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Tuesday, 15 February, 2000, 21:33 GMT
Two weeks to kill the Tisza

Veterinarians examine dead osprey found on banks of River Tisza Vets examine dead osprey found near River Tisza

By Nick Thorpe in Budapest

According to local legend, when God made the world, he made the River Tisza last of all the rivers, entrusting the task of ploughing its bed to a certain donkey.

The donkey was rather partial to thistles, which grew in great abundance in those parts, and he wandered to and fro in order to find the choicest plants.

That is why, to this day, the river's course is so meandering.

Tail of destruction

However, the fairytale origin of the river turned to nightmare during the past week, as a cyanide spill from a goldmine in northern Romania travelled down the river, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

Aurul goldmine: Source of cyanide spill in northern Romania Aurul goldmine: Source of cyanide spill in northern Romania
The accident occurred at the Aurul goldmine, when 100,000 cubic metres of water mixed with cyanide, used to extract gold from the waste rock or tailings from the mine, poured over the wall of a reservoir, and into the Lupes river.

That was on 30 January. Perhaps at that stage alone the pollution could have been stopped - by the addition of a massive quantity of ferric-sulphate, which breaks down cyanide in laboratory conditions, or by somehow damming the river.

Instead, the slick cloud of cyanide, smelling of bitter almonds, drifted into the Somes river, and on into Hungary, where it becomes the Szamos. This river in turn becomes the Tisza.

Cyanide creeps into Yugoslavia

By 13 February, the first traces of cyanide reached the Danube in Yugoslavia. In all, the spill affects large amounts of waterway in Romania and the former Yugoslavia and up to- 550 km in Hungary.

Life is believed to have been wiped out in the Szamos, and in upper section of the Tisza as far as the historic wine region of Tokaj.

From Tokaj to the Tisza lake, 80% of life is now believed by Hungarian scientists to have been destroyed.

The food chain has been broken. Even if we were to reintroduce fish into the water, they would die of starvation
Istvan Bancsi, hydrologist
Significant concentrations of cyanide were found in the Szamos, where the river entered Hungary from Romania. The cyanide has formed into a cloud beneath the water and is about 40km (25 miles) long.

Hydro-biologists, zoologists, and other specialists are still collating the data, which is made harder by ice on the upper reaches.

Hundreds of tonnes of fish killed

Friends of the Earth estimate that the number of dead fish recovered from the river in Hungary is in the area of 650 tonnes. The cyanide has also wiped out the plankton and other micro-organisms in the bed and in the water.

A boatman with dead fish in Danube River, Belgrade A boatman with dead fish in Danube River, Belgrade
Istvan Bancsi, a hydrobiologist, paints a gloomy picture: "The food chain has been broken. Even if we were to reintroduce fish into the water, they would die of starvation".

The most common and economically valuable fish in the river, because of the sheer number caught, are the carp.

These feed off the larvae of non-biting midges, in the mud of the river.

Click here for map

Another scientist, Professor Zoltan Varga, the head of the Zoology Department at Debrecen University, has spent 30 years studying the insect life of the Tisza.

"The economic damage is huge - perhaps as high as $20m - but more important and irreversible is the damage to the Tisza ecosystem," he said.

The picture is not one of unremitting gloom: the Tisza lake, set back from the main stream of the river, appears to have escaped.

Local delicacies at stake

Two fish restaurants, the Oreg Pakasz and the Gorbe Csarda face each other across the road at Poroszlo, on the shore of the lake.

Staff at the Oreg Pakasz declined to comment, but said the restaurant was full.

At the Gorbe Csarda, a waiter, Imre Molnar, said that while customers were telling jokes about the fish, they were still eating them.

The fish soup, cooked invariably with paprika, and often also with sour cream, is a local delicacy up and down the Tisza, as well as the Danube.

He thought that the lake had been protected by a dam from the cyanide.

Flood waters elsewhere on the Great Plain may have saved some river birds from the cyanide, as some have been feeding on the flooded fields, rather than on the banks of the river.

However, the bodies of badgers, gulls, and eagles have already been recovered by wardens on the plain. The implications for other species are just now being assessed

These denials are unbelievably cynical
Zoltan Illes
Both the Romanian authorities, and the Australian owners of the mine have questioned whether an ecological catastrophe has really taken place.

By contrast, the fishermen and inhabitants of towns and villages the length of the Tisza are furious and have gathered to mourn their river with flowers and candles. Zoltan Illes, the chairman of the Hungarian Parliament's environmental committee, has expressed his anger.

"These denials are unbelievably cynical," he says.

He says that the fact that all three countries have signed multilateral agreements on environmental protection means that the Australian majority share-owner, and the Romanian state-owned company which run the mine, can be prosecuted in courts in either country.

Perhaps, a passage from the Tisza Tales best illustrates the inextricable links betwen the river and those who live on it.

"On the fire a kettle, and in the kettle, fish boiling. The fishermen all looked hungrily at the kettle, as if for ages they had not eaten their beloved dish.

"Yet they had eaten paprika fish soup the day before, and the day before the day before, and every day before that as far as any of them could remember."

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See also:
15 Feb 00 |  Europe
Hungary appeals for ecological help
14 Feb 00 |  Europe
Death of a river
14 Feb 00 |  Europe
Mine owners contest pollution claims
11 Feb 00 |  Media reports
Hungary's shock at cyanide disaster
10 Feb 00 |  Europe
Cyanide spill wreaks havoc

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