Science & environment Ecology and Sustainable Development

River transport: The Danube is running dry

26 October 2011
NRC Handelsblad Amsterdam

The Sulina Arm, one of the main distributaries into the Danube delta in Romania, and a main navigation route.
The Sulina Arm, one of the main distributaries into the Danube delta in Romania, and a main navigation route.

The Danube, Europe's second longest river, is one of the most poorly navigable rivers on the continent. Despite the EU’s Danube Strategy, the summer drought has resulted in even lower water levels, resulting in an enormous traffic jam.

In the Danube basin, the second longest European river after the Volga, the summer was not wet, but dry. Since June, hardly any rain has fallen from South Germany to the Black Sea. The low water level in the last thousand kilometres, in Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria, has led to enormous congestion.

Problems on the long waterway are literally coming to the surface. In Prahovo, a harbour in Serbia, due to the low water level, the rusty bows of German ships from the Second World War can be seen pointing skywards. The Germans scuttled a fleet there in the summer of 1944 to prevent ordnance coming into the hands of the advancing Russians and partisans. There are still 22 German vessels on the Serbian riverbed and more than one hundred on the Romanian side.

Captains slaloming around shipwrecks for decades

It is an inheritance that you are normally unaware of. Experienced captains have been navigating around them for decades. In the same way as they have also been slaloming around the shallows and guarding against dropping their anchors in one of the eight areas in Serbia where the river possibly conceals unexploded bombs from the NATO airstrikes in 1999.

The waterway is clearly indicated, assures Captain Srecko Nikolic, who works in Prahovo for the Ministry of Infrastructure. However, the river is only navigable if it contains enough water. The situation is fine until Prahovo, thanks to two dams that were created in the nineteen sixties. After that, in the words of Nikolic, begins Europe's biggest traffic jam.

Due to the low water, cargo vessels with a draught exceeding 1.70 metres can hardly progress. They face a seven-hundred-kilometre stop-and-start journey along dry, yellow riverbanks to the Black Sea. Tens of them have run aground on sandbanks, hundreds of cargoes face delay or have been transferred to trains and trucks.

Many captains are staying at home to prevent their vessels suffering the same fate as the Anton, an inland vessel with a tug-pushed lighter sailing under the German flag, which has already been moored for a month in Drobeta-Turnu Severin, a relatively large Danube harbour in Romania. The Romanian crew, a handful of men wearing flip-flops and shorts, keep themselves occupied with minor repairs onboard and waiting for rain, says Captain Ion Ionescu. In the spring, ten thousand cubic metres of water flow past Drobeta-Turnu Severin a second. Now that is just two thousand, a fifth.

EU strategy for the Danube with no budget

The drought is exceptional, but it would make a great difference if the waterway between Romania and Bulgaria had been dredged, admits Ovidiu Isaila from the control tower of the harbour in Drobeta-Turnu Severin reluctantly.

Why has that not been done? No money. As is the case for many things in Romania. The sand is finer here than in other European rivers. That makes dredging more expensive. The Danube has never been navigable for the deep cargo vessels that sail the Rhine.

The river has a large fall. In the majority of sections in Germany and Austria, locks and dredging have made it navigable. The further downstream, the greater the chance of low water and flooding accompanied by fewer suitable harbours and therefore worse access to roads and railways. Romania and Bulgaria remain the EU member states with the least kilometres of motorway.

From the European viewpoint and in policy plans, the Danube is one of the pan-European corridors. Logistic experts expect that the Romanian harbour near Constanta will grow to become a major access portal for southern and eastern European markets. Under Hungarian chairmanship, this year, the European Commission accepted a true Danube Strategy – without additional money, which immediately put a damper on plans. The drought is now doing the rest.

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