Hungarians mourn a dead river, but life must go on

SZOLNOK, Hungary, Feb 20, 2000 -- (AFP) For Gabor Csoma, a 42-year-old fisherman who makes his living from Hungary's river Tisza, life won't be the same for a long time.

But, after three weeks' mourning for the dead river, following a cyanide spill in neighboring Romania, he is having to be pragmatic.

"We have caught one fish alive since the cyanide left the country ... It was rather sick, but it was alive. And we found living crabs and snails," he said in this small town a couple of hours' drive from Budapest.

"Our job now is not to bury the Tisza but to revive it. The will is there," he said. "Soberness should be of primary importance," he added.

Csoma is one of the 160,000 townsfolk of Szolnok who since early February have been peering anxiously at the river -- the largest tributary of the Danube -- every day, searching for new life.

Hungary says the January 31 cyanide spill from the Aurul gold mining complex in Romania killed all life, including more than 100 tons of fish, in Hungary when it reached the Tisza through the Lapus and the Somes rivers.

The cyanide continued downstream into the Danube. Dead fish were spotted as far downstream as Bulgaria, although cyanide levels have finally dropped to normal levels.

In Szolnok, many locals are still in shock. But, amid the devastation, signs of hope are already beginning to re-emerge.

"The time for panicking is over. Now it is time for soberness and help," said Edit Szanto, the 47-year-old manageress of the small Touring Hotel on the banks of the Tisza.

She admits she has already had cancellations for the key summer season.

"We already had direct losses because crowds of guests cancelled reservations saying they would not take showers in cyanide-laced water. If they have a choice, they will go elsewhere," said Szanto.

There is no doubting that February will be remembered as a hard month.

Csoma recalled how the 33 fishermen and families in his Halasz (Fisherman) Ltd. "were literally crying over those tons of dead fish. There are no words to describe it. This river is our life."

"Fishermen are tough people, they spend their lives on the water, but every one of us, the old and the young, was shocked to see what man can do to nature," he said.

Halasz Ltd. is responsible for a 136-kilometre (85-mile) section of the Tisza, which meanders through Hungary along 581 kilometers (363 miles).

"We collected 11 tons, fishermen beyond us collected 70 tons and fishermen to the south got some 15 tons. But we could not get much, because the river was beginning to flow fast due to flooding."

The food chain in the river could be restored "in two to three years" by planting fish and waterplants from tributaries when the water starts warming in April, he said.

"Our losses are enormous, but we do not agree that all living things were exterminated," he added

Many in Szolnok praised water management and health authorities for their caution -- they analyzed cyanide levels every two hours, and mixed the full 150 million cubic meter contents of the Kiskoere water reservoir into the river to dilute the poison.

But they have also criticized the Hungarian government officials for acting too late after the spill.

"Hungary should have screamed as soon as Romania admitted cyanide got in the Somes. By now two weeks have passed, the cyanide is gone, and now they come here to look at the water," said Szanto.

Original article