Danube Watch 1/2017 - Deep freeze on the Danube: Cross-border actions avert danger

Image text: DANUBE WATCH

Deep freeze on the Danube:
Cross-border actions avert danger

When frigid temperatures caused dangerous ice formation on the Danube, the hazards crossed political borders, much like the river itself. Only an international relief effort could keep the ice under control and the flood waters at bay.

a sandy beach next to the ocean

Cross-border cooperation

“Most importantly, we saved water-works facilities, and the good relations between Serbian Prime Minister Vučić and Hungarian Prime Minister Orban greatly eased the deployment of Hungarian ice-breakers. Ice-breakers from Hungary were expected to arrive in Serbia within 72 hours, yet they were already deployed after 15 to 16 hours – a true illustration of the importance of political support.” Branislav Nedimović, Serbian Minister of Agriculture and Environmental Protection

“The ice breaking greatly aroused the public’s interest in the Republic of Croatia. The progress was broadcast daily on national TV, with journalists reporting directly from the ice breakers. These activities demonstrated an excellent example of successful cooperation between three countries, and we specially appreciate and thank Hungary for its willingness to share ships with the neighbouring countries.” Elizabeta Kos, Assistant Minister, Ministry of Environment and Energy, Croatia


The two most powerful ships, Jégtörő XI and Széchenyi, have two engines for a total of 2000 horsepower each. Icebreaker VI and VII have one main 600 horsepower engine. The small vessels, tasks are to shred the ice broken by the big ships, ensure their further floatage, and keep the channel made by the big vessels open.

Over what will be remembered as the big chill of late 2016 to early 2017, about 170 km of the Danube were entirely frozen. On the Hungarian section of the river, only a variable rate of ice drift was observed while, to the south, Serbia faced a much larger problem. In the most critical areas near Belgrade and Kladovo, the river froze to a depth of up to four meters. Shipping was suspended in Hungary and ice breakers were called out to clear the waterway, but the worst of the ice just over the border remained, with no concerns about which nation it endangered.

Cross-border ice control has a long history on the Danube River. Beyond navigation concerns, the risk of flooding from accumulated ice is a looming threat to the population. Devastating, fast-rising ice-jam floods between the Hungarian border and Vukovar, Croatia, in particular require a strong alliance of Serbian, Croatian and Hungarian protection efforts. The three countries manage this protection through an international trilateral agreement to address events – such as floods, ice-drift, or pollution – on the part of the river known as the 'section of common interest', where such events affect all three countries.

With such deep ice jams floating menacingly off shore, Serbian water authorities declared an emergency situation and the trilateral partners swung into action. The Hungarian water management directorates and the General Directorate of Water Management played key roles in the intensive operations that followed, cooperating smoothly with their Croatian and Serbian counterparts.

Coming to a neighbour’s rescue
Altogether four Hungarian ice-breakers were deployed to smash ice blocks and prevent damage to bridges and ships moored along the waterway. Two of the ships – Jégtörő XI and Jégtörő VI (Jégtörő means icebreaker in Hungarian) – broke through the ice jam in Dalj and kept the ice discharge lane clear for traffic.

The other two ships – Széchenyi and Jégtörő VII – moved to the Serbian section of the Danube between Novi Sad and Belgrade, technically outside the area covered by the trilateral agreement. However, given the emergency situation, Serbia and Hungary agreed that the ice-breakers had to be deployed beyond the common interest section. Hungary didn’t hesitate, and its ships set off to destroy the ice threatening its neighbours. These actions were a demonstration of smooth transboundary partnership and are also reminders of the importance of cross-border cooperation and solidarity, principles at the core of ICPDR actions.

Balázs Horváth, is the Coordinator of Priority Area 4 of the EU Strategy for the Danube Region at the General Directorate of Water Management (OVF), Hungary.