Theater of Cruelty

Ecological and political breakdown

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Eckhoff is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid.
ENVIRONMENT / The Baltic Sea has become an unlimited landfill of deadly substances. This stems from the development and pollution of the river Oder. But what about the environmental side? The Oder Delta is a vast, cross-border network of rivers, lakes and life-giving wetlands.


Rotten fish with its belly up sticks up from the reed – again. The stench is unbearable, say the people on both sides of the border river Or near Frankfurt. In June, half a ton of dead fish was found in two canals on the Polish side. In July, another ton of carcasses appeared, this time on the Czech side. For the residents, this gives a whiff of last year's summer.

Mass death of fish

One year ago the news of mass death broke fish the media. Up to 50 percent of the total population of 50 different fish species in the Oder was wiped out, around 300–400 tons of fish in the area near Frankfurt (Oder). First the salinity in the water rose extremely, then a massive bloom of brackish water algae followed Small Prymnesium, also called golden algae, deadly to fish. From the Polish side it was quiet. Long. Theories abounded. The exact source of the salt increase and other chemicals was unclear, it said.

The police were called in. There was talk of new treatment plants. No culprit identified.

WWF World Nature Fund (WWF Germany) points out: The decay of dead fish and molluscs that are not removed from the river bed creates ammonium ions, which are fatal to the fish that are still alive. Dead fish, dead clams, dead crabs and their decomposition products float on through The Oder Delta and lands in the Baltic Sea. Thus, this sea between Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Germany and Denmark serves as an unlimited landfill for deadly substances.

The fjord has 'collapsed'

In the Baltic Sea, so-called dead zones without oxygen have been observed for a long time in several regions. Before, they were only found in deep water. Now there are more of them, and they are located in coastal areas. The reason is above all the continuous discharge of nitrates. As well as overfishing and climatic warming. In July 2023, reports from the Danish fjord Vejle found their way to the German newspaper Frankfurter Allegemeine Tageszeitung, with the title "Tod im Meer" – death in the sea. The fjord has 'collapsed'. The fish is gone. Only crabs reproduce in large pools. The municipality has begun painstaking work to bring life back. It cultivates mussels, which will later be released in various locations. It plants sea grass in which the fish can grow up. Last year, 8750 stones were brought from Sweden. They will form reefs and new homes to which fish can return.

The EU Parliament introduced a Nature Restoration Law last year. It obliges all EU countries to return damaged nature to a good ecological state. This means ensuring the population of pollinators, promoting natural resources, clean air and clean water. An ambitious goal. You cannot renature a vulnerable inland area in one fell swoop. In Vejle, people know a lot about it.


The chemical group Grupa Azoty and PiS

However, one can do one's best to prevent renaturation from being necessary at all. And you can intervene where misdeeds are committed.

Environmental organizations in Germany and Poland have been working for months to identify the source of the poisoning in the Oder. All measurements point in the direction of factories using a wetland bead as their sewage pipe. The most important of them is chem-
the group Grupa Azoty, one of Europe's largest fertilizer producers. One of the group's main factories happens to be located exactly where the algae bloom that caused the fish death last summer is greatest: in Kędzierzyn-Koźle. In addition, the bloom of the algal flora began on the same day in two different places, directly below Grupa Azoty's plant, and exactly where the plant's saline discharge flows into the Oder.

The group's handling of waste and general infrastructure is intransparent, investigations are hindered, the company rejects all suspicions. In an interview with the magazine Der Spiegel, a fisherman, also from Kędzierzyn-Koźle, tells about murder-
threats via anonymous phone messages after he said he wanted to speak out about who he believed was behind the pollution. There is also a lot of talk about mining in the area and its harmful effects wasteemissions in the Oder. But these emissions are legal. So why would such actors need to threaten someone with death?

A local deputy mayor ventured strong statements in the same Spiegel report: "Azoty is the second largest employer in the region after the city administration. The company belongs to a significant extent to the state. Azoty employees and officials at the Norwegian Water Authority are loyal PiS soldiers." Law and Justice is Poland's national conservative, populist governing party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczyński. The deputy mayor does not say it, but the meaning is clear: Should state-owned companies be complicit in the fish deaths, no authority will expose them.

Arthur Jonathan

The new 'waterway'

And the river's challenges do not end there. There are strong proponents of expanding the 854 kilometer waterway, allegedly for the best reasons. Excavators are already in full swing at Słubice and Gozdovice. The river will be deepened to guarantee the navigability of new icebreakers, above all to protect against flooding at high tide, it is said. So why is German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke demanding a halt to the plans?

Here we have to go back a few steps. Jonathan Rauhut, award-winning German environmental scientist, provides background material. The case begins with a German-Polish agreement from 2015, drafted by Andrzei Kreft and Stanisław Gawłowski. The former is a former director of Stettin's water authority and thus also leader of the German-Polish icebreaker fleet. Gawłowski is a former Polish deputy minister for the environment, at the time responsible for water management. The agreement states that the development is necessary so that the icebreakers do not get stuck in shallow water in winter. Strangely enough, until now it has never happened that the icebreakers have become stuck. Furthermore, it is admitted in the same planning document that the Oder already has sufficient water depth for these boats. And that it will have it for the next maximum calculable period of 40 years.

"The men behind the agreement admitted that they wanted to develop the river for shipping, but that this was against EU environmental law."

Jonathan Rauhut is a man in his forties, with a backpack and a ponytail, who likes to hum when he walks around. The good-natured impression ceases when MODERN TIMES asks about the subject of the Oder: “It is necessary to understand how the German-Polish agreement came about in the first place. The men behind the agreement admitted that they wanted to develop the river for shipping, but that this was against EU environmental law. Then they came up with the icebreaker argument and were thus able to turn the Oder development into a high water protection project, 'in the predominantly public interest'. Furthermore, they complied with the Germans' wish to facilitate a waterway from Schwedt through Polish areas to the Baltic Sea – this by accepting the development of the Oder, even though on the German side it was known that it was unnecessary for the icebreakers. Kreft and Gawłowski confirmed that the Oder development is a purely shipping project." They were obviously not terribly worried about the consequences of this double game, including that an excavation of elva would not reduce, but through stronger water flow increase the dangers of flooding. And the fertilizer producers along the river reasonably support the plans actively, as they are open to using the Oder as a water autostrada.

This is the reason for Environment Minister Lemke's negative appeal.

The Oder development


The Oder Delta is a vast, cross-border network of rivers, lakes and life-giving wetland. In the spring it offers flowering meadows and nesting birds, in the summer a resting place for cranes, and in the autumn it invites whooper swans to hibernate. The region has provided the local population with a livelihood. It is a recreational destination for ecotourism. Not even with interventions such as dams and industry has it lost its beauty and attraction. As determined by the UN biodiversityconference in Montreal (COP15) in December 2022 – wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, on a par with rainforests and coral reefs. Some of the services wetlands provide include protecting and improving water quality, providing habitat for fish and wildlife, keeping floodwaters at bay, and maintaining surface flows during droughts.

Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, on a par with rainforests and coral reefs.

The canalisation – the excavation – of the Oder threatens this ecosystema. The river water will dig new paths and no longer supply the islands and meadows with the necessary basis for life.
layer. Animal and plant species, nutrients and sediments are thrown out of balance. In addition, the ground water thereby sinks. International teams of geographers at McGill University in Montreal, including from WWF, have published analyzes which confirm that where the natural waterways are disturbed, "there are also negative consequences for the production of clean drinking water and foodstuffs for inland fishing".


Precisely Grupa Azoty has for years been one of the biggest lobbyists for this development of the river. And the former vice president of Grupa Azoty is Marek Gróbarczyk, the state secretary in the Polish Ministry of Infrastructure, the man who today heads the overall Polish water administration, who has so far not identified those responsible for the fish deaths, and who is pushing aggressively to carry out the Oder development.

In December last year, Poland's highest court decided that the development should be stopped, as it could cause irreversible damage to the environment. The verdict came after pressure from German environmental organisations. But it is currently not legally binding and is being ignored by developers. And by the head of water management. Marek Gróbarczyk has flatly stated on Twitter that he has no intention of complying with the verdict.

Environmental policy

Jonathan Rauhut has a Polish colleague. Arthur Furdyn is a water biologist and board member of the environmental organization Rewilding Oder Delta. Artur's English contains some self-made grammar, which does not make his opinion any less sparklingly clear when MODERN TIMES asks him: "Gróbarczyk's arrogant and ignorant statement comes as no surprise. Unfortunately, it is not about anyone, but about the representative of a government whose population makes up half of the Baltic states. Polands so-called environmental protection has a significant impact on the Baltic Sea. There is otherwise a lot of EU money – also from Norway – flowing to Poland."

Should state-owned enterprises be complicit in the fish deaths, no authority will expose them.

He pays little respect to his own country's environmental policy. Most treatment plants are "useless". They are served by people "who don't know the difference between herring and cod". Furthermore, Minister Gróbarczyk is not only the head of all water industry in the country, but also head of all control bodies for the same industry. The goat and the sack of oats personified.

Polish environmental protection is characterized by the country's political history. Under communist rule, awareness of nature was minimal, and civil society barely a word. In recent years, the PiS-led government has not done much to bring environmental policy in line with that of neighboring countries in the west. On the contrary, in Artur Furdyna's words, the country has become an 'oligarch regime', where a few decision-makers "sit in Warsaw and work out ways to profit from nature".

The development of the Oder into a canal

This summer, in connection with the continued poisoning and decimation of life in a threatened delta, a German-Polish conference was organized in Schwedt on the theme of the Oder. Environment Minister Steffi Lemke and her Polish colleague were present. There were many vague words in front of the microphone. On the occasion of the case, WWF Germany published a press release: "With digging and barricades, we move on to the next disaster, against our better judgment. And not just from the Polish side. The German Federal Transport Minister also doubts the plans. [...] The development of the Oder into a canal will further worsen the critical condition of the river, weaken its resilience and increase the risk of environmental disasters in the coming years. […] Unless Germany's Ministry of Transport distances itself from the development on the German side as well, including the National Park in the lower Oderdal, the next environmental disastern guaranteed.”

The disasters in Oder and Vejle – among many in the Baltic Sea's dead zones – are not natural phenomena.

With the fish die-off in August 2022, Oder's resilience was pushed to its limit. This winter there was so much rainfall that the river got a breather. But the golden algae is patient. It has been lying in the riverbed waiting and woke up again this summer. Much of the blame is given to the weather. Mining as well. But business, diplomacy and ecology are a bad mix. The fertilizer producer Grupa Azoty is not mentioned a word.

The disasters in Oder and Vejle – among many in the Baltic Sea's dead zones – are not natural phenomena. And they are not isolated incidents. They are man-made systems with death as a result.

The good news is that what humans cause, humans can also change. If they want.

Photo: Ranveig Eckhoff and Brais Palmás


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