GB No. 3(18)/95
As with other things we are far behind the West also in the draining of our country. Thanks to the fact we still have oases of magnificent nature, we have still preserved many rivers and streams, not destroyed by the mania of fighting with natural primordial landscapes. Last year, mainly due to lack of financial resources, hydro-engineers were forced to alter their perception of drainage problems. Nevertheless, in extremely dry years 1992-94 the drainage works and river regulations were still conducted. Practice lagged far behind theory. In the whole system of river engineering the most surprising fact is that the works are financed by the Ministry of Environmental Protection although it stands in apparent opposition to conservation of nature, the beauty of Polish rivers included.
River engineering always means water quality deterioration: the self-cleaning ability of regulated rivers is several times weaker than of natural ones. At the same time the drain-off rate is several times higher. The recent calamitous floods in Western Europe show how dangerous regulation of whole river basins and quick accumulation of drained-off water in the lower parts of a river is. In the case of regulated rivers the speed of the flood waters is so great that it has disastrous results even in the lower reaches of the river. Therefore, regulation happens to be a cause of tragedies that it has been to protect from. Nature proves once again that it is simply infallible.
River regulation is accompanied by destruction of natural balance of flora and fauna of the banks. Trees and bushes are felled in the times when root sewage treatment plant are widely promoted. The plants use willows, cane and duckweed which assimilate nitrogen, phosphorus, remains of pesticides and other elements. Alder, willow, riverside cranes naturally play the same role and, nonetheless, they are ruthlessly eliminated by hydro-engineers.
As we can see, the hydro-botanical treatment plants allow the treatment of household and agricultural sewage in the best, i.e. the most natural way and they are not space-intensive. Having the above in mind we can judge in what way the self-cleaning abilities or regulated rivers are lowered. The capacity of small hydro-botanical treatment plants for small streams is extraordinary and rivers are nothing else but collections of small streams. By regulating rivers we destroy water resources in our country. What for? Why? Partly due to inertia of the thoughtless administration machinery and partly because we want to do something, anything, regardless of consequences.
In the discussions related to the Bill of Nature Protection we can observe certain manipulations of people looking for easy money; of circles who are against nature protection; of people who claim that nature protection is secondary to protection of private property and freedom of action. It must be just the contrary. All other bills must be adjusted to the regulation concerning nature conservation because the latter is undeniably the primordial base of our existence. The bills should be mutually compatible but at the same time adopt a certain hierarchy. Private property must be respected, but the protection of natural resources of Polish lands is of superior importance. The natural resources should be treated as basic for our life and our economy. Swamps, peatbogs, non-regulated rivers and their natural valleys and forests also belong to these resources.
The Sejm tries to develop new regulations which are to organise water management in Poland. A new Water Law is being created the main aim of which is, according to its authors, adjusting the regulations to the requirements of the market economy. However, people interested in environmental protection pose one fundamental question: what economy is meant here? The present one or the one we would like to have? When the Forest Bill was being discussed many environmentalists were warning of disastrous effects of the proposed forest management. The experts suggested many necessary corrections but the remarks of biologists, ecologists and foresters were utterly ignored. The present state of private forests is widely known: they are stripped of the most precious species, regardless of the forest natural balance and its influence on other ecosystems, water ones among them. But those who were to make profit on the far-from-perfect law have already made it, so the corrections are being introduced to the Forest Bill as late as now.
In the new versions of the Water Law being discussed at present the word "privatisation" scares us in the same way. Who is in a position to prevent the new regulation from sanctioning robbery of national property? The property is water whose creation and recreation is work of nature. Nobody can treat it as a private property. What can be done not to let the law authorise robbery of streams, rivers and lakes, and introduce privatisation in the old Polish communist style? Not only water ownership but also the state of ichtiofauna in Polish rivers and its natural beauty will depend on the Water Law.
In the drafts of the new bill discussed recently we can find regulations concerning water resources for industry, agriculture, etc. Apart from the usual general statements, the problem of water as a basic element of all ecosystems is completely neglected. It should be just the opposite: having secured the protection of water as the source of life we can treat it as material for various branches of economy.
The drafts of the Water Law take into account the presence of areas under environmental protection as well as pro-environmental actions. This is nothing new. But without introducing regulations indirectly related to carrying out those actions this part of the bill remains only a bunch of clichés of no practical meaning.
The draft introduces the notion of mass draining but it does not exclude the possibility of using the draining system that has been working so far. The latter has lead to the degradation of most of peat-bogs, water-bearing areas and river basins, devastation of the natural landscape and aggravation of the water crisis in Poland. Such a drainage and river regulation policy, the environmental consequences of which are not taken into consideration, should be forbidden by law.
The new Water Law in the present form does not ban devastation of streams and rivers and does not introduce any OBLIGATION to conduct restoration works on the devastated areas. The work should cover turning the existing drainage ditches into strips of grass, trees or bushes that would play part in the process of natural water treatment.
The most important thing is that the Water Law is not intended to stop the "expansion of greed" that can be observed in every sphere of our life. "Economy must be perceived not as a priority but as subordinate to environmental protection." Today the attitude promoted by Gary Snyder may still be shocking and meet with objections but it seems increasingly apparent to be the only way.
The new Water Law cannot establish a legal basis for e.g. building an east-west waterway through the most beautiful river valleys. One of the probable aims of the above-mentioned project is the possibility of selling those technologies that are withdrawn from the market in the West to our country. Another reason may be an opportunity to make a considerable profit on credits granted by western banks, taken by our local speculators. It has been this way so far. Who would win a contract for realisation of the project that means environmental disaster? The same people who would decide on the conditions of the contract, and they would earn millions. And this is another reason why the east-west waterway building is so strongly promoted. All profits will go to high-rank officials, perhaps the governors of the involved voivodships and their backroom boys. Carrying out of such serious projects brings huge gains to the employed companies. The same can be said about plans of regulating and building cataracts across the river Vistula.
All the above matters stand in obvious opposition to constant complains about the lack of funds for building sewage treatment plants, sewage collection systems, etc. The money is there but it is invested in the wrong schemes. Such a situation may be disastrous for Polish nature and our children may not know the beauty of the natural environment. Water, the natural beauty of fauna and flora, the ecological balance: so far all these things have been less important than money. What filth, archaic thinking and human egoism are we going to import to Poland before we will have fallen pray of our own short-sightedness? Before we have become a poison store and a market for old-fashioned theories? Before we have ceased to be a naive nation ruled by ruthless politicians?
Polish waters cannot be privatised according to regulations proposed in some of the drafts of the new law. I do not mean here single small ponds or mill reservoirs. Particular attention is due to small streams that are still full of life, rich with fauna and flora, that may be regulated by a private owner violating the rules of environmental protection. The opulent elite of businessmen and politicians may rob the poorer half of society of beautiful river valleys which they will turn into a lucrative business. We have already put them in charge of economy, now they are trying to take over rivers and lakes, the cleanest ones naturally, and the beginning of the process can be observed in the Mazury lake district. What I appeal for is not a comeback of communism but it is common sense, justice and perception of environment as a unity which serves ALL creatures, not only people.
Streams and rivers are natural ecosystems, tracks of migration for food and breeding as well as the seasonal one, so they cannot be divided to private aquariums. They cannot belong to anyone. We have to study the Water Law carefully. Total change of attitude of pro-environmental thinking is necessary but the Water Law still follows the old way. According to the law the water management is subordinated to the economic development today, when the limits of the development has already been defined and exceeded.
In Poland water is wasted by all and it is nothing new. It is especially true in the case of the cleanest waters. And still we cannot be sure that the new law will establish high prices for the clean water and destine it only for consumption purposes, under strict control. It is essential that the cleanest waters should be for the good of all society, not only the wealthy elite. Industrial works, facing possible legal unfavourable changes, open new water intakes and verify (or prolong) water usage permits for the following years. The new Water Law should treat the problem as though from scratch and grant each water user utterly new permits, based on new regulations, and take the permits from those who do not meet appropriate requirements.
The examples presented above do not exhaust problems with water management in Poland which is alarming.
What should the new Water Law include? One thing is restoring the natural surroundings of rivers in order to regain their self-regulation and self-treatment abilities. Thus we could recreate the ecological channels they naturally constitute. It is rivers that link wooded, watershed and spring areas with big river valleys. It is also necessary to recreate fish shelters, their spawning and feeding grounds, and to protect and restore the natural landscape.
Water reservoir protection in Poland should cover creating or enlarging national parks and nature reserves. River valleys have been so far rarely embraced by the nature conservation system. And the threat to their environment is not any less; to the contrary, it is rapidly increasing. The new motorways planned are to go through many river valleys, even those uniquely beautiful like the one of the Rospuda river. It is simply the easiest way, the way of least resistance. In Poland we have many spots that Western Europe, flooded with concrete and asphalt, can only dream of. Whole the Biebrza, the Elk, the Narew, the Czarna Hancza, the Rospuda, the Wegorapa, the Leda, the partly swampy and almost utterly natural Grabowa, the Leba, the Lupawa, the Gwda, the Dobrzyca, the Pilawa, the Drweca, the Pasleka, the whole unique basin of the Drawa and Plociczna; and in the south of Poland: the San, theTanew, the Dunajec and the Sola: all these rivers are only few out of many that have to be protected.
Everywhere else in the world protection and restoration of river environments becomes a priority. For example the International Green Cross, an organisation of great authority, has included in its program as main goals waste utilisation, prevention of environmental disasters and restoration of natural environment and function of rivers. This shows the gravity and range of the problem.
When discussing with institutions involved in devastation of Polish rivers you can always hear words of love and admiration for nature and of respect for people and their rights. Speaking of love, so far our law has not treat rape as a manifestation of it. Bearing in mind the apparent moral relativity shown by our governing elites we can expect muddying the waters. As the writer Waldemar Lysiak said, elites are the only bog in Poland that needs drying.
dr Leszek Woźniak
reprinted from Raj 6-7/95