its headwaters in Germany.

That proved wishful thinking. In the intervening decade, the only Danubian country admitted into the EU was prosperous Austria. Yugoslavia disintegrated in a hateful war that's left Bosnia in ruins and made Serbia an international pariah. Romania and Bulgaria descended into economic chaos.

One agent for change starting to exert more influence is the European Union. "Since all of these countries want to join the European Union (EU), they're all trying to comply with European environmental standards," says Jasmine Bachmann of the WWF's Vienna-based Danube program.

The EU and multilateral development banks helped set up international environmental commissions for both the Danube Basin and Black Sea, but cooperation remains limited. On the Danube, scientists now cooperate on monitoring and alert one another to accidents, but governments still refuse to accept liability for environmental damage done to their neighbors. "The 'polluter pays principle' isn't working on the international level," Dr. Laszlo says.

Cooperation among Black Sea countries has been stalled because of tensions between Russia and Turkey, longtime rivals for control of the sea.

Among the hopeful, albeit minor steps is: the recently announced $60 million World Bank loan package to protect wetlands and fund needed changes in agricultural practices - something Mee says will help reduce nutrient pollution in the Black Sea; the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development committed 42.5 million euro to upgrade the Czech city of Brno's sewage plant. Currently, wastewater from Brno's 390,000 inhabitants flows into the Morava River and on to the Danube without proper treatment.

This year's high-profile Romanian cyanide spills helped sound the alarm. The Commission of the European Union has said that financial aid will be extended to Hungary, Serbia, and other countries affected by the spills. The Australian mining company that spilled the toxins, Esmeralda Exploration of Perth, does not admit responsibility.

Critics point out that since the collapse of communism, the biggest investment the international community has made in the Danube was to bomb the Serbian bridges spanning it.

And with the bridges down in Novi Sad, Danube captains are feeling a bit like the river's sturgeon, blocked from delivering urgent cargo where it belongs along the shores of the mighty river.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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