The "Miracle" of the Rhine

By Weber, Urs | UNESCO Courier, June 2000 | Go to article overview

The "Miracle" of the Rhine


Weber, Urs, UNESCO Courier


Fish are once again swimming in the Rhine River but it took an ecological catastrophe for the countries it flows through to clean up their act

I For decades, the Rhine was one of Europe's most repelling waste dumps. Today, concerted efforts by all the countries along its banks have restored the river's health. The symbol of that recovery is the mighty salmon, which swims once more in its waters: over 200 have been caught since 1996. But the road to success was long and hard.

Europe's busiest waterway, the Rhine is navigable over a distance of 883 kilometers stretching from its source near Basel to its mouth in the Netherlands. For centuries, many cities and major industrial areas, such as the Ruhr Valley, have occupied its banks. One of the world's densest road and railway networks follows its course. The river also irrigates areas of intensive agriculture and vineyards producing highly-prized wines.

Other crops, such as maize, tobacco, sugar beet and market garden produce (often in greenhouses), which consume high amounts of fertiliser, are greater threats to the environment. Run-off from dairy and pork farms also cause damage. Thousands of people drink water drawn from the river, while urban waste flows into it. A glance at the Rhine's geography (see map and box) shows that civilisation puts huge strains on the river, which flows through five countries, making it a prototype of co-operation in international waters.

A subject of treaties

An 1816 treaty, one of Europe's oldest, established the Rhine as a navigable waterway. The accord was updated in Mainz in 1831 and replaced in 1868 by the Mannheim Act, which set up the Strasbourg-based Central Commission of the Rhine, whose purpose was to guarantee freedom of movement on the "international waterway." Dikes were built along its branches and marshland was dredged to make it navigable for vessels with draughts of up to 3,000 tonnes.

In 1885, five countries along the river signed an agreement of quite another sort, the Salmon Treaty. The International Salmon Commission was set up to protect the fish, which were vanishing from the river as a result of pollution and dams that prevented them from migrating. Salmon swim out to sea when they are about 18 months old and return to the place where they were born to spawn at the age of four or five years. The countries along the Rhine decided to encourage the introduction of young salmon into the river.

But during the nineteenth century, major civil engineering projects were built in and around the river without any prior bilateral agreements. Decisions were taken and work done which threatened neighbouring countries or towns further downstream. In 1807, the Grand Duchy of Baden (stretching from Basel to Mannheim and later absorbed into Wurtemburg) unilaterally decided to canalise part of the river. The German hydraulic engineer in charge, Johann Tulla, straightened out its course, increasing the water flow. Those "improvements" had a disastrous impact on the water table of the upper Rhine plain, whose level fell. The softwood forests were no longer regularly flooded, a feature of the river's plain, and dried out.

Joining forces against pollution

The Grand Canal of Alsace, which France began in 1920, was also built without consulting neighbouring countries. The decision was made by the victors of World War I as part of the Treaty of Versailles. The canal enabled France to build 10 hydroelectric plants and dams between Basel and Strasbourg, not to mention others on tributary rivers, which blocked the movement of migratory fish. The waterway, which was widened in 1950, lowered the level of the Rhine.

The river did not become Europe's cesspit until the mid-twentieth century. Huge amounts of liquid waste, mostly from towns, farms and expanding industries, were dumped into the river with impunity. The level of phosphates from fertilisers and household products such as detergents reached alarming levels. …

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