The Rhine is one of the longest rivers in Europe. It runs for over 1,300 kilometres from its source in Switzerland. The Rhine flows on through France, Germany and the Netherlands. Being Europe's most important river, more than 35,000 vessel regularly travel along it, or along part of it, especially between the two main industrial centres, the Ruhr and Rijnmond. Apart from navigation, the river is also used for fishing, tourism and recreation. Rhine water is used for domestic, industrial and agricultural purposes, and for generating energy. Last but not least, the Rhine is used as a drain or sewer.
Pollution in the River Rhine
As long as people have lived near the Rhine, they have thrown their refuse into the water. In the past the river was usualy able to clean itself and break down pollutants. However, since the Industrial Revolution the volume of waste has risen greatly and they type of waste changed. Today, industrial effluents mix with domestic waste, sewage, phosphates and heavy metals like lead and mercury. Not all these pollutants are biodegradable, and some are highly toxic.
Sources of Pollution
1. Many types of industries have established themselves along the banks of the rivers. The chemical industry disposes of waste containing heavy metals such like cadmium, lead and mercury. The paper-making, brewing and the detergents industries also dump their waste into the river. Although most of these emissions are properly authorised, some emissions are not and there is always the risk of accidental spill or leaks.
2. Households dispose of a variety of waste products: soap, detergents, leftovers and sewage. People often throw things directly into the river, from pieces of paper to rusting bed frames and old bicycles.
3. Many agriculture practices lead to
organic waste, chemical fertilisers and other waste products
reaching the river. Fertilisers contain various chemicals from
phosphates and nitrates to poisonous hydrocarbons.
The port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands is vital for the Dutch economy. As silt transported by the river settles near the river banks, and at the harbour, it has to be constantly dredged to allow large ships to berth there. The problem now is that metals such as lead and cadmium pollute the river. These attach themselves to silt particles, and hence the polluted silt cannot be dumped in the North Sea. A temporary solution is to build a special depot to accommodate it. But this is only a temporary move, and a long-term solution to solve the problem is yet to be found.
The pollution the Rhine causes many other problems. For example, public health would be seriously affected if the water is not purified. Phosphates, which are in high concentration, stimulate the growth of algae, eventually clogging the pipelines and filters. Silt also poses a similarly problem.
The high salinity of the water not only gives the water a displeasant taste, but also helps to corrode the pipelines. Saline discharges from mines in Germany make the water in the Rhine unsuitable for market gardening in the Netherlands. Hence, Dutch market gardeners have to desalinate water before using it to water their crops. This is expensive.
What can be done to stop or reduce pollution?
International cooperation over the River Rhine goes back too 1887 with a treaty prohibiting the discharge of wastes dangerous to fish. By 1946, the situation had deteriorated further and the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine Against Pollution (ICPR) was formed.
More recently, after a serious incident in 1986, the Rhine Action Programme (RAP) was developed, and adopted by all the countries bordering the Rhine. By the year 2000, the programme aims to achieve a return to the river species such as the salmon which once thrived there. The use of the river for extracting drinking water is also safeguarded.
The specific aims of the Rhine Action Programme, approved by a Conference of Ministers on the Protection of the Rhine against Pollution, in Strasbourg in 1987, are:
- To accelerate the reduction of
permanent pollution from all sources
- To reduce the risk of accidents and spillages
- To improve hydrological and other conditions of the river
a) National laws are made stating how much waste material can be discharged
b) Industrial plants are obliged to have a permit for their emissions
c) Pollution taxes are imposed on individuals and industrial plants
d) Purification and measuring stations are built
At the International Level
a) There is more cooperation between
countries that share the Rhine
b) There is an alarm system for every time the concentration of a certain material exceeds its permitted value.
c) Plans are made for the conservation and restoration of natural landscapes.