Oil-spill barriers used on Oder river to catch tonnes of dead fish

Tensions rising in Berlin at pace of Polish investigation into the mysterious phenomenon, with fears that further delays could see problem spread to other waterways

Poland and Germany have spanned oil-spill barriers across the river Oder between their two countries to catch 10 tonnes of dead fish killed by an unknown cause. Tensions are rising in Berlin at the pace of the Polish investigation into the mysterious phenomenon, with fears that further delays could see the problem spread to other waterways.

In recent days people in the border region around the Oder river, which flows from the Czech Republic to the Baltic Sea, have been urged not to swim in the water or even touch it.

On Monday work crews could be seen putting up barriers, normally used during oil spills, to prevent dead and rotting fish being washed into the sea.

Polish officials have conducted tests in recent days but have yet to find any toxin responsible. On Monday Dietmar Wolke, state premier of the eastern state of Brandenburg, complained in that information from Poland has been coming in “dribs and drabs” or “not at all”.


“This must be dealt with urgently,” he said.

His words were echoed by Germany’s federal environment minister Steffi Lemke. “There’ll be a massive loss of confidence, especially among the Polish population, but probably also among our population, if this [investigation] does not succeed,” said Ms Lemke on German public television.

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki has fired two senior officials, acknowledging their “sluggish” reaction to growing alarm calls that dead fish were washing ashore on both sides of the border. “For me the most important thing is to deal with this ecological disaster as soon as possible, because nature is our common heritage,” said Mr Morawiecki.

Frustrated at the pace of Poland’s investigation, Brandenburg is conducted its own tests, which state environment minister Axel Vogel said will “take several more days until we have checked through all the substances that we consider possible”.

He added that there may be several causes for the mass fish deaths, in particular given how an ongoing drought has seen water levels drop to record levels, causing long-term damage already to the Oder river valley. “This is why we don’t think we have a disaster that can be solved within half a year by repopulating with fish.”

A drought lasting weeks is causing environmental disaster across Europe, in particular in the shipping and farming sectors, with a knock-on effect on consumer prices. Dried up grazing land and shrunken harvests of grain destined to feed animal herds mean farmers across Europe are already dipping into their winter forage reserves in summer.

This week it is likely the Rhine river in western Germany will in many places drop below the critical level of 40cm needed for shipping. This will make it effectively impassable to many barges, in particular those carrying coal for power stations, exacerbating Germany’s energy crisis just as gas flows from Russia in some pipelines have dwindled to one fifth of regular capacity.

Germany’s chemicals industry is also affected, with BASF and other big producers likely to curb production as boats with raw materials are unable to reach their plants via river.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin