Monday, December 26, 2011
On page 146 of The Rhine: An Eco-Biography , 1815-2000, Mark Cioc writes, "One hundred fifty years of hydraulic tinkering had turned the Rhine into a soulless shadow of its former self. Once clean, it was now filthy; once broad, it was now narrow; once bursting with life, it was now half-dead." Cioc chronicles how the once mythical and enchanting Rhine was altered in the wake of Napoleon and industrial revolution to become nothing more than a canal. The Rhine Commission, created in 1815, took decisions out of the hands of politicians and placed them in those of engineers who cared little for their environmental impact. They narrowed and straightened the Rhine, removing its islands and shortening it. The tamed Rhine, confined to a single riverbed supplied water, waste removal, power, industrial processes, transportation, and recreation. This last was given least priority. The engineers minimized their handy work on some of more touristy lengths, but gave no consideration to birds, fish, and mammals. In altering the flood plain birds lost much of their habitat. By chopping up the Rhine into dammed segments, the engineers made it impossible for migrating fish to reach their habitats. If the engineers were uninterested in preserving nature, the statesmen were less so. Driven by the Prussians, the main political concern was to foster growth to Germany's economic and military power. The chemical, coal, and dye industries pumped millions of tons of waste in the Rhine. Instead of regulating these emissions, industrial and political leaders adhered to the discredited notion that significant water would dilute the toxic waste. The effect, however, was to kill off more wildlife habitat and to turn some of the feeder rivers into the foulest stretches of water in the world. Conservation came late in Germany, long after the United States. As Cioc chronicles, the first effective pollution controls were only implemented in the 1970s and 1980s. The good news is this new regime is working to vastly reduce pollution. Restoring wildlife is proving much more difficult. Although some of the damage can be mitigated, the Rhine will never be what it once was.