The Shipping News Construction Threatens Danube’s Natural Paradise

The Danube River might be one of Europe’s natural treasures, but it’s also an important commercial waterway. Paradoxically, the EU funds both its environmental protection and economic use -- even though new ships could make dredging of the riverbed unnecessary.

An ornate railing surrounds the humble source of Europe’s second largest river near the southwestern German town of Donaueschingen. On the grounds of the Schlosspark there, a marble sculpture depicts the Danube as a young maid together with her mother, the local Baar region. She points her offspring to the east, where the waterway will travel 2,840 kilometers (1,765 miles), eventually meeting the Black Sea.

It is there along the Romanian-Ukrainian border where the Danube Delta expands 50 meters (164 feet) each year, as the river carries sand and sediment into the sea. “Europe is growing here,” says Ulrich Eichelmann, a river expert and advisor for the conservation group World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “At the same time it will be sacrificed for shipping.”

The satellite photo makes the estuary look like a natural paradise of lakes and waterways. But excavation work, industry and ambitious transportation plans threaten the idyllic setting. Money from the European Union is accelerating the construction as part of the bloc’s so-called Trans-European Networks initiative. The transformation of the Danube into a shipping waterway with a consistent depth of 2.5 meters is on the EU’s economic development wish list.

In the process, the Lower Danube region has become a textbook example of the looming conflict between Europe’s desire for growth and environmental protection. It's also a place where environmental bureaucracy, corruption and the blatant misuse of subsidies come together.

Until recently, the as yet relatively untouched delta has served as a sanctuary for several rare animal species, like the large sturgeon that gather here before traveling upstream to spawn.

On the Romanian side of the river, bank swallows dig nests in the fertile bluffs. “There are more rare birds along some stretches of the river than there are along the entire Rhine,” says the Romanian project director Orieta Hulea.

The canal boosters in Brussels and the Danube countries from Austria to Ukraine all want to reshape the river so it conforms to EU regulations just like the Rhine does. That would help eliminate a shipping bottleneck throughout Eastern Europe. “The Danube will become the most important traffic route between Europe and Asia,” gushes one Ukrainian survey of the project. It also predicts a threefold rise in cargo transports by 2010. The Danube could also be used to transport key natural resources such as oil and gas.

The Danube River stretches from Germany to the Black Sea

The Danube River stretches from Germany to the Black Sea


As part of its aid package for Romania’s integration into the EU, Brussels has already paid Romania around €4.5 million ($6.35 million) to “improve navigation conditions” and offered “technical help.” The EU will also make additional money from its Structural Funds available. Even Ukraine, which is not an EU member, is profiting from the project through the bloc’s external cooperation program EuropeAid.

'Digging First, and then Protecting'

But European taxpayers’ money isn’t always put to good use. The plight of construction firm Josef Möbius AG is a perfect example of just how absurd the river development project can be. The company brought special heavy earth-moving equipment to the Danube Delta at the request of the Ukrainian government in 2004. Dredging the Bystroye Canal on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast should have been an easy job for the experienced professionals from Hamburg, but it turned into a nightmare.

The Ukrainians not only failed to pay the bill of around €6 million, but they also failed to construct a crucial levee meant to block off the current near the mouth of the canal and the sea. After a temporary halt to the dredging, the Ukrainian canal quickly filled up with sediment again. Möbius eventually recouped a portion of what the Ukranian government owed it, but only after pursuing a lawsuit in Kiev that dragged on for years.

Valentin Simonenko, the president of Ukraine’s Accounting Chamber, warns “the painful practices of such projects that don’t consider the implications for the environment” must be shut down. But that doesn’t look likely. After winning the contract to complete the project, the state-backed Ukrainian firm Delta-Lotsman promptly commissioned a dredging company founded by the son-in-law of former president Leonid Kuchma to do some of the work.

Even worse, a subcontractor owned by the daughter of the head of Delta-Lotsman, supplied the construction materials. The auditors in the Ukrainian Finance Ministry were shocked by the “astonishing prices” charged for large chunks of stone for the levee. The canal has since opened, but plans are afoot for even deeper dredging to be completed by the end of 2008.

As a result of the fiasco, EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas has proposed new regulations for flood control measures that place greater emphasis on their environmental impact. “The river deltas are extremely important to us,” said Dimas in August. The previous nonsensical EU policy of supporting two policies -- digging first, and then protecting --should be “reviewed,” his spokeswoman conceded.

Brussels is financing the “Natura 2000” project near the Romanian town of Tulcea in an effort to protect the white willows of Danube Delta's islands and the surrounding floodplain forest. Local authorities have received €1.6 million for an environmental study. “We are glad to have the help,” says Dorin Gropapa, the director of the regional environmental protection agency in the provincial capital Calarasi. “We want to protect our river.”

But it could soon be too late for that. At kilometer marker 347 along the river, the Danube splits into two. It’s here that an underwater army of concrete and steel is mounting a massive attack on the environmentally important smaller arm of the waterway. “We can soon forget about the breeding grounds on the sandbanks for the migratory birds,” says WWF expert Eichelmann. “It will become a river that washes everything away.”

Water will be diverted into the navigable south arm of the Danube, because it lies just a few kilometers downstream from Romania’s only nuclear power plant, Cernavoda. A second reactor at the site, a Canadian heavy-water model, went online last month and there are already plans for two more at the site. Such expansion would greatly increase the need to draw cooling water from the Danube.

Hope for Shallow Boats

But at least the dredging of the river to an average depth of 2.50 meters could soon become unnecessary. The WWF experts are hoping that, with its newly developed barges, a company from the northern German city of Kiel might be able to revolutionize the shipping industry on Europe’s inland waterways.

The container ship is called “Futura Carrier.” And thanks to modern engine technology, it should produce less pollution than older craft. Its design calls for a wide hull, meaning that even fully loaded its required depth for sailing is one meter less than similar ships.

That’s something Romanian environmental activists will certainly cheer. While protesting the controversial expansion of a Danube canal, they printed t-shirts with the slogan: “Don’t change the river to fit the ships, change the ships to fit the river.”

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