British poet W. H. Auden once noted, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” Indeed, our planet keeps reminding us that water is life. Even though we all know water is crucial for life, we trash it anyway. Water is uniquely vulnerable to pollution. Known as a “universal solvent,” water is able to dissolve more substances than any other liquid on earth. It’s also why water is so easily polluted. The most common cause of poor quality water is human activity and its consequences, and this is exactly what happened with the Odra River in Poland.
Over the last 40 years, according to the data of the European Environment Agency, disasters related to the climate and the environment in Poland have caused losses of EUR 16 billion and contributed to the tragic death of 2,121 people. Although the causes of such disasters are often natural, when they are not, the perpetrators often get away with it. Nevertheless, such cases make a tremendous social impression – in this case: poisoned water, fish floating belly up – all this is strikingly visible. And it quickly becomes the subject of a political game in which it is no longer important to improve certain institutions, standards of infrastructure or procedures – the main goal is who will win or lose politically. Hence, we observed the phenomenon of disappearing water samples sent to laboratory tests, ambiguous test results, disregard of the topic by officials, and the deterioration of relations with Germany, through which the Odra flows as well. This last situation came about after one of the politicians claimed that it was the Germans who had caused the catastrophe, although logic shows that it is impossible, since the poisoning took place more than 150 km upstream from the border.
It is difficult to accurately estimate the financial losses of the catastrophe, because how much does one dead fish cost? And how much more for a hundred thousand or several dozen tons of dead fish? How to estimate the losses accompanying 300 km of a contaminated river? Estimating environmental damage often takes years, and not all losses can be easily translated into money. Stocking the river has cost several million PLN, and this should also include the time spent on it. The poisoning of the river is a drama for all those who work on the river, as it is a waterway. The poisoning is a social loss – water from the Odra River is necessary for agricultural production, industry, meeting food needs, water transport, tourism and wetland ecosystems. Of course, the river will recover eventually, but it will take at least a few dozen years.
River ecosystem management in Poland is insufficient, and the disaster on the Odra River perfectly exposed this fact. We are used to widespread acceptance of the release of pollutants into rivers. Not to mention the legal chaos, which dilutes the responsibility of control institutions and leads to almost a total lack of punishment for any environmental poisoning. Rivers are a public resource for everyone in Poland, yet in the end they are victims of what economics calls the tragedy of the commons – the overuse and exploitation of shared resources to benefit a few while negatively affecting the public good.
Calculations by the employees of Polish Waters, a public institution that oversees rivers, is that there are 17,000 sewage outlets on Polish rivers, including 2,000 outlets made without permits – are symbolic. And some of them are municipal sewage outlets. Meanwhile, an EU directive from 1991 obliges our country to collect and treat municipal wastewater in a way that will not pose a threat to the environment. In Poland, this directive is still waiting to become law. It should have been introduced in 2015. This did not happen, so the European Commission reminded the Polish government of this obligation twice (in 2018 and in 2020). Many Polish agglomerations still do not comply with the directive, including: Warsaw, Poznań, Wrocław, Kraków, Łódź, Lublin and Gdynia. Local governments often lack money to build or expand their sewage systems and sewage treatment systems.
The Odra River flows into the Baltic Sea. Will it have consequences? Well, the Baltic is already the most polluted sea in the world. Its self-cleaning ability is small because it is a nearly closed reservoir. Moreover, after World War II, ammunition, petroleum products and chemical weapons were sunk there. In the 70 years after the sinking of these ships and chemical weapons, no inventory of the seabed, i.e. mapping of the places, quantity, type and condition of hazardous materials contained in the Baltic Sea, has been carried out. Eating fish from the Baltic is dangerous to the health.
The Anthropocene is one of the names proposed for the era in which homo sapiens as a species have become a planet-shaping force. We use water, and 80% of the world’s wastewater is dumped – largely untreated – back into the environment, polluting rivers, lakes, and oceans. The Odra River is just an example. By supporting the river in the process of renaturalization, we must create institutions that will care for the environment and direct the power of capitalism towards the development of technologies aimed at improving the quality of the natural environment.