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Europe: An Environmental Victory -- Salmon Swim In Clean Rivers

Munich, 3 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A common fish, the salmon, symbolizes triumph and hope for environmentalists in Germany.

In the 1980s, the Rhine river which flows through Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands, was so polluted that it was known as the sewer of Europe. It had been poisoned by tons of chemical and industrial wastes and agricultural pesticides dumped into it over the decades.

It was unhealthy to swim there. The salmon, which had been caught by Rhine fishermen for hundreds of years, unable to breed in the filth, had disappeared from the river along with about 50 other species of fish.

In that year, the German environment ministry convened a conference of all Rhine states and drew up a program to cleanse the river and its tributaries by the year 2000. One of the goals was that salmon should be able to swim and breed in the Rhine by the end of the century. Officials named the clean-up Project Salmon -- 2000.

This year, the German Environmental Ministry in Bonn was able to announce that salmon are swimming and breeding in the Rhine once more. In some of its tributaries, like the Sieg river near Bonn, they have been breeding naturally since 1994. France noted natural breeding in some tributaries to the Rhine in 1995. And now it seems salmon are finally widespread in the river. At least 40 other types of fish are also breeding there.

A German Environmental Ministry spokesman said this: "We were successful in reducing a lot of the pollution. We identified 45 harmful chemicals whose presence in the Rhine had to be cut by at least 50 per cent by 1995. The real results are even better. The disposal of cadmium into the river has been cut by 81 per cent, chrome by 88 percent, phosphates by 92 per cent and some other wastes by 82 per cent."

The cost has been high, equivalent to $50 billion, says a report by the German Environment Ministry.

These results are important not just to Germany. Another report shows that one of the most important factors in the pollution of the seas around Europe is the waste carried by rivers. The report shows that 76 percent of the water in Germany's rivers eventually reaches the North Sea, another 8 percent reaches the Baltic and about 15 per cent goes down the Danube towards the Black sea.

The ministry says much work remains to purge the Rhine of heavy metal and other pollutants. But officials in Bonn believe there is a good chance that they will be able to meet the goals of Program Salmon -- 2000. And the experience gained on the Rhine will help in cleaning up other rivers, including the Elbe and the Oder to the east. All of them suffer to various degrees from pollution through lead, cadmium, chrome, copper, nickel, mercury, zinc, phosphates, ammonium and other wastes.

A ministry official put it this way: "Ideally, we would like to have a situation like Stockholm. The water flowing through the city is so pure that people can fish and take their catch home to cook for supper."

Germany is serious about cleaning-up Europe's polluted environment. It has 1,760 federal and local laws and regulations intended to control water and atmospheric pollution, disposal of waste materials, and the danger of nuclear radiation. Some 150 of these laws and regulations are aimed at reducing the amount of carbon dioxide these laws and regulations are aimed at reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other gases released into the atmosphere by cars, trucks and factories.

It wants other members of the EU, and also prospective EU members to the east, to be just as serious. Minister for the Environment Angela Merkel frequently points out that pollution knows no homeland. Pollution in one country can quickly be carried into other countries. Polluted smoke from a factory in one country sails with winds into nearby countries. Water pollution and nuclear contamination flow freely across political boundaries.

Merkel insists that Germany does not want to be the schoolmaster of Europe in checking pollution, but Germany does believe it can be a model. And, in fact, many of the environmental laws approved or under discussion by the EU were initiated by Germany.

Environmental security hasn't often been a top priority in any country. German awareness of environmental problems has developed only in the past 25 years. The public began to pay attention when forest trees began to die from acid rain, that is, atmospheric pollution. Environmentalists publicized the damage by painting white circles on dying trees. It took time before most politicians and the public became aware that what was happening to the trees was also happening in rivers, fields, alpine valleys and, in the long run, to the health of human beings.

Germany says its recommendations to the EU on new European laws are backed by experience. For example, the government has encouraged the introduction of new environmentally friendly technology in factories and also in cars and trucks. In Western Germany, adoption of such technology reduced sulphur dioxide emissions from factories by 72 percent between 1980 and 1994. The government now plans to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonia by the year 2010.

German environmental expert Manfred Kohler says any government trying to introduce environmentally friendly policies has to tread a delicate line, taking into account economic and social realities as well as the needs of the environment. The balance isn't easy to find, but clearly is proving to be worth the effort.

(This is the fourth of a five-part series dealing with environmental issues in Europe, East and West.)