Influencing the waters of the Danube

Mitja Bricelj, Head of the Slovenian Delegation to the ICPDR, speaks about the Slovenian influence on the Danube and the country's role in developing the sub-basin approach to managing the Sava River.

Credit: ICPDR/Jovanovic
Mitja Bricelj, Head of the Slovenian Delegation
to the ICPDR.

Slovenia might not be the first country to come to mind when thinking about the Danube, but due to the Sava, Drava and Mura rivers, over 80% of the Slovenian territory is part of the Danube River Basin. In its continuing series, Danube Watch presents portraits of the leaders whose passion and commitment actively steer ICPDR processes and help determine the future of our river basin.

DANUBE WATCH: Slovenia influences the waters of the Danube without sharing its banks; the Mura, the Drava and the Sava rivers drain Slovenian land and characterise the Slovenian landscape. How do you characterise the Slovenian voice in the chorus of the Danube Basin countries?

Mr Bricelj: Slovenia is a diverse country, covered by four European geographical regions: the Alps, the Mediterranean, the Dinaric and the Pannonian region. In the north of the country the Drava and Mura rivers, which come from Austria, pass our country and flow on into Croatia. These two rivers are the centre of a long-standing tradition of international cooperation: Slovenia and Austria have been working together for half a century to improve the water quality and protect the biodiversity along these rivers.

Last year, Slovenia and Austria also declared a joint groundwater body in the Karavanke Mountains and are currently undertaking the first steps to jointly manage this important drinking water resource - following the principles of the EU Water Framework Directive. These few examples show that Slovenia has valuable experience in the Danube Basin that can be shared with downstream countries.

DANUBE WATCH: The principle of integrated river basin management is to bring differing interests together, from economic development to nature conservation. On the Sava there seems to be a conflict between plans to develop navigation connections to the Mediterranean Sea, and the protection of natural treasures, such as the Croatian Nature Park Lonjsko Polje. How do you see this clash of interests?

Mr Bricelj: Let me start by explaining that the first Sava River Basin Management Plan had already been developed in the early 1970s. At that time the main focus was on sustainable flood control and the use of the large Sava floodplains and wetlands as retention areas. The decision was made at that time to preserve the extensive floodplains along the Sava. These floodplains are not only valuable for flood retention, but also for the biodiversity and the sustainable management of the river.

The idea of a navigation channel from the Mediterranean to the Sava and the Danube has long existed and the technical plans have been ready since the early 1960s. However, I strongly believe that the authorities of the four Sava countries are fully aware of the negative impacts from the Rhine-Main-Danube channel and that the economic development in the Sava Basin also has to respect the principles of EU Water Framework Directive. This is not only my view, but is also clearly stated in the Framework Agreement for the Sava River Basin.

DANUBE WATCH: The Sava is seen by many as a model for subriver basin cooperation. What role did Slovenia play in the establishment of a river commission to manage the Sava?

Mr Bricelj: The role of Slovenia in this process is of a 'catalytic nature'. Firstly, Slovenia encouraged the other Sava countries to start the political dialogue leading to a joint management of the water resource. Keeping the national conflicts of the 1990s in mind, the start of the dialogue was already an important step.

Secondly - and this is very much linked with the first point - Slovenia promotes international cooperation on the Sava. By doing so the international community should become a partner and support unique political cooperation. In this regard, I would also like to mention the valuable support of the Regional Environmental Centre in its function as the Interim Sava Secretariat.

In the future, I expect that the ICPDR and the Sava River Commission will cooperate proactively and that this cooperation and coordination will be positive for the quality of the work of both bodies. So I strongly believe that the cooperation will be a winwin solution. But it will be important that the UNDP/GEF Sava Project will start as soon as possible - the countries are ready and the momentum should not be lost!

DANUBE WATCH: Thank you, Mr Bricelj.

Size of the country 20,273 km2
Share of the total Danube River Basin area   16,422 km2 (2%)
Population (2002)   1.9 million
Population in the Danube River Basin   1.7 million
Capital   Ljubljana
Per-capita GDP (2004)   €12,979
Main tributaries to the Danube   Sava, Mura, Drava
From as early as the ninth century, Slovenia has fallen under the control of foreign rulers, including partial control by Bavarian dukes and the Republic of Venice. With the exception of four years under Napoleon's rule, Slovenia was part of the Hapsburg Empire from the 14th century until 1918.

In 1918, Slovenia joined other southern Slav states to form the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Renamed in 1929 under a Serbian monarch, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia fell to the Axis powers during World War II. Following communist partisan resistance to German, Hungarian and Italian occupation, socialist Yugoslavia was born under the helm of Josip Broz Tito.

During the communist era, Slovenia became Yugoslavia's most prosperous republic. Within a few years of Tito's death in 1980, the central government initiated plans to further concentrate political and economic power. Defying these attempts, Slovenia underwent a flowering of democracy and an opening of its society in cultural, civic and economic realms.

In September 1989, the General Assembly of the Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia adopted an amendment to its constitution asserting Slovenia's right to secede from Yugoslavia. Following a referendum in 1990, Slovenia declared its independence. A nearly bloodless ten-day war with Yugoslavia followed, and Yugoslav forces withdrew.

Slovenia pursued economic stabilisation and political openness, while emphasising its Western outlook and Central European heritage. It has been a member of the European Union since 2004. Slovenia has been an ICPDR Member State since the Danube River Protection Convention came into force in 1998.