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Tuesday, 5 June, 2001, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Rhine on path to recovery
A view of the river Rhine with the skyline of Bonn, Germany
Toxic pesticides in the river wiped out entire species
By Imogen Foulkes in Basel

The river Rhine is Western Europe's most important waterway. Rising in the Alps, it passes through Switzerland, Germany, France and Holland, before flowing into the North Sea.

We really had to get together and clean it up and keep it clean. We realised it could be the death of the Rhine otherwise

Manfred Beubler,
Basel's head of water quality
But for decades, industrial and domestic waste flowed untreated into the river and, not surprisingly, the Rhine was seriously polluted from the 1950s to the 1970s. Fish disappeared and it was dangerous to swim.

But now, thanks to strict regulations and international co-operation, the river is on the path to recovery.

At Basel, in the evening summer sun, the river has a festive atmosphere. People stroll the riverbanks, listening to live music, and pause for a drink in one of the many open-air cafes.

On the vast expanse of the river itself, a huge freight barge from Germany glides slowly past the city's medieval cathedral, towards the more modern structures of the chemical industries.

Just around a bend, the Basel rowing club is preparing for an evening on the water.

"When I was first rowing, the Rhine was a very dirty river, full of chemicals and dye from the factories. We used to say, 'Oh it must be Thursday, because the river stinks like this,' but now it's much better," said Martin Hug, who has been rowing on the Rhine for 30 years.

Toxic disaster

The catalyst for improving the Rhine came in 1986, when a fire at a Basel chemical plant caused tonnes of toxic pesticides to leak into the river.

Thousands of fish died and some species were wiped out.

The largest fish ladder in Europe, built in the Rhine river at the water turbine of Iffezheim.
Power stations have blocked access to spawning grounds
The head of water quality for the Basel region, Manfred Beubler, said that was a wake-up call for the countries along the Rhine.

"We really had to get together and clean it up and keep it clean. We realised it could be the death of the Rhine otherwise," Mr Beubler said.

Switzerland, Germany and France now work together in Basel to keep the river clean.

Pollution monitored

Just across the border, in Germany, the Rhine water quality monitoring station pumps water from several points along the river. The water is extracted and checked every six minutes, 24 hours a day.

Industries that pollute can be traced and fined.

The station's manager, Vera Hubert, says the system has proven itself.

We catch almost everything, pike, perch, trout, eels

Peter Buchmuller,
"They know we will catch them if they pollute. Now the Rhine is much improved.

"If a river flows through a highly industrialised area, it can never be perfect, but really, it is very good. Fish are coming back," she said.

The return of fish to the Rhine is the best sign that the water quality has improved, and it is certainly a source of satisfaction to local fisherman.

In an oasis of green right in the heart of Basel, Peter Buchmuller has a traditional fishing hut, perched on stilts above the river.

"We catch almost everything, pike, perch, trout, eels. The Rhine is very clean, there's a lot of controls since that big accident," Mr Buchmuller said.

But Rhine experts warn against complacency, saying not everything is perfect.

A project to restore salmon, once plentiful in the river, has been delayed, since hydroelectric power stations have blocked access to spawning grounds.

We have a lot of work to do. Although the water quality itself is good now, we must improve the natural structures of the river

Manfred Beubler
"We have a lot of work to do. Although the water quality itself is good now, we must improve the natural structures of the river. We need a clear passage for migrating fish, so the salmon can return," said Mr Beubler.

As the rowers pull away into the evening sun, they can be confident of a safe swim in the river after their exertions.

As another barge glides down the river, it is careful to avoid a nesting platform for returning river swallows. And 37 species of fish now live healthily in the Rhine.

After decades of misuse, it seems that the Rhine's users can begin to call the river home again.

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