“If we work together, we can change the world”

“The Save the Rivers Coalition speaks together with one voice for rivers so that they can reach a larger audience. In presenting them with the EuroNatur award, we want to give them a still louder voice,” says Dr Anna-Katharina Wöbse, Vice-president of EuroNatur at the beginning of the ceremony.

Protest against the dam project in Siarzewo on the Vistula (Wisła in Polish). Construction was scheduled to begin in early 2024.

© Justyna Choros
  • All about the Save the Rivers Coalition

    © Jannis Bierschenk

    The Save the Rivers Coalition or Koalicja Ratujmy Rzeki (KRR) brings together organisations and individuals protecting Poland’s rivers, streams and wetlands and includes scientists, artists and local authorities. The coalition consists of over 50 organisations and more than 50 private individuals. The KRR has been working for years for the protection of the rivers Oder and Weichsel. It is also fighting the planned construction of the E40 water highway, which will endanger one of the largest areas of wilderness in Europe in the transnational region of Polesia (Poland, Ukraine, Belarus). On 26th October on the Island of Mainau on Lake Constance, Justyna Choroś from the Polish Society for the Protection of Birds, Dorota Chmielowiec-Tyszko from Fundacja EkoRozwoju and Piotr Nieznański from WWF Poland accepted the EuroNatur prize on behalf of the Save the Rivers Coalition. 

In an interview the three laureates of the KRR explain how they succeeded in keeping their hopes going even under difficult circumstances.

Was it a good idea to set up the Save the Rivers Coalition?

Justyna Choroś: By far our best idea! In nature conservation, we often use the image of David and Goliath, seeing ourselves as David. But what if thousands of Davids all came together? That’s exactly what we’ve done with the KRR. So today I no longer feel weak in the face of the opponents we have to deal with, but quite strong.

Piotr Nieznański: The formation of the KRR was a reaction to the plans drawn up by the conservative government to transform Polish rivers into water highways. When individual non-governmental organisations draw attention to environmental problems locally, that can easily be dismissed. But when an association of 100 organisations and people say something, it shakes things up. It increases our effectiveness, when we put our personal opinions to one side and speak with a united voice to the outside world. Each of us is an ambassador for the same common objective: protecting free-flowing rivers. This has become a big issue in Poland, even though for a long time our work was being blocked by politics. Today we are being heard.

Our answer to the government’s destructive plans is a social movement working for the good of the rivers.

Piotr Nieznański, Save the Rivers Coalition

How valuable was the rivers coalition during the disaster on the river Oder last summer?

Dorota Chmielowiec-Tyszko: What happened on the Oder was awful. On the other hand, the disaster on the Oder drew the public’s attention to the situation in Poland’s rivers. We took that opportunity to bring the topic to public attention, by providing the media with information. There were numerous critical articles putting the case against the reporting by the pro-government media.

Piotr Nieznański: We worked closely with our German and Czech colleagues, and we reacted quickly. The same couldn’t be said of the governments (editor’s note: bordering countries). People living directly on the river saw how the whole ecosystem collapsed within a few days. For quite some time, Polish politicians were nowhere to be seen. On the tenth day of the disaster, there was a press conference on the central Oder. A representative of the PiS party said on public television in all seriousness that he was standing on the banks of the river and could confirm that nothing terrible had happened. Just a few meters away, people were pulling dead fish out of the water and shouting, “You’re lying.” The camera man completely blanked out this scene. One of our colleagues immediately put up a video of the press conference which showed the disaster on social media.  

  • What happened on the River Oder

    © Sascha Maier/BUND

    The fact that the EuroNatur award went to a Polish rivers coalition was due at least in part to the disaster on the River Oder in July 2022: contaminated wastewater, changes to the river’s natural dynamics and the ongoing drought had resulted in a huge increase in poisonous algae in the Oder. Over half the fish in the river died, not to mention countless mussels and snails. Polish coal mines continue to discharge salt wastewater into the Oder’s tributaries and the planned development of this cross-border German-Polish river into a water highway has also not yet been dropped. Together with the KRR and other partners, EuroNatur filed a complaint about this with the European Commission in 2022.

Have the events on the river Oder woken up people in Poland?

Justyna Choroś: We’ve spent years pointing out to the Polish population and our government that there are problems with the management of our rivers. The disaster on the Oder made the failure to act absolutely clear. Today people believe us. 

Piotr Nieznański: Yes, for many people this was a wake-up call. They realised that the government is lying to them. I think this realisation is reflected in the results of the parliamentary elections (editor’s note: in October 2023) wider. It’s a victory for democracy in Poland.

Today, society is on our side, and that is a fantastic turnaround.

Justyna Choroś, Save the Rivers Coalition

Construction work on the Oder, which continued last year despite a court order to halt construction. Even after the change of government, construction will continue as of the end of January 2024. It is high time that responsibilities were transferred back from the Ministry of Infrastructure to the Ministry of the Environment.

© Sascha Maier/BUND

Does the end of a conservative government in Poland also mean new hope for the rivers?

Dorota Chmielowiec-Tyszko: We hope so. Under the PiS government we non-governmental organisations got no funding and had to fight to survive. That took up a lot of our energy. Often we were barely able to concentrate on our real work. I think we won’t have this problem to the same degree anymore.   

Piotr Nieznański: The election result shows that the people of Poland want to be connected with Europe again, and with European standards for the protection of the environment and our lakes and waterways. There is hope!

Dorota Chmielowiec-Tyszko: Together with the international coalition Zeit für die Oder (Time for the Oder), the Save the Rivers Coalition has developed a positive vision for the river Oder and sent this to the individual parties in the run-up to the elections. It is based on what is set down in the European Water Framework Directive and the European biodiversity strategy. That means our vision is more than just a beautiful dream. We’ve managed to get the topic of protecting our waterways embedded into the electoral programmes of all the democratic-liberal parties.

Justyna Choroś: All the same we’ll have to stay on our guard and monitor what is actually put in place.

What does this positive vision look like that you have for the river Oder particularly but also for all the other rivers in Poland?

Justyna Choroś: A crucial difference is that we have changed the narrative. Until now, it was always about how we must exploit the environment. But we see people as part of the environment.

Piotr Nieznański: For years, the rivers were abused to make money. One example of this is the discharge of salt into the Oder by the mines. Disposing of this salt properly would cost in the region of 1.5 million Zloty a day (about 350,000 Euro per day). So companies decide to save themselves considerable sums by discharging the salt directly into the river. The local population along the Oder has got used to seeing this as an inevitable and normal situation. But it isn’t! We’re speaking up for an alternative vision of a healthy river ecosystem, giving us clear unpolluted water that we can swim in, which is full of fish and where the river valleys are able to hold large amounts of water and lessen the impact of both droughts and floods.

Rivers know no boundaries; that’s something we should always bear in mind.

Dorota Chmielowiec-Tyszko, Save the Rivers Coalition
Mountain river in Poland

It’s not just famous rivers like the Oder that need protection. The Save the Rivers Coalition gives a voice to less well-known rivers too. Pictured is the Białka in the High Tatras which has the character of an alpine river.

© Paweł Augustynek Halny
Natural river landscape

The Oderbruch near Neurüdnitz: A clear commitment to the protection of the Oder is also needed from the German side!

© Sascha Maier/BUND

What are the biggest challenges you now face?

Justyna Choroś: It’s not just the larger rivers like the Oder and the Weichsel that we are worried about. We also have problems on all the smaller rivers in Poland.  

Piotr Nieznański: According to a recent study by WWF Poland, between 2008 and 2020 almost 30,000 kilometres of these smaller rivers had controls introduced to regulate them. This is about one fifth. Instead of improving the ecological conditions of rivers as is set down in the EU Water Framework Directive, Polish rivers have been destroyed, in part with the help of EU funding that was actually intended for nature conservation. Normally in the European Union, public hearings are required. However, the legislative system was changed under the conservative government: NGOs were prevented from taking part in consultations and were even excluded from administrative proceedings. Nothing like this has been seen in Europe before. We must ensure that the new government reverses these changes.  

Justyna Choroś: There is a lot of work ahead of us too to redress the damage caused by years of propaganda. Many people still believe what they’ve been told: that developing the rivers is good for nature and will bring them jobs.  The big question for us is how we can reach those parts of the population.

Dorota Chmielowiec-Tyszko: It is also absolutely ridiculous that, Volker Wissing, the German Minister for Digital and Transport continues to support construction on the river Oder.

Piotr Nieznański: And with most unfortunate timing at that! At last, we can see the chance for a change of heart in Poland. At just that moment, the German Minister for Transport is endorsing the introduction of controls to regulate the Oder – and that after last year’s disaster. I think German citizens should take action about that.

EuroNatur award ceremony 2023

The 2023 EuroNatur Award laureates, framed by Prof Dr Thomas Potthast (far left) and Dr Anna-Katharina Wöbse (far right), President and Vice President of EuroNatur.

© Gerald Jarausch

What does the EuroNatur prize mean for your work and your motivation?

Justyna Choroś: This award gives us more strength. It’s easy to forget why we spend so many hours each day at our computers. 

Dorota Chmielowiec-Tyszko: The circumstances in which we fought for the well-being of our country’s rivers over the past few years were frustrating at times. So it’s all the more important when someone from outside comes along and says we’re going in the right direction. The disaster on the Oder made it very clear how much we need this international cooperation – and not just on paper.

Piotr Nieznański: The EuroNatur prize is an award for all those who put their energy into this joint enterprise. We dedicate the prize to everybody who does not sit back passively but takes action when damage is done to the environment. The future is a society that stands up against what is wrong.

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