Environment, Europe, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT: Low Flows the Danube

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Aug 26 2003 (IPS) - Just a look at the Danube tells you what this arid summer has done to the Balkans.

The biggest European river has fallen to its lowest level in the last 100 years. The Danube has been closed to traffic in the better part of Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria for days now. More than half the 2,888-kilometre Danube runs through these countries.

The low level of the Danube has thrown up some new sights. But it is hard for people who live on its banks and depend on it for their living.

"Most of the economic activity linked to the Danube has come to a standstill," says Srecko Nikolic, captain of Prahovo port in eastern Serbia. "Dozens of barges and convoys of tugboats and tourist vessels are in the port now without any hope in the near future that they will leave."

Prahovo lies some 300 kilometres south-east of Serbian capital Belgrade. It is among the largest ports on the Danube.

From Prahovo the Danube becomes a natural boundary between Romania and Bulgaria. At places now, Romanians and Bulgarians are crossing border without getting their feet wet.

"It is dangerous now to navigate the Danube even with small fishing boats," Nikolic says, pointing to the shallow waters of the river. The level has fallen so low that rusty remains of old ships have surfaced from the riverbed.

"These are the remains of a German World War II fleet, and we’re afraid there may still be some unexploded ordnance there," Nikolic says. "So our office has banned swimming in the area, as people get really curious about such things.."

The German fleet began its withdrawal from the Black Sea at the end of World War II. Their captains sank their ships once they saw they might not make it back to Germany, a thousand kilometres away.

"The (Bulgarian) port of Vidin is full of such ships," Nikolic says. "Half the Romanian river route is closed to traffic." In all, 1,075 kilometres of the Danube runs through Romania.

More than 100 million tonnes of goods are moved on the Danube every year..

The Danube starts in Germany and flows through Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova. These are "the Danube Countries".

The river enters Serbia from Hungary and flows for almost 600 kilometres through the country.

Movement of cargo and tourist boats resumed in Serbia only last year after a three-year break following the 1999 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) bombing of Serbia. All the bridges over the Danube in Novi Sad, the second largest Serbian city, were destroyed.

The Danube countries lost more than 300 million dollars a year since 1999 to costlier means of transporting raw materials and petrol.

"Now it’s back to standstill, but for different reasons," says Sinisa Bubnjevic from the Novi Sad administration. The river is far too shallow for ships to get moving. "We don’t know when that will happen," Bubnjevic says. "There’s no rain forecast."

Like the rest of the Balkans, Serbia has seen very little rain since May.. This June was the hottest recorded, with temperatures reaching 36 degrees Celsius. The trend has continued in July and August.

Life in the river has been affected as much as life on the river. "Marine life in the Danube is in danger," Serbian environment minister Andjelka Mihajlov said at a recent press conference. "Thousands of tonnes of fish are almost suffocating in the Danube and in its tributaries in Serbia due to shallow waters and lack of oxygen." Algae are flowering in many rivers, but also in the biggest Serbian lake Palic in the north.

Experts and officials are beginning now to list the damage. Others find it amusing to look at sights in the new look river they had never seen before.

In Vukovar in Croatia, the riverbed has emerged as a parking lot of sorts for German trucks and motorbikes apparently lost in a World War II battle. The Morava, a tributary, has revealed an ancient bridge from the days of the Roman Empire. But many more are just missing the blue waters of the Danube.

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