Can ecology and waterway transport coexist?


ICPDR Danube Watch: The new riverbank at Hainburg

Danube Watch 1 2007

Can ecology and waterway transport coexist?

Representatives from the navigation and transport sector, environmental organisations and the water management and transport ministries of countries all over the basin are working together to find the answer.

a long bridge over a body of water

Inland waterway transport on the Danube and its tributaries has the potentia to relieve pressure on existing transport routes and increase the volume of products shipped to the consumer. Stakeholders across the basin are working to ensure that this can be done without jeopardising the goals of the EU Water Framework Directive.

Countries throughout eastern europe are seeing significant increases in GDP, often based on the increased production of commodities that are shipped around the world. The increase in the volume of transported goods, however, puts more pressure on existing transport routes. To improve cross-country transportation, the european commission has developed Trans-european Transport Networks (TEN-T) with guidelines and financing for Pan-european road, rail, air and waterway transportation corridors.

Current climate change discussions place even higher hopes on inland waterways. “The increase in goods transport and the related CO2 emissions are strong arguments for a better use of the potential of the Danube as an environmentally-friendly transport mode,” says Manfred Seitz, managing director of via donau, the Austrian waterway authority.

However, inland waterway transport can also have significant negative influence on river ecosystems, jeopardising the goals of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), which aim for ‘good ecological status of all waters’ by 2015. Maintaining existing waterways and constructing new ones can lead to degradation of habitats, disturbance of aquatic species and to the loss of ecological functions – such as flood retention capacity. “Despite the experience of the past, navigation infrastructure does not necessarily have to have negative ecological, economic or social impacts. Now is the time to start an open dialogue to support innovative integrated solutions to improve shipping on the Danube without destroying more of our natural wealth and ecosystem services,” highlights Christine Bratrich, Head of Danube/Freshwater at WWF Danube- Carpathian Programme. “Now the challenge is for us all to find solutions that consider global emissions, multiple benefits for local people and the mitigation of local impacts on river ecosystems equally.”

Bringing stakeholders together. To address this potential conflict, the ICPDR, in cooperation with the Danube Commission and the International Commission for the Protection of the River Sava, has initiated an intense, cross-sectoral discussion process, which should lead to a ‘Joint Statement on Inland Navigation and Environmental Sustainability in the Danube River Basin’ by the end of 2007.

According to Birgit Vogel, Expert for River Basin Management of the ICPDR, the Joint Statement should summarise guidelines for environmentally sustainable inland navigation on the Danube and its tributaries. “By doing so we can make an important step towards the Joint Programme of Measures as requested by the WFD by 2009,” says Vogel.

a large body of water with a mountain in the background

The steady erosion of the riverbed east of Vienna has resulted in a bed almost one metre deeper than it was 50 years ago, restricting the reliability and competitiveness of inland navigation in the area and damaging the ecological balance of the Danube Floodplain National Park.

Finding balance through cooperation. The ICPDR has invited 40 representatives of the navigation and transport sector, environmental organisations and water management and transport ministries from all Danube countries to be part of this cross-sectoral discussion process. Three workshops will be organised until the end of the year to share knowledge on the current status of inland waterway transport, impacts caused by it and to define the principles for an environmentally sustainable inland navigation. The Kick-off Meeting will be held at the end of April and will also discuss the Integrated River Engineering Project on the Danube to the East of Vienna – a project which shows that a common perspective of nature and navigation is possible. “It is our hope that through this cooperative process all involved partners would endorse and implement the final Joint Statement,” says Philip Weller, Executive Secretary of the ICPDR.

a win-win situation for inland navigation and
nature protection

The free-flowing section of the Danube between Vienna and the Austrian–Slovak border is the site for a unique project to both improve fairway conditions for shipping and to improve the ecological condition of the Danube and the floodplain landscape. Launched by the Austrian Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology and via donau, the “Integrated River engineering Project on the danube to the east of Vienna” will address one of the current weak spots for inland navigation and reverse the deterioration of the ecological balance of the Danube Floodplain National Park.

The project will stabilise the bed of the Danube, preventing the water level from falling further, improving the navigability of the river. River engineering measures such as groynes will raise the level of the Danube during low water periods, which will also have a positive impact on the groundwater level in the area.

The Integrated River Engineering Project will also restore much of the Danube’s original character. The planned waterway integration will reconnect many of the side arms that were cut off from the Danube, preventing them from drying out. In areas where bank reinforcements are no longer necessary and the bank can be renaturised, the river will once again be able to fashion its own banks.

The “Integrated River Engineering Project on the Danube to the East of Vienna” serves as a model for addressing the growing volumes of traffic along the Danube corridor in an environmentally friendly manner.

Jasmine Bachmann works on public participation in the ICPDR
Secretariat, and is the Executive Editor of Danube Watch.