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Germany

Germany’s Elbe River Gets Radical Facelift

Germany’s second largest river, the Elbe, has been transformed from a polluted waterway to a crystal-clear body of water fit for swimming.

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Is this really the Elbe?! Frolicking in the waters at the "International Elbe Swimming Day" on July 14, 2002

Last Sunday more than 80,000 people in over 50 towns from the Krkonose mountains in the Czech Republic to the North Sea in Germany frolicked on the banks and in the water of the Elbe river. Thousands jumped into the Elbe for a swim, others played water games, got baptised and participated in festivities along the banks.

Might sound unremarkable, but a little over a decade ago, the above scene would have been unimaginable.

From stinking swamp to sparkling river

That was when the Elbe resembled a muddy brown swamp, choked with toxins, untreated waste and dying fish and fauna.

Alfred Olsert from the environmental group "Deutsche Umwelthilfe" and project co-ordinator of the "International Elbe Swimming Day" told DW-WORLD that during communist times in East Germany the Elbe was a stagnant body of water that stank terribly for miles around.

After German reunification in 1989, efforts were undertaken to begin cleaning up the environmental mess the East German government had left behind. Over the next ten years the German government pumped more than 100 million euro ($100.7 million) in a massive clean-up operation that involved building some 239 large water treatment plants both in the Czech Republic and in Germany.

Gradually the pollution levels in the Elbe sank by 60 to 70 percent and today large parts of the river meet strict EU water standards and 94 different fish species now thrive again in the river.

Following in the footsteps of the Rhine

The clean-up of the Elbe is reminiscent of the efforts to clean up Germany’s largest and best-known river, the Rhine.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, industrial and domestic waste flowed untreated into this western German river, seriously polluting it and choking much of the life out of it.

The catalyst for improving the Rhine came in 1986, when a fire at a chemical plant in Basel, Switzerland caused tonnes of toxic pesticides to seep into the river, wiping out several species of fish that had once flourished there.

While the government had started a slow clean-up of the Elbe just after reunification, the event that really pushed community groups up and down the river to get involved was the German government's 1996 official declaration of the the Elbe as an "ecological catastrophe".

"There was nothing left, people couldn’t drink the water anymore, fish were being scooped up dead, fauna was shrivelling. The people living along its banks lost all connection to this once life-sustaining river", Olsert says.

A former aquatic paradise

It wasn't always this way. Until the 19th century, the German city of Magdeburg was entirely dependent on the Elbe for its drinking water supply and sanitation.

The Elbe also attracted regular hordes of swimmers, tourists and revellers who flocked to the numerous cafes and restaurants along its banks till the end of the 19th century. In fact the very word, "Elbe" means white and shining.

After the Second World War, however, swimming in the Elbe was prohibited on account of the growing levels of pollution.

Today thanks to the efforts groups like "Deutsche Umwelthilfe", the publishing house "Gruner + Jahr" and several other community projects and organisations, the Elbe can once again live up to its name.

Germans more environmentally conscious

"International Elbe Swimming Day" was an international affair. Eight Czech organisations also took part in the event, since the 1165 kilometre-long river originates 1.384 metres up in the Krkonose mountains of the Czech Republic where three tiny streams meet.

Although it took a German-Czech partnership to make the event a success, Olsert says the Germans definitely have the "upper hand" when it comes to environmental matters.

"There isn’t just more environmental awareness in Germany, but even politically it’s easier in Germany to push environmental issues," he says.

He is not sure when the next frolic on the Else will be held. "The sheer numbers of people who turned up was overwhelming and we're exhausted!", he says.

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