BRUSSELS -- Could the Danube river be as productive as the Rhine? The European Union would like to see the Danube follow its Western neighbour and increase its productivity.
Brussels unveiled a proposal on December 9 to increase cross-border cooperation among the 10 countries bordering the "world's most international river." The proposal aims to increase cargo, build more transport links, and improve the river's environmental health.
EU Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn, an Austrian, said the strategy will involve all 14 countries in the Danube basin, which includes the river's tributaries. Six of these are not EU member states - Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Hahn pointed out that while the Rhine carried 330 million tons of cargo in 2007, the Danube -- which is more than twice as long, flowing from southern Germany to Ukraine -- carried just 50 million tonnes of cargo in the same year. He said the Danube is not living up to its potential, using only 10 percent of its capacity.
The strategy calls for a 20 percent increase of cargo transport on the Danube by 2020, listing a series of proposed actions including the removal bottlenecks that are blocking navigation during low-water level. This usually involves deepening and widening the river.
It also identifies projects to clear shipwrecks and unexploded weapons from stretches of the lower Danube. Other suggested projects include building the Danube-Bucharest canal and modernising the Danube ship fleet to improve performance.
Mobility on the river isn't the only part of the strategy. It would also seek to increase road transport links in the region, including completion of two bridges over the Danube between Romania and Bulgaria and the road infrastructure leading to them.
The strategy is also focused on environmental concerns in the region. Hahn stresseed that the recent toxic sludge spill in Hungary underlined the importance of protecting the water quality of the Danube.
Specifically, the strategy sets a goal of reducing agricultural nutrients in the Danube river basin to restore eco-systems of the Black Sea to 1960 levels by 2020. It also sets a target of securing a viable population of Danube sturgeons by 2020.
But Andreas Beckmann of environmental group WWF says the strategy could do more harm to the environment than good because of the focus on increasing ship navigation. "Heavy investments in diking and dredging the Danube have been justified by various officials with reference to the Rhine river," he says.
"But the Rhineland has very different conditions from the Danube area, with an industrial base that has developed over centuries and not just thanks to the river." He adds, "Expecting an economic miracle from investments in Danube navigation is a myth, and potentially a very costly mistake."
He said the current proposal would destroy valuable biodiversity and associated ecosystem services, from flood protection to water purification. He said the strategy should focus more on changing ship design than on changing the river itself.
But Commissioner Hahn rebuffed the suggestion. "Ecology and navigability are no contradiction," he said, adding that he agrees that they should focus more on changing ships than the river. "We are very cautious that the nature is not destroyed, but on the other hand I think the Danube has a huge potential…to be used for cargo transport."
The proposal still needs to be approved by EU member states. Coordinating that passage will fall to Hungary, which will hold the rotating EU presidency during the first half of 2011. The specific details of the strategy, including which non-EU countries will be taking part in it, will be worked out at meetings in Hungary next April.
This would be the second "macro-region" to be coordinated by the EU. A similar region exists for the Baltic Sea. The strategies do not come with new laws or institutions, nor do they come with new funding, but are instead meant to coordinate existing funding and institutions. The Danube region has 100 billion euro of EU funds available to it in the current budget period that runs to 2013.