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Burst Pipes a Metaphor : Poland: A Country in Dilapidation

February 12, 1986|ROBERT GILLETTE | Times Staff Writer

WARSAW — Down by the main railway station, a spectacular geyser of steam thunders 100 feet into the frosty air, enlivening an otherwise drab winter day. Lesser spouts scattered across the city provide warmth for stray cats and amusement for small children.

Almost as entertaining are the bubbling mudholes, like the one that has opened up at the end of Pilicka Street, in a well-to-do neighborhood of private homes at the south end of Warsaw. The steaming pit is about 10 feet wide, of indeterminate depth and filled with brown muddy water that burps and churns like the hot springs in Yellowstone National Park.

"This place is starting to look like Iceland," a local resident observed as he peered into the pit.

Urban Heating

But these geysers and hot springs of Warsaw are man-made, not natural wonders. Like many other European cities, Warsaw is heated by power plants that pump superheated water to the radiator systems of homes, apartment buildings and offices. It is an energy-efficient approach to urban heating, as long as the water stays in the pipes.

But half of the 800 miles of hot-water pipes running under Warsaw's streets are corroded, leaking and in need of urgent replacement. As with so many other things, Poland cannot afford to fix its urban plumbing system fast enough to keep up with the leaks.

Repair crews no sooner cap one ruptured pipe, such as the one that produced the towering geyser near the railroad station, when another opens up somewhere else.

"Once it was a privilege to live in Warsaw," the often-outspoken, liberal-leaning weekly Polityka remarked some months ago. "Now it's a nuisance: excavations, problems with the water supply, heating, public transportation. The city seems to be falling apart."

Effect of Economic Crisis

So, to an alarming extent, is the rest of the country. The geysers of Warsaw are only the most visible sign of the growing dilapidation of Poland, the consequence of seven years of economic crisis.

Saddled with a $29-billion debt that is expected to cross the $30-billion mark this year as unpaid interest piles up, the Polish government is cutting corners wherever it can. Prominent among the corners are maintenance and repair.

With no major new Western credits on the horizon, and little money of its own, Polish industry is growing more obsolete by the month, state-owned housing is deteriorating and urgent repairs on the national infrastructure--from transportation to urban heating systems--are being put off until a better day, sometime in the next decade.

Many of these problems reflect years of neglect during the relatively prosperous 1970s, when the now-discredited regime of Edward Gierek squandered Poland's borrowed billions on consumer goods and ill-planned industrial plants, some of which have never been finished. But now that the fruits of neglect have ripened, there seems to be little the state can afford to do.

The dilapidation of Poland shows up in myriad ways, among them the worsening state of public sanitation. After a decade of encouraging decline, official figures show a steady growth since 1980 in dysentery, viral hepatitis, salmonella and other forms of food poisoning. A contributing cause, according to health specialists, is the widespread breakdown of refrigeration units in stores and restaurants, and a lack of spare parts.

Air and water pollution on a grotesque scale add to the general decay. Less than half of Poland's 800 towns and cities have sewage treatment of any kind--the two largest cities, Warsaw and Lodz, are among those that do not. In communities equipped with sewage plants, breakdowns are reportedly a worsening problem.

Heavy Industries' Debris

While experts argue over whether Poland is the most polluted country in Europe, or merely one of the most polluted, millions of tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides belch virtually uncontrolled from the heavy industries of southern Poland, corroding buildings, dissolving clothing and driving the incidence of respiratory disease 30% above the national average.

Poland has just begun to tackle these problems, but pollution is not the greatest worry of state-owned industry. Gradually but inexorably, industry is wearing out.

Economists estimate that on the average nearly 60% of the life of the country's industrial machinery has been used up. Breakdowns and industrial accidents are on the rise, energy consumption remains high and increasingly outdated industries find it harder and harder to produce goods that can compete in a world market that demands innovation and quality.

Last year, as an indication of this inability to compete, Poland's trade surplus with Western countries fell 28%, partly as a result of declining exports of machinery and other engineered goods.

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