River Rhine cleans up its act

Heavy industry no longer flushes its waste into the river
This content was published on July 22, 2003 - 17:46

Today’s journey begins in the German city of Duisburg, once an environmental black spot along the Rhine River, now a shining example of efforts made to clean up the polluted waterway.

Duisburg lies at the heart of Germany’s industrial zone in the Ruhr Valley. The chemical, steel and coal factories packed along this stretch of the river’s banks helped turn it into a veritable wasteland.

“The chemical plants used to flush their waste into the Rhine, and freight barges used to release their old oil into the river,” sighs Thomas van Loosen, who steers a tourist boat through the city’s industrial zone.

The run-off from dairy and pork farms, as well as urban waste tipped into the river, also helped the Rhine become Europe’s cesspit during the second half of last century.

“The turning point was the Schweizerhalle accident, which kick-started the environmental movement to clean up the Rhine,” says Anne Schulte-Wülwer-Leidig, deputy head of the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine.

In November 1986, toxic chemicals leaked into the river during a fire at a Sandoz factory at Basel’s Schweizerhalle. Thousands of fish died and some species, such as the eel, were wiped out.

After the incident, industry, governments and communities worked together for the first time to inject new life into the Rhine. More stringent tests for water quality were introduced, for example.

The results, however, have been slow in coming.

“The water quality is improving each year,” says van Loosen. “Now we have a lot of fish here – even species that need freshwater like trout and salmon,” he beams.

Nevertheless Van Loosen is still weary of dipping his toe into the Rhine. He casts a wry smile as he waves to a group of young children cheering at his boat as they enjoy a lunchtime swim in the water.

swissinfo special correspondent, Samantha Tonkin in Koblenz

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