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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 27:57–64.


The Danube, Water Management and Navigation1


The Danube is the second largest river of Europe. It is the connecting link between Western Europe, Central Europe, Central Eastern Europe, South East Europe and the Balkans, or this is what one would like to believe. Everything in this region has a Janus-face. The Danube is a bridge but at the same time it is also a barrier, it is once a melting pot as often said at other times it is not. Thus the problem of the region is not simple at all.

The Danube flows along a territory of 800 thousand km2, linking more than 80 million people and 132 countries (before the separation of Serbia and Montenegro). It is the most international river of huge catchment area, struggling against a number of problems and conflicts.


Problems and Opportunities

The past of the river is characterised by stability as well as by many unique features. In addition, the region has naturally undergone a lot of changes. Prior to the political change eight countries belonged to the Danube basin, by now their number has almost doubled: EU-15 countries, accession countries most of which now belong to the EU and non-accession countries. Due to the enlargement of the European Union the handling of the existing water management and environment issues has been undergoing continuous modification and co-operation has been naturally improving.

The level of development determined by the past is fundamentally influencing the management of the problems indicated above by each country and the formation of a somewhat integrated Danube basin strategy. This latter is one of the major tasks of the Danube River Protection Convention (DPRC). The unequal economic situation represents the main difficulty. In Germany, for instance, the per capita GDP is about thirty times as much as that of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Figure 1). As far as the development of the water infrastructure is concerned, Figure 2 shows the level of the development of drinking water supply and sewerage . If the columns showing the per capita GDP characteristic for the economic situation are placed next to this Figure, it becomes evident that the conspicuous problems appear in the south-eastern downstream territories, in the Balkans, precisely where the economy is backward.

If one wished to develop the region’s drinking water supply, drainage and sewage purification to the present level of Germany and Austria the necessary investment costs could be roughly estimated (Figure 3). If the investments were going to be realised in one year –– exclusively to indicate the dimensions –– then an irrationally high ratio of the annual GDP, 20––40% should be spent in Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, etc. If the annual investment is to be limited to 1% of the GDP that is the development is phased in time then its implementation, varying by countries, may take even several decades. If the total required cost is considered in all of these countries it would be approximating one fifty to hundred thousand million Euros suggesting also that a gigantic market has been unfolding for Hungary, too. Unfortunately, however, Hungary’s environmental industry hardly exists and competition is enormous among the Western companies of a long history, and for the time being nobody in Hungary is dealing with the issue of how and to what extent the future potentials could be exploited.


Conflicts and Problems

The central issue of the water quality of the Danube basin is constituted by high nutrient levels, nitrate contamination, the eutrophication of the river, the Danube delta and the Black Sea and the related ecological changes. The only possible means for control would be the significant reduction of nitrogen and phosphor load. Due to the current circumstances more than half of the emission comes from non-point sources mostly of agricultural origin. Its control is rather difficult: here the well-defined, end-of-pipe measures applied in sewage treatment cannot be applied, and rather the good practice of the agro-environmental management should be followed. Agriculture, however, of the particular countries has been undergoing enormous transformation. Since the changes of the European Union’s agricultural policy can hardly be foreseen the transitional countries along the Danube have difficulty in formulating a clear-cut strategy. Theoretically the possibility has been available to link the transition of agriculture with environmental management and present changes in the EU regulation try to handle this objective. It is one of the questions of the future whether practice is able to handle this task.

In the second half of the 1990s the countries along the Danube ratified the so-called Danube Convention (collaboration is going on under the auspices of the International Cooperation for the Protection of the Danube River, ICPDR), and as a result a much more promising international co-operation was established for the protection of the River Danube than the previous one. There has been a serious and comprehensive professional work in progress, one of the results of which is a recommendation to decrease the nutrient emission of the individual countries. The emission is the highest in Romania being the largest country of the Danube Basin. Figure 4 indicates the cost of eliminating one kilogram of nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus). A wise man would design interventions where it is the cheapest. Where is it cheap? As it can be seen it is significantly cheaper in Romania than either in Austria or in Germany. Therefore trade with the rights to nutrient emission was proposed following the so-called bubble principle. This is a call on Germans and Austrians not to invest either in Germany or in Austria but rather in Romania and Bulgaria. The realisation of this principle would be a highly positive development from the aspect of environmental management.

Almost half of the worlds’ population lives in catchment areas belonging to at least two countries. Hence the rise of conflicts is inevitable concerning these catchment areas. All of us remember the cyanide pollution that occurred in January 2000. In Romania almost one hundred tons of cyanide got to the River Tisza via the River Szamos and from there on to the Danube. The ratio of the peak cyanide concentration was several hundred times higher than any international standard. The consequence of this pollution was that in the Hungarian reach of the Tisza one thousand tons of fish perished. What may be even more important is that zinc and copper also arrived together with other heavy metals which are inclined to sedimentation and accumulate in the sediment and in the flora and fauna. It is still not known what its long-term impact could be. This issue has not been settled legally despite the existing international and bilateral agreements which, unfortunately, have very weak enforcement power.

Due to tremendous developments in information technology, monitoring and remote sensing various means have been provided by which sophisticated strategies could be elaborated. For instance land use patterns can be obtained from the satellites irrespective of the location of the borders. Information is accessible about the vegetation and its changes, or about the alterations of precipitation pattern with the help of a radar. As contrasted to the empirical approaches of the past, the surface and subsurface runoff, soil moisture etc. can be computed on the basis of models and decision support systems (DSS) built on the morphological model and on the principles of mass and energy conservation. We can automatically generate on the computer the river system and the propagation of the flood waves induced by precipitation. Sub-basins can be optionally selected and changes of water levels and streamflow rates of flood events can be calculated, independently of whether we are considering a historical or a potential future event. Measures of sustainable flood control can be analyzed: adjusting dykes, increasing the carrying capacity of the floodplain, application of reservoirs and emergency reservoirs are mentioned here. These are major features of the DSS developed by us which has been used to re-think the flood control system of the Tisza River, the major tributary of the Danube, in itself an international river covering five countries.

In 2000 the European Union decided on the introduction of a uniform water strategy called Water Framework Directive (WFD). The main objective is to reach a good ecological state of the waters up to 2015. This is not a dream, the goal is achieved by the preparation and implementation of detailed river basin management plans including scheduling. Beside the ecological aspect the law has another important pillar, too, it is the principle of full cost recovery by the water users. It has never happened before that in the field of water resources management a unified strategy has been simultaneously implemented in any continent. The successful solution would imply an evident control of the transboundary pollutions, too. The challenge is enormous, particularly in the Danube basin where, as it was mentioned above, there are countries of highly different levels of development.


Navigation: Past, Present and Future

In general it is said that shipping on the river is cheap and environment friendly and this applies to the Danube, too. It is continuously added though, that it unfortunately represents a rather small capacity ratio only. I would also like to add that the trend is negative. This is proved by an EU survey analysed by the Central European University (CEU), too, which shows what the share of the different options within transportation is (Figures 5 and 6). The Figures show the aggregate data of the Central European countries in comparison to the EU-15 between 1990 and 2002. In 1990 road transportation was remarkably high within the EU. In contrast to it in Central Europe railway transportation was decisive, and navigation had a low proportion everywhere. Since then some ten years have passed and by now it is road transport that has become dominant in Central Europe, as well. No matter how environment friendly and cheap the transportation by water is, it is practically negligible. Transportation by rail and water has been decreasing all over Europe. The future, in all probability will be different from the present and the past, since other sources of transportation are being exhausted.

The disadvantage of shipping along the Danube is that it is slow and uncertain. There are three narrow stretches and cross-sections of the river; one of them is between Vienna and Budapest. A decade ago it was estimated that it would be necessary to invest nearly seventy thousand million HUF in order to make this segment navigable with higher safety. There is a similar narrow section also in Bavaria, and the third one is at the lower Danube. As the future is considered development options on the European scale are rather clear. It would seem obvious to develop Constanţa because of the congestion of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Hamburg and other large European harbours. Constanţa could not only be a gateway to the Black Sea but also to the Mediterranean. In addition Constanţa could become another gateway toward Russia and Asia, and towards Thessalonica by using railway transportation. In the last twenty years the economy of China has been showing an average annual growth of over 10%. The Danube could also represent a gateway toward this country of continental size with a dynamic development of its economy and trade. Hence the navigation of the future would be different from what it used to be in the past. In addition in all probability there is definitely going to be a change in the field of transportation methods: it would mean the linking and intelligent use of container, road and railway transport.

Navigation is also a test of concentration of forces and of cooperation. It is the test of whether this large and mixed region, the Danube region, the Balkans and Central Europe, the Balkan, Western Europe and the European Union are capable of intelligently co-operating or not. It has a lot of potential for Hungary which would be related to logistics, transportation, tourism, and to the potential of becoming a regional centre. From the point of view of the countries in the Danube basin and the Balkans the enlarging European Union is going to be a key factor. Globalisation –– whether we like it or not –– is going to play an extremely important role. Whether the Danube will become a melting pot is to be seen. Whether it is to be a corridor, or the artery of Europe, as many people call it, is also a question for the future. But the river once seen as blue currently is by all means a repository of yet unexplored opportunities.



The present chapter is a short summary of a presentation of the author held at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. For details the reader is referred to Somlyódy, L. (2002) Water in the Danube Basin: An Overview, In: Wilderer, P. A., Huba, B. and Kötzle, T., eds. Water in Europe. The Danube River: Life Line in Greater Europe. Annals of the European Sciences and Arts. Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim.


Small territories of 5 additional countries also belong to the Danube Basin.