The Danube is officially open to navigation for the first time since the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia two and a half years ago. A safe channel has been approved through the Serbian city of Novi Sad, where debris from three destroyed bridges had blocked traffic. As RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports, it will take another few months to clean up debris and remove unexploded bombs before the river is fully open and traffic can return to pre-bombing levels.
Prague, 30 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It's been a difficult two and a half years for the ports and shipping companies along the Danube, one of Europe's most important waterways that stretches from Germany to the Black Sea.
The Budapest-based Danube Commission, an 11-nation body that oversees river traffic, says the blockage cost the river's shipping economy almost a $1 million a day since NATO's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia two and a half years ago blocked key stretches of the river.
Now, the commission -- which comprises Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia -- hopes brighter skies are ahead with the announcement yesterday that it has cleared and marked a 5-kilometer-long navigable fairway, or channel, in the river at the Yugoslav port of Novi Sad.
This short stretch -- where Novi Sad's Freedom, Zezelj, and Petrovaradin bridges lie in ruins -- was the last part of the Danube's 2,850 kilometers deemed unsafe for navigation.
Bernard Chenevez is director of the commission's clearance project, and said: "We can announce that free and safe navigation is now possible on the Danube and the navigation conditions in Novi Sad will be improved from 1 January 2002."
These improved conditions refer to a decision by the Yugoslav authorities to open the pontoon bridge -- one of three bridges crossing the Danube at Novi Sad -- more frequently, to allow traffic through twice a week from the beginning of the year, and three times a week from March.
Wreckage from the three bridges still litters the river at Novi Sad, the targets of NATO bombs during the 1999 campaign. Unexploded bombs are also thought to lurk under the water.
The commission yesterday launched a tender for a contractor who will start removing the bombs in February. The first of three tenders to clean up the bridge debris is also to be launched today.
Chenevez says the whole clean-up operation -- at a cost of about $20 million -- should be over by the middle of 2002, allowing river traffic to return to its pre-bombing level of some 1,000 vessels a month: "As we are going to improve the navigation conditions, it shouldn't be a very big problem during the coming months to reach this figure of 1,000 vessels per month. So we are rather optimistic [about] that."
Traffic through Novi Sad has already picked up this year -- Chenevez estimates some 5,000 vessels have passed through "at their own risk."
But yesterday's announcement is still an important step, says Edgar Martin of U.K.-based consultants Danube Research: "It is a significant step in that for the first time, the river's been officially declared safe."
Martin says the commission's loss figure of almost $1 million a day applies only to the Danube shipping economy. He says the wider economic impact is probably "far greater" -- especially for the lower Danube countries -- Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine: "Austria and Germany did feel the effects, but the link with the Rhine, the Main-Danube canal, opened in 1992, so they still had a link with the West. So the traffic through the ports in Austria and Germany either went down very little or has even increased since the blockage because more traffic is now coming from the West. However, in Romania, Bulgaria, and Ukraine there's no such luck there and they've lost a huge amount of traffic."
Lubos Smolec is the director of river traffic at Slovak Ports and Shipping in Bratislava. He says the Danube blockage forced his department alone to lay off some 1,300 of its 1,700 workers and caused millions of dollars in lost revenues each year.
He says he's looking forward to a boost in business and to hiring some new employees. But problems still inhibit free movement along the Danube at Novi Sad: "The Yugoslav side wants money from us, 1 or 1.5 marks per ton transported, which complicates things economically. Another problem is that the boats have to wait, and that costs something every day. Another administrative obstacle is that the Yugoslav side requires a so-called transit permit to transport liquid cargo, which only a certain ministry can issue. As far as I know the ministry hasn't issued one yet. So that really limits transport."
Danube Research's Martin says the entire Danube shipping community wants the pontoon removed so they can move up and down the river freely. But he says this could take another two years, as the authorities first want to restore and reopen Freedom Bridge.