Using the Danube more without abusing it

Countries bordering the Danube want to increase shipping on the second longest river on the European continent without abusing an ecosystem unique in the world.

"Today, shipping goods on the Danube is very limited when the potential is enormous," Karla Peijs, the European coordinator for inland waterways, told AFP during a conference on the European Union Danube strategy in Mamaia, Romania.

"If we increase it, it could help stimulate economies in Eastern and Central Europe," she added.

"Only 10 percent of what can be transported on the Danube is now being shipped that way, this is nothing compared to the Rhine," said Ehrard Busek, chairman of the Institute for Danube Region and Central Europe in Vienna.

According to the latest figures available, 50 million tons of goods were transported on the Danube in 2007, Markus Simoner, senior expert for the Via Donau organisation, told AFP.

By was of comparison, more than 300 million tonnes of goods are shipped on the Rhine every year.

"We nevertheless should stress that one tonne is transported an average distance of 300 kilometers (188 miles) on the Rhine but 800 kilometers on the Danube, which is more important as far as the environment and carbon emissions are concerned," Simoner said.

Experts gathered at the EU Danube strategy conference stressed that an increase in inland shipping could help solve transportation problems that hamper economies in eastern and central Europe.

And it would be in a more environmentally friendly way than road transport, they insist.

The Danube originates in Germany. It then crosses Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine before emptying in the Black Sea.

But for a boom in river transport, its navigability has to be improved, European commissioner for Regional policies Johannes Hahn said.

At the moment, "a typical Danube vessel has a utilization rate that varies from 60 percent to 30 percent if the water level is really low," Simoner explained.

On the Rhine, the utilization rate is 80 percent, which makes it a more attractive proposition economically for ship operators.

Bottlenecks are found in Austria, Slovakia and also between Bulgaria and Romania, with dredging, building canals and locks among the solutions envisaged to solve such problems.

But environmental groups warn of the potentially very damaging effects of some of these infrastructure projects.

"Over the past 150 years, the Danube has been very much abused. Dikes, dams and dredging have straightened large sections of the 'blue river'," the WWF, an environmental group, stressed.

"More than 80 percent of the Danube's wetlands have been lost," the group added.

The river is home to the Beluga sturgeon and its delta has been designated a World Heritage Site by the UN cultural organisation UNESCO.

"Developing river transportation can be a good thing but the environment has to be integrated in every project," Orieta Hulea, head of the WWF's Danube/Freshwater Programme, said.

"The Danube must not become only a transport corridor but take into account biodiversity and flood mitigation zones," she added.

In Calarasi, between Romania and Bulgaria, a project to improve the navigability by blocking one side arm of the Danube could affect the migration of sturgeons, she explained.

"We need a serious impact study and also concrete data on sturgeon migration before the project can go ahead."

The EU Danube strategy should be adopted next year.

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