Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 7
21 February 2000

Dead Fish E N V I R O N M E N T:
The Blond Is Dead
The Tisza River disaster

Ida Miro Kiss

A deadly progression

On 30 January 2000, a deadly cocktail of cyanide and heavy metals, some 100,000 cubic meters in all, leaked from the Sasar waste pond near Baia Mare, Northern Romania, into a nearby creek. The poisonous liquid then ran into the Szamos, a tributary of the Tisza River, and then reached the Tisza on 4 February.

At this point, the concentration of cyanide in the water was 300 times above acceptable levels. It took another week for the sludge to reach the Danube, in the former Yugoslavia, where the concentration was still 30 times higher than normal. Now, in mid-February, these poisonous waters are travelling downstream towards the Danube delta, the most precious riparian wetlands in Europe, a nature sanctuary and conservation area, shared by both Romania and Bulgaria. At present the cyanide concentration in the river systems is still ten times above the acceptable threshold.

"Waters have no nationality, fishes bear no passport" - so said a speaker at one of the many funeral ceremonies held in riverside settlements along the route of the spill. She blamed the disaster on the eco-colonialist attitude of the Australian owners of Aurul, the company whose operation caused the spill. "They take away their gold, and leave us the poison." Others have simpler attitudes, they just blame Romania, and, to give emphasis to their view, threw a jar of pickled herrings through the window of the Romanian Embassy in Budapest on Wednesday night, much to the annoyance of Hungarian diplomats.

Many committed ecologists feel unhappy about Hungary's decision to join the European Union (EU). They see it as a Trojan horse for multinational capital. Others, among them nature conservationists, have a more pragmatic attitude and hope that the high environmental standards of the EU will force Slovakia and Romania to change their attitudes and be more careful in future.

Margot Wallström, the Environment Commissioner of the EU is consistent. Entering office last December, she declared that she had two priorities: public health and water quality. It shows. As soon as she received official notification of the accident, she traveled to Hungary and Romania, and promised that the EU would offer immediate assistance.

Hungary is in mourning

Hungary was once covered by water. Rivers and streams flowed out of the surrounding mountains and toward the center of the Carpathian Basin, the Great Plain, where much of the land was seasonally flooded, or even inundated year-round. The way of life of the people living there was adapted to its environmental peculiarities. Today, not more than one hundred and fifty years later, most of the water is gone, diverted by decades of water "regulation", and there are predictions that, in the not-too-distant future, water might even run short. Water was, once upon a time, of great symbolic and material importance in and to Hungary; it remains so today

This is what Ronny Lipschutz wrote in his book about the global environmental movement, in the chapter, which he devoted to environmentalists in Hungary.

Hungary is mourning: the "blond" Tisza is dead. Inspiration for ballads, children's counting rhymes and poems, nurturing animals, plants and people for thousands of years, the river was killed in under a week. A white carpet of fish floated slowly downstream and fishermen had their biggest catch ever. Bend down - catch the fish - throw them in the basket - the movements were the same as ever, except that this time the men wore gloves, to protected them from the deadly poisons that coated their catch.

A black flag flies from the small baroque town hall in Tokaj; others fly over Szolnok and Szeged, the two biggest riverside cities.

Seven dead swans

In Tokaj's railway station there is a big map on the whitewashed wall; on it the rivers form a huge blue Y. This tiny town, famous for its exquisite wines, was built where the Bodrog River meets the Tisza. Piercing white sunshine thaws the snow that fell the night before. It is early spring, which causes people to unbutton their heavy winter coats and discard their hats. The Tisza is as yellow as ever but something is missing. This is a silent spring. The birds have gone.

"We had seven swans down by the pillars of the bridge, and coots, wild ducks and gulls. They have all disappeared, no one knows where they are now" - says András Gulyás, manager of the local water sports facility. Did they sense the danger and flee? Or did they taste the dead fish?

Fishermen have seen other dead animals, too. Deer and fox carcasses were found at their habitual drinking places by the riverside.

"And now what?" - András's reply is to sigh deeply. "I don't know. We used to have eight to ten thousand visitors a year." The Youth Union Foundation, which owns the water sports facility, used to offer cheap holidays for young people. They could hire rowing boats, kayaks and canoes, making the long journey downstream to Szeged.

"We are perhaps lucky compared to those downstream, as the Bodrog has remained healthy," added the young man. Once before in the past, the Bodrog recovered after a heavy spill of tannic acid during the 1970s from a Slovakian tannery. "I fear that people will not dare to come this summer," András concluded.

András ' fears are real. Besides fish, birds and mammals, millions of mollusks and snails once inhabited the river's silt. Once the water temperature begins to rise, their carcasses may begin to decay, and the resulting toxins could cause a further health hazard. However, much could happen between now and the summer season.

Ms Irén Nagy, president of the local fishermen's cooperative, is desperate. Dressed in black mourning attire and with impeccable make-up, this plumpish lady is ready for the commemoration this afternoon. The "Tisza Flower" (a species of may-fly indigenous to the river) Fishery Cooperative is made up of six fishermen, two administrative employees and Ms Nagy.

They used to sell four to five and a half tons of fish annually in previous years. They lost that entire market in a week. Even though they now sell only live fish, their customers still refuse to accept their products. They fish in the waters of the Bodrog and in a local pond, but they can no longer offload their stock. Visitors to the Fisherman's Tavern, another source of income for the co-op, also refuse to order fish.

In the meantime, people have been stealing dead fish from the local dump, and astonished experts in Szeged have found fish skeletons stripped of flesh. No human deaths have been reported – so far.

Commemoration

The Queen Elizabeth Bridge, built at the confluence of the two rivers, is the little sister of the beautiful, elegant Elizabeth Bridge in Budapest - the Tisza is the blond, capricious, little sister of the huge and solemn blue Danube. The rivers run silently, swirling around the pillars. The current brings foam and here and there the white bodies of dead fish float in it.

The bridge and the main street are full of people. Giggling and chattering teenagers and grown men alike fall silent as the ceremony starts, and the wind brings the sound of distant bells ringing. All the churches in the area rang their bells to mark the beginning of the "funeral."

It was the young people, pupils of the town's secondary school who felt the need to "do something," and, with help from the slightly older men of the E-mission Environmental Association, they organized this commemoration. Some songs were sung and some poems recited, along with a few speeches. Zoltán Illés, Chairman of the Environmental Committee of Parliament spoke without notes, his eyes wet with tears, as the procession crossed the bridge. Illés was once an environmental activist himself, and he is well known for his forthright manner.

People bend over the guardrail, and throw flowers into the dirty foam. There had been similar events all along the river: at Szolnok, and at the "capital" of the Tisza, Szeged. Young people in Budapest also feel the need to remember what was once a river, and they are preparing a similar demonstration for 20 February, where veteran speakers of the once-famous Danube Movement will speak.

What is a river made up of?

What is a river? The water? Its bed? The banks? Its silt? Plants? Animals? All of this, and more. The Tisza was once a Hungarian river, its source as well as its estuary belonged to Hungary. It provided the setting for innumerable songs and ballads, children's counting songs - even shepherd dogs were named after the two rivers, the Tisza and the Bodrog. Local specialities, Szeged fishermen's soup and Upper Tisza fishermen's soup, were often in competition with each other, but both were considered better than Danube fish soup.

Activists from the Hungarian Society for the Protection of Birds found a dead eagle, one of only seven that had survived the years of intensive agriculture in the region. This is a great loss, as the population of this endangered species may well now collapse. During the period when dead fish covered the river, Hungarian nature conservationists and their foreign colleagues offered the birds food, thus preventing them from eating the poisoned fish. The food was donated by zoos across the country.

One dead eagle? Experts say that the worst is still to come. Many animals are still hibernating, their metabolisms slowed. As the summer approaches, they will awake and find nothing to eat. Other mammals, like otters, live in dens, and may well have disappeared already without anyone noticing. Pál Gera, who works for the Budapest Zoo, and whose lifetime passion is protecting otters, says that since the cyanide spill his working group has not seen any new footprints on the habitual trails of these creatures. What will happen to the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, which flock to the Tisza, the Szamos and the Danube? How will they be fed? No one has any answers.

Let the river alone

Zoltán Illés invited all the biologists, ecologists, experts and nature conservationists, whose work is connected with the Tisza, to meet on Thursday. The scientists said what they knew, and the final result of the meeting was that nothing can be done at present to restore extinct ecosystems. Life will certainly return to the river, from hidden corners of tributary rivers, but the once amazing variety of wildlife will never be the same again. Every stretch, every bend had its own peculiar and complicated ecosystem which can be replaced by other species but cannot be revived.

However, the prospect of financial help from abroad does raise hope in some hearts. Fishermen welcome the idea of re-seeding the Tisza with fish, and the fisheries that sell fry have been quick in offering their services - to which Mr Illés says: "Oh yes, introduce new fish in the river, but make sure you supply them with pocket money, so that they can buy some food at the grocery."

Esmeralda Explorations of Perth, the Australian part owner of the gold operation at Baia Mare, Romania, where the cyanide-laced waste-water originated, says it will wait for the scientific evidence to come in before accepting responsibility. As a result it has sent its own "independent" experts to Romania, whose task it is to show that the company had no role in the catastrophe.

No doubt, it is psychologically difficult to accept one's responsibility for causing such damage. And it is worse when the shadow of bankruptcy is hanging over the company. "It was too cold for the fish, and they died for lack of oxygen" - said a company spokesman, provoking bitter laughter amongst nature conservationists.

The European Union also offered the help of its experts. It was a nice gesture, but a few seasoned cynics remembered that this is a good opportunity for the EU to supply their own firms with orders, and the money they give will thus flow back to the donors.

Ida Miro Kiss, 18 February 2000

This article has been developed by the author from her original ideas in the Blue Ear Forum

Links

Esmeralda Exploration has published several statements on the spillage.

 

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