Is Poland Lost?
These brief excerpts from a longer report by the environmental organization Greenpeace highlight the ecological collapse that was taking place all across Eastern Europe by the early 1980s. As extreme as the Polish case sounds, it was unfortunately typical rather than exceptional. All across the region, life expectancies were dropping rapidly, especially for men who were exposed to industrial pollution at work, and the incidence of developmental disabilities and leukemia among children was rising rapidly. The report also highlights two other important points about what was happening in the region at this time. The economic model that had been adopted—a focus on heavy industry and manufacturing at the expense of environmental concerns—meant that a solution was almost impossible to foresee. If more than 30 percent of Poland’s population lived in “disaster areas” that should be evacuated, how could the government that controlled all aspects of economic life cope with such a problem? It would be impossible to relocate 11 million people. And it would be impossible to suddenly shut down all the polluting industry, thereby throwing millions out of work. The regime had truly painted itself into a corner. The other thing to notice in this report is that Polish newspapers, all of which were controlled by the government, were reporting on the unfolding disaster. What does this tell you about the government’s approach to the problem? What solutions might the government have pursued in the face of such a calamity?
This source is a part of the Economies in Transition in Eastern Europe, 1970-1990 teaching module.
The river around which the port city of Gdansk grew is called the Vistula. On its way through the heart of Poland, the Vistula passes through many large and small cities, most of which dump their raw sewage directly into it. Half of the 813 Polish communities that line the banks of the Vistula, including the capital city of Warsaw, have no sewage treatment facilties. Approximately ten thousand industrial polluters also do no without waste treatement.
As a result, the Vistula is so polluted that along 81 percent of the tirver’s length, the water is too dirty even for industrial use; it would corrode heavy machinery. The river flushes some ninety thousand tons of nitrogen and five thousand tons of phosphorus into the Baltic, along with eighty tons of mercury, cadmium, zinc, lead, copper, phenol, and chlorinated hydrocarbons.
The filth collects in the bay, where it is further enriched by the sewage from Gdansk, Gdynia, and Sopot. Polish newspapers report that the waters of the Baltic near Gdansk “exceed bacterial standards for waste water by at least one hundred times, due to sewage dumping.” In 1981, the Polish newspaper Szpilki caricatured the Baltic as a giant toilet bowl.
This story is being repeated throughout Poland. In 1985, the Sejm, the Polish parliament, recognized four areas of the country, including Gdansk Bay, as “ecological disaster areas.” The industrial district of Upper Silesia, the Krakow area, and the copper basin of Leignitz/Glogow shared the distinction. “Disaster area” is meant literally. By Poland’s own environmental standards, the regions are so contaminated with industrial and municipal pollution that people living there should be evacuated. Evacuation is not an option, however, for these places are home to eleven million people, or 30 percent of Poland’s population…
The still call what comes out of most Polish taps “drinking water,” but only for reasons of nostalgia. According to 1984 official Polish environmental statistics, “71 percent of drinking water samples were disqualified by the national public health authorities for reasons of hygiene.” By the year 2000, say some observers, not a drop of Poland’s water will be clean enough to be used for anything.
Despite Eastern Europe’s closed political atmosphere, a grass-roots environmental movement is blossoming. The latitude allowed these unofficial organizations varies between countries; Czechoslovakia and Romania tolerate little protest, if any, while independent environmentalists in Hungary and Poland have made surprising progress…
Chernobyl turned Polish environmentalists from moderate supporters of nuclear power (coal is the principal source of Poland’s air pollution) into determined anti-nuclear activists. Both the PKE [Polski Klub Ekologiczny/Polish Environmental Club] and another prominent grass-roots peace and environmental group, Freedom and Peace, have organized opposition to nuclear power plants and radioactive waste disposal plans….
Ministrations to this battered environment are desperately needed. Krakow’s air, for example, is so contaminated as to defy description. The west wind blows in tons of toxic dust laden with heavy metals, sulphur, and nitrous oxide from Upper Silesia; when the east wind blows, the filth comes in even greater concentrations from Nowa Huta, the enormous steel complex in the eastern part of the city.
Sabine Rosenbladt, “Is Poland Lost?” Greenpeace 13/6 (1988): 14-19