Channelling Frustration: Preserving Europe’s Amazon

Engineering projects along the Croatian banks of the Danube pose threats to one of the continent’s last natural river basins

Protesters rowing for justice on the Danube where Croatia meets Serbia | Photo: Christian Cummins

On Sunday, 9 Oct., near the town of Osijek in Croatia, 40 protesters launched a regatta of small boats and canoes into the Danube in the stretch that separates Croatia from Serbia. The activists from four Danube nations wore thick jackets and woolly hats against the autumn cold. They were protesting the industrial regulation of some of Europe’s last stretches of wild river. Their banners urged the Croatian authorities to “stop channelling,” as the plans to build concrete and boulder embankments on the shores of over one hundred kilometres of the Danube and its nearby contributory, the Drava, threaten not only these great rivers but also the nearby wetlands that the rivers feed. This area is known as the “Amazon of Europe,” site of the continent’s most abundant biodiversity.

The protesters launched their boats at Batina, a Croatian village where you can taste the wealth of Europe’s rivers. Here, just a short distance from Osijek, big black cauldrons sit above crackling outdoor fires containing a delicious fish soup that bubbles red with the fiery local paprika – a reminder that Hungary is just a few kilometres away.

The Danube and Drava rivers regulate the groundwater for agriculture and, by breaking down harmful bacteria, they act as a natural sewage works, proving the local communities with quality drinking water. While the fishing industry that once employed the local men is today dying significantly, tourism is taking its place, with rustically charming bed-and breakfasts springing up and giving hope to an area that has been economically depressed since the Yugoslav civil war 20 years ago.

The Lonely Planet guidebook calls the Kopački Rit wetlands, half an hour’s drive from Osijek, one of Croatia’s must-see attractions. Willows lean over muddy banks casting shadows on the slow moving water and rare river turtles sunbathe atop exposed roots. The Gornje Podunavlje Special Nature Reserve across the Danube in Serbia is no less stunning. Both of these wetlands are important spawning areas for fish, nesting areas for the rare white-tailed eagles and black storks and are vital rest stops for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds on their biannual trips to and from Africa. Shy red deer stalk the marshy forests of both reserves. If the Croatian industrial engineering projects stop the natural rhythm, conservationists say the wetlands will soon dry out and the biodiversity they harbour will be lost.

The Croatian Ministry of Sea, Transport and Infrastructure and the Croatian Agency for Inland Waterways plans to regulate over 100km of the Danube and Drava rivers just upstream of the Kopački Rit. “The channelling project is a criminal act, not only against Croatia’s and Europe’s natural heritage,” says Austrian Arno Mohl, the International Freshwater expert at the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature). “It would rip right through the heart of the prospective Trans-boundary UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Mura-Drava-Danube,” which was signed into existence by five nations including Croatia and Austria in April.

The channelling scheme aims to guarantee that barges carrying cargo can navigate the river all year round without being hindered by natural changes in depth that come with a river’s annual cycle. The leader of the regulation project at the Agency for Inland Waterways, Miroslav Istuk, insists the work is necessary, referring to “several strandings” at low water levels, when islands appear and ground cargo barges, including vessels carrying oil.  Conservationist Tibor Mikuska, based in the area of the Kopački Rid, disagrees, claiming the cargo boats coped perfectly well with the river in its natural unregulated state and the odd stranding was due to a “drunken captain running into a sandbank and having to be tugged out,” adding, “that happens everywhere.”

The authorities say that channelling will prevent flooding, but the conservationists argue the area has no big settlements. They also say that the engineering projects can cause more destructive flooding further down the river. When a river is channelled it increases the speed of the river flow, with dangerous consequences in times of unusually high rainfall. Arno Mohl calls the engineering project “outdated” and “heavy-handed”. It will cost millions of Euros, while Western Europe is spending millions to remove such boulders to restore rivers to their natural state.

Martin Schneider-Jacoby from the conservation group Euronature sees the project as a way to channel public money to “a small group of profiteers in Croatia”. Goran Safarek, a Croatian conservationist and photographer, claims that the same people who plan the projects are often also the owners of the private building companies that will carry out the river engineering. These accusations don’t impress Mirosolav Istuk, who says that an international bidding procedure will be carried out and insists that no one can predict which construction company will get this job

Arno Mohl says the plans contravene the environmental laws of the European Union, which Croatia is set to join in July 2013 as the 28th member state. Istuk denies this charge,
saying that he has heard no complaints from Brussels so far.  However, the alliance of environmentalists has appealed to the European
Commission to intervene to prevent  “the irreversible destruction of Croatia’s and Europe’s natural treasures” – treasures that they say Croatia had committed to protect in April.  Joe Hennan, a spokesperson for Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik says that “the Commission is meeting with the relevant stakeholders to discuss the issue and agree on the way forward.”

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