Austria: Finding the Right Course for the Danube | Inside Europe | DW | 22.08.2006
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Inside Europe

Austria: Finding the Right Course for the Danube

Commercial shipping on the Danube is booming. Austria is one country investing heavily in new Danube River transport facilities. But shipping and the environment sometimes find themselves on a collision course.

What environmental implications will inland shipping have on the Danube?

What environmental implications will inland shipping have on the Danube?

The return of peace to the Balkans, allowing unhindered travel from the Black Sea to Germany, is propelling a new golden age of Danube shipping.

The number of freight ships plying the river is increasing by about 10 percent per year. Bigger ships and new navigation facilities have helped increasing amounts of freight move from road to river.

But engineers have had to change the Danube. It's been channeled, deepened and in places straightened. Combined with dams for hydro-electricity, flood mitigation works and farming, the result is a river that has lost much of its wild nature.

Plans for further channeling of the Danube, to make it safe for large ships, have outraged environmentalists like Ulrich Eichelmann from the World Wide Fund for Nature.

"If you look at a river, it's a living thing. It's a lifeline that has islands, side branches and ox bows. It has wider sections, narrow sections, sections that are loud and very soft floating," Eichelmann says. "A channel, like they mean, is like a highway. It's one straight water body."

Developments in shipping require a different Danube

The nature of river freight is changing and this will affect the Danube. In future, container ships containing manufactured goods between eastern and western Europe will become more common. The European Commission predicts freight on inland waterways will grow by 44 percent in the next 10 years.

Dürre in Deutschland, Schiff auf dem Rhein mit niedrigem Pegelstand

Lack of rain can hit the inland shipping sector hard

"Inland navigation is the most effective transport mode and can offer low cost transport solutions to the European industry and this is also the case on the Danube," says Manfred Seitz, who runs Via Donau, a company created by the Austrian government to promote Danube river shipping.

"But due to the political and economic situation in our region, we are 10 years behind the development in Western Europe," he adds.

According to Seitz, the enormous growth of the container business in the port of Constance could soon lead to liner services from Constance connecting the industrial and economic centers of the Danube region -- Belgrade, Budapest and Austria. Constance would serve as the port for seagoing containers.

But the new ships to carry those containers need deeper water.

Adjusting the river instead of the ships

Just east of Vienna, the Danube flows through one of the last true natural river areas in Austria: the Donau Au National Park. Here, the river is shallow, causing delays and danger for shipping.

Haslau Karpfenfischer an der Donau

Changing the Danube could harm the waterway's fragile environment

Environmentalists believe plans to deepen the river to suit the new ships will damage the fragile environment of the forests and flood plains beside the waterway.

"The problem is working on the very old-fashioned dinosaur strategy -- adjust the river to the ships," Eichelmann says. "They make bigger and bigger ships these days and they need deeper and deeper water bodies."

The old Danube fleet was more adjusted to the river's typical conditions, he says. Now, the waterway faces huge ships coming from the Netherlands, from Belgium and the Rhine countries.

"They don't fit to the Danube, so what they say is: let's just adjust that river here," Eichelmann says.

Water transport is better for the environment

Environmentalists are working with Danube river authorities to find a solution that satisfies both shipping and nature.

According to Raimund König, who has been a sailor and captain for 40 years, finding a solution will pay off handsomely.

"Ship transport is more environmentally friendly than road transport," König says. "When I calculate that on a freight ship, I can transport 14,000 tons -- that would require around 300 lorries on the roads. So in every case, it's more environmentally friendly on ships than on the roads."

The battle continues to find a balance between the Danube as a transport corridor and the Danube as a natural treasure. But like the Danube itself, the arguments will flow for a very long time.

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