The Elbe: from a sewer back to a river?

Wednesday, May 22, 1991

By Will Firth

BERLIN — The Elbe is the third largest river in central Europe. It is also one of the most polluted.

From its source in Czechoslovakia, the river flows 1165 km through the former two Germanies to enter the North Sea near Hamburg. Until the annexation of East Germany (GDR) by West Germany and the closure of major pollution sites, the Elbe annually carried to the sea 22.5 tonnes of mercury and 124 tonnes of lead, to name but two of the many dangerous pollutants.

Half the municipalities in the ex-GDR have no sewage treatment plant. The entire sewage of the 500,000 people of Dresden is discharged, untreated, directly into the Elbe.

Last October, the Czechoslovak and German ministers for the environment, together with an envoy of the European Parliament, signed an agreement aimed at improving the condition of the Elbe.

An International Commission for the Protection of the Elbe has been established in the city of Magdeburg. The aim is to enact strict legislation to punish polluters and to conduct a clean-up of the river.

The task is a formidable one, and the gap between proclamations and reality is wide. In both Germanies, the conservation of water resources was and is anchored in law. In fact, the GDR even had an article in its constitution declaring the conservation of water resources a prime responsibility of the state. In reality, the state often did and does turn a blind eye on cases of flagrant abuse.

There is a desperate need for intervention by community and environmental groups. One of these is the Elbe Council in Dresden, a civic action group pushing for access to effluent emission data and a restructuring of industry on environmentally sound lines.

Direct action is required in the face of bureaucratic inaction and corporate negligence. In May 1990, for example, the Greenpeace ship Beluga made waves with its water-testing and publicity voyage up the Elbe. In Magdeburg it blocked effluent outlets of the chemical giant Fahlberg-List, bringing the operation of this unrepentant "environmental sinner" to a halt.

In late northern summer, a trip from the Elbe's source to the sea has been planned by environmental groups as part of a campaign to draw attention to the Elbe's continuing problems.

The environmental crisis of the Elbe and other parts of the ex-GDR needs to be seen in both "East-West" and "North-South" terms. The GDR was to a large extent removed from the capitalist world market. Centralised bureaucratic planning was the dominant dynamic of its economy. As in the West, environmental destruction was a consequence of a "growth at all costs" model of development.

But two factors were different in the GDR. East Germany and could not transfer their dirty industries to less developed countries, and there was much less opportunity for an environmental (or other political) opposition to develop and force compromises.

Despite the immediate squalor of post-Stalinism, eastern Germany is gradually being absorbed into the world's "North". But in the "South", the ruthless machinery of the world market bulldozes along its daily injustice. What is the polluted Elbe compared with the destruction of the Amazon rainforests or the famine and desertification across neo-colonial Africa?

Czechoslovaks, Germans and peoples living by the North Sea have good reason to want a cleaner Elbe. But there are dozens of poisoned rivers in Asia, Africa and Latin America; often the big environmental criminals there operate from boardrooms here — and are vulnerable to our political action.

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