The Age
River of death takes its toll in Hungary


Sunday 20 February 2000

SZEGED, HUNGARY - We found Balazs Meszaros watching ice floes and driftwood floating down the Tisza on Wednesday morning, contemplating the catastrophe that has poisoned one of Europe's finest rivers, robbing him and hundreds like him of a living.

Balazs explained that he was the sixth generation of his family to earn his living by catching catfish, carp, zander and pike, the ingredients of the fish soup for which Szeged, the nearest town, is justly famous.

"Now I don't know how I am going to live," he said. He wanted to string up the directors of the mining company allegedly responsible for the accident "by their intestines".

Four families, he said, still earned their living from fishing in the village of Algyo, 400 kilometres downstream from the Romanian gold mine that gushed cyanide into the river two weeks ago.

Some 200 families in all - from the Tokaj wine country in the north to the Serbian border - earn their living by fishing on the Tisza, which some Hungarians still call "The Hungarian River" because once its source in the Romanian region of Transylvania was within the country's borders. Thousands more depend on tourism and angling.

The Tisza, which empties into the Danube, is famous for the size and variety of its fish, and commercial fishing licences are jealously guarded.

Now other large fish must be presumed dead. Hungarian scientists said on Wednesday they had tested the river in seven places and found some fish alive, but the mortality rate was thought to be 90 per cent further upstream and 40 per cent here near the Serbian border.

Even 400 kilometres from its source, after it had been diluted by water from several tributaries, the 100,000 cubic metres of cyanide poured from the gold mine was still lethally concentrated, contrary to claims by the Australian/Romanian company thought to have allowed the discharge from its dam.

Fishermen and local officials closed sluices and kept the public from the river. Though all were equipped with rubber gloves, one river worker was taken ill from inhaling the fumes and Balazs's dog, a retriever called Cesar, died.

Ducks, too, were affected. Balazs showed the body of a female mallard that died on his garden fence 45 metres from the river.

Professor Lazlo Galle, head of the zoology department at the University of Szeged, was walking his dog by the river last Thursday morning when the poisoned tide arrived.

"I could smell the cyanide in the air," he said. "I am familiar with it from preserving jars, a bitter smell. I saw at first a lot of fish in difficulties.

"There was a pike-perch of six kilograms, which would have been the dream of every fisherman to catch, almost dead. There were a lot of small catfish, swimming by the bank as if they were waiting for help. It was terrible."

What has been seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg, said Professor Galle. No one yet knows what has happened to one of the Tisza's greatest biological treasures, the giant mayfly, once found in all the streams running off the Carpathians. It is now nearly extinct and found only in the Tisza and its tributaries.

Professor Galle said monitoring was now urgently needed to evaluate the damage to the bottom fauna in the river, part of a food chain that has otters and sea eagles at its top.

Otters have been seen alive and taken to the local zoo. Two sea eagles - part of Scandinavian populations which winter here - have been found dead.

By Wednesday, the pollution had passed through Szeged and the river was comparatively clean. Will it ever recover?

Professor Zoltan Varga, another professor of zoology at Debrecen University and one of Hungary's leading environmentalists, is pessimistic.

"I think that the smaller water organisms will be so terribly affected that the damage will be partly irreversible," he said.

The poisoning of the Tisza, he said, ranks among the greatest ecological tragedies - some would say crimes.

He said the river was surveyed by the World Wide Fund for Nature and found to be one of the richest in Europe for biological diversity. The study showed the river contained some of Europe's rarest fish.

Whether they are still there remains to be seen.

Original article