Contribution and editorial supervision by: Anja Hennig
Oder in crisis
The Oder River flows 854 km through Central Europe from the Czech mountains to the mouth of the Szczecin Lagoon. However, the river’s story is global: a story about climate change and water as a shrinking resource. At the end of July 2022, Poles and Germans along the banks of the Oder witnessed the mass death of hundreds of tons of fish and mussels. Weeks later, researchers traced the main cause of the ecological disaster back to a bloom of toxic golden algae. Brackish water algae rarely spread inland. However, under low-water and extreme-heat conditions, high salinity levels can lead to abnormal blooms away from the sea. Highly salty water is also a byproduct of hard-coal mining that is legally discharged from Upper Silesia into the Oder.
Thanks to a wet summer, this catastrophe did not repeat itself this year, but its occurrence overlaps with the conflict over extending the Oder to make the river navigable. In 2015, the German Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure and the Polish Minister of Infrastructure signed the German–Polish contract on the Oder extension. In 2020, the Brandenburg regional ministry for the environment and a coalition of German and Polish environmental NGOs filed a lawsuit against the Polish government and its environmental impact assessment. According to the plaintiffs, the planned extension measures would interfere with the unique ecosystem of the Oder. Despite an order to halt construction issued by a Polish court while examining evidence submitted to substantiate these claims, Polish bulldozers continue piling up stones to form groins at the shore of the Polish–German Grenzoder.
The Oder crisis seems to center around a clear Polish–German political divide. In the master's course I gave in the summer term of 2023, we viewed the Oder crisis through a lens of asymmetries and saw the conflict pattern become more complex. Asymmetries refer to power imbalances, structural inequalities or unequal dependencies in various dimensions, eg. on a historical, economic, political or cultural level (Opiłowska 2021, Ackermann 2022). The perspective of multilevel governance allows us to identify differences between politics at the state and regional levels, such as of non-state actors (Hennig 2020). In this vein, we spoke with NGO representatives, the Brandenburg Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Climate Protection, and the Polish embassy (see podcast). We asked ourselves, “To what extent did asymmetries shape the Polish–German Oder crisis?”
Felix Ackermann’s broadly discussed article “After the Reconciliation” fueled a new debate about the relevance of asymmetries in contemporary Polish–German relations. We share Ackermann’s dynamic conceptualization of multiple asymmetries: Germany would have been partly emancipated from its historical guilt by creating new asymmetries through a postnational European identity. By contrast, current Polish politics emphasize historical asymmetries for domestic purposes (Ackermann 2022, Loew 2023). Thus, the extent to which asymmetries shape the quality of bilateral relations also depends on how politics and society perceive or (de)construct them (Holly et al. 2003).
While history-related asymmetries in Polish–German relations always play into bilateral communication, we turned our focus to material asymmetries, such as unequal economic, (geo)political, and structural resources. These asymmetries are due to national politics, post-communist legacies, and transnational dependencies. In material indicators, Germany and Poland diverge in population size, GDP per capita, military power and duration of EU membership (Opiłowska 2021, 216). Moreover, asymmetries vary depending on the level of observation – within and across states: Engagement to save the Oder is stronger in the Oder region and weaker inland in Poland and Germany. Our analysis also shows that certain material asymmetries in Polish–German relations may harm Polish–German Oder management.
Divergent political views
When the German–Polish contract on the Oder extension was signed in 2015, the Civic Platform (PO) and Germany’s SPD–CDU Coalition were still in power. The memory of the Millennium Flood in 1997 meant that flood protection was a central argument: River deepening should enable the passage of ice breakers to prevent floods from ice dams. These days, however, extreme floods on a small scale due to heavy rain are more likely than floods caused by moving ice on the water.
In this vein, the Brandenburg environmental ministry now favors river protection and rejects river extension. This means leaving the river banks untouched, protecting the alluvial forests and enlarging floodplains, which are smaller than those on the Polish side. The Polish government instead upholds the joint agreement on river deepening and recently issued a law on “Oder regeneration.” The Polish opposition and experts criticize this law for its emphasis on an investment-based “concrete therapy”. Instead of restoring natural conditions along the river, the government plans to institute dams and straightening measures, actions which Germany had taken to its main rivers in the past, when the Grenzoder was still an untouched border river. That political asymmetry of “restoration vs. investment” is accompanied by a geopolitical asymmetry: 90 % of the Oder passes through Polish territory. The Polish–German Grenzoder encompasses only 152 km of the Oder’s total length of 854 km. This fact feeds the perception that Germany would interfere too much in Polish affairs and wants to keep the Polish economy down.
“We want to avoid any flood catastrophe again,” experts from the Polish embassy told us in July 2022. Polish and German politicians and environmental activists see flood protection as a pretext for transforming the flat Oder into an economically reasonable waterway. However, even the Polish embassy does not identify any goods that could be shipped on the river. Wherever the truth lies, it seems safe to say that the conflict on the Oder extension is shaped by an environmental–political asymmetry between the Brandenburg regional ministry and, to a greater or lesser extent, German and Polish environmental NGOs and federal governments about how to “manage” the river in the face of climate change.
Asymmetries of competencies
This political asymmetry cutting across national borders is shaped by two asymmetries of competencies: in federal Germany, many decisions are made at the regional level. Polish borderland authorities who clearly favor river protection are dependent on the central government (Opiłowska 2021, 2018), which supports the river extension. We were told how difficult Polish–German collaboration was during the 2022 catastrophe, a tension that has eased only recently. Polish regional representatives of the political administration act within joint task forces co-organized by Brandenburg’s Green-led regional environmental ministry within the order of the PiS-led Ministry of Infrastructure and Ministry of Environment in Poland. However, in Germany, the Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (Liberal Democrats) is also responsible for the waterways. Unlike the Greens, the Liberal Democrats do not want to deviate from the plan to undertake at least “careful” extension measures. In the realm of water protection, Brandenburg has more competencies and is backed by the Green-led federal environmental ministry.
Energy policy and water
The solution for the fragile water quality of the Oder would be to stop discharging waste water, especially from coal mines. A material asymmetry exists: unlike Germany’s (although not sufficiently used) regenerative energy capacities, Poland’s energy supply still depends heavily on coal. PiS supporting the traditional fossile fuel industry with its thousands of job opportunities slowed down the green transformation announced at the end of the 1990s. We were told that alternatives to dumping salt into the Oder are expensive. Here, the power of the mining companies and an energy crisis that presses the government to fund coal-based heating expenses complicates substantial changes to energy policy or investigations into alternative methods of salt disposal.
In line with Ackermann’s arguments, Germany sees itself as an eco-minded pioneer, which may foster a view of Polish people as still ignorant in ecological terms, reinforcing an asymmetric speaking position (Ackermann 2022, 21). Polish hydrologists in turn state that “anachronistic water policy” has resulted in an overall bad quality of surface water and increasingly dry land (Olszewski 2022). In addition to that, Polish environmental activists told us that people do not care much about the Oder issue—at least not yet. However, the environmental movement that laid roots in the 1980s is still growing, while experts and opposition politicians criticize the Polish government for its lack of measures to sustainably regenerate the Oder.
To sum up, we see how divergent interests among different actors are not clearly cut along a Polish–German line. Material asymmetries, more than “historical” ones, hinder the efficient protection of the river, which is not a German priority at the federal level either. However, despite (geo)political asymmetries, the crisis has also strengthened “trans-Oder” engagement, as the Time for the Oder network at the civil society level shows. Cooperation at all levels, the EU and World Bank included, is needed if the Oder, a borderless and unique habitat for fauna and flora, is to survive. A political change in Poland after October 15, 2023, would facilitate such cooperation.