(© viadonau)

Danube Navigation Shall Ease Transit Burden

Austria intends to pursue the NAP also in 2008. Its integrated river restoration project was again fiercely criticised by environmentalists around the year-turn

As the most recent EU entries have unleashed an east-west transit crisis on Austria’s major road network, the federal government now seeks to boost waterway transport on the Danube as an eco-friendly alternative. When presenting the new action programme of the Federal Ministry of Transport, Innovation and Technology (bmvit) early this year, State Secretary Christa Kranzl said that the National Action Plan on Danube Navigation (NAP) kicked off last year would be continued in 2008.

The NAP is the national implementation of the NAIADES Action Programme with which the EU seeks to improve the conditions for inland navigation within its boundaries by 2015. During the period up to then, the NAP shall receive € 480 million in financial backing. The federal government has earmarked € 26 million in funds for this project in 2008 (incl. aid scheme for modernisation of intermodal terminals). The goal of the NAP transport policy is to at least double the current freight volume of 12 million tonnes along the Austrian section of the Danube.

Christa Kranzl deplores the fact that many enterprises and in particular logistics experts know too little about the inland navigation opportunities; awareness-raising campaigns and technical measures are therefore required to improve the situation. One of the NAP objectives is to establish a permanent waterway information centre where information about the ideal shiprailway- truck logistics chain is customised to the relevant target groups – schoolchildren, apprentices, students, or experts. The new facility shall be established at the Danube port in Enns, for which a master plan is under preparation.

The European Commission, too, is aware of the growing need to shift freight transport away from the road to other transport routes and most recently approved an Austrian support scheme in the framework of which € 15 million from the funding scheme for intermodal terminals are spent on the construction, expansion and modernisation of combined transport facilities (road/ rail and road/ship).

The bmvit puts € 2 million per year at the disposal of freighter modernisation, which shall also foster eco-friendliness and safety in navigation. Additional funds shall be raised for establishing container liner services (also visit the website www.via-donau.org and read more about the COLD study).

Austria is a pioneer in safe navigation not least on account of the waterway information and management system DoRIS, which it has developed and recently implemented in practice. 380 Danube freighters have meanwhile been upgraded with transponders so as to benefit from top-notch technology. DoRIS sets the example for all ongoing development and implementation activities on river information services in the entire Danube River Basin. DoRIS 2008 is supported by bmvit with € 2.7 million.

However, what curbs the efficiency of Danube navigation is a number of bottlenecks along the navigation channel, which in case of low water levels dramatically reduce the loading allowance of freighters. Such shallow sections occur in about 370 kilometres of watercourse throughout all Danube riparian states.

The aim of the integrated river restoration project (Flussbauliches Gesamtprojekt/FGP), launched by project sponsor via donau – Österreichische Wasserstraßen Gesellschaft m. b. H. in 2002, was to defuse one of these critical river stretches between Vienna and the Austro-Slovakian border. The main steps taken in the course of this project comprise reshaping and rearranging of the groynes to ensure minimum navigation depths even under low-water conditions as well as granulometric riverbed improvement.

The latter is intended to counteract the rapidly progressing erosive deepening of the riverbed caused by the series of hydropower stations operating alongside the Danube, which also results in the lowering of the groundwater table in the Donauauen National Park. Widening the riverbanks and reconnecting side arms to the Danube mainstream shall help to add dynamics to the alluvial wetlands.

The FGP, devouring € 220 million, is the most important partial project of NAP. Last year it became known that the entire project will receive financial backing. The European Commission has approved funding of 20 % of the overall river stretch restoration cost as well as 50 % of the expenses incurred for studies and pilot projects (= maximum rate of funding).

Since renowned ecologists were incorporated in the steering committee right from the beginning, the FGP has good chances to develop into a role model for successful compromising on economic and ecological interests. Experts involved in the project – such as Friedrich Schiemer from the University of Vienna – do not want to see their input being used to put pressure on other Danube sections to follow their example.

The FGP has been undergoing a simplified Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) since late December 2007, the results of which shall be available by the end of the year. The very fact that the FGP could serve as an example for the remaining 2,000 km of Danube sections extending downstream to the Black Sea (and upstream to Wachau and Bavaria) is a thorn in the side of Umweltdachverband (UDV), VIRUS, Greenpeace as well as a number of Austrian scientists (Forum Österreichischer Wissenschafter für den Umweltschutz) and supporters of the protest movement at Hainburg.

Follow-up projects will put three national parks, two world cultural heritage sites, eleven Ramsar protected areas and a few Natura 2000 areas – both declared and potential ones – at a grave risk, they say. So the environmentalists took the start of the EIA procedure (regarded as legally correct, but unsuited for projects of this kind) as a welcome opportunity to wage their emotional attacks against the FGP.

Here is what they complain about:

  • Only ten percent of the shipping capacity of the Danube east of Vienna is currently being exploited; the factor limiting waterway transport is therefore not the navigation depth, and the high cost and negative ecological impact resulting from the FGP are totally unjustified.
  • The type of freight transported by ship makes navigation compete with railhaul rather than roadhaul.
  • The granulometric approach chosen is biased and poorly tested; it will deteriorate the river ecosystem, destroy the wetlands and pose a threat to the National Park.
  • The narrowing of the navigation channel reduces safety and increases flow velocity, so that more “aggressive” riverbed stabilisation methods are needed.
  • The FGP lacks a truly integrated and holistic approach; for instance, it fails to look at the siltation of wetland zones by fine-grained sediments.

The separate flood control schemes in Vienna and Lower Austria do not support the linkage of river and alluvial forest eco-systems. There is unsafety about the ecological measures accompanying the project. In the beginning, WWF Austria still regarded “certain components” of the FGP – such as the integrative approach of scientist involvement – as “remarkable” and took up a waiting position.

By the end of January, however, the environmental organisation had turned into one of the fiercest project opponents. Do they seek to take revenge on State Secretary Christa Kranzl for imposing her view on them? At any rate, the WWF has since then claimed that individual expert findings are partly based on inadequate data material.

They also warn that the riverbed stabilisation project might put the wetland eco-system at risk, that not enough compensating measures are taken to balance out the ecological impacts, and that a total assessment involving the highly sensitive eco-system was lacking.

UDV President Gerhard Heilingbrunner even seems to suspect an “unholy alliance” between scientists and politicians and shortly before the year-turn demanded that the bmvit disclose all information on financial transactions to experts involved in FGP-related projects!

Even an “eco-friendly” pilot experiment near Bad Deusch Altenburg, of which both Christa Kranzl and via donau CEO Manfred Seitz had been full of praise, was not approved by the environmentalists.

Andreas Wurzer (WWF) puts the environmentalist claims in a nutshell: terminate the pilot experiment, develop an alternative to the FGP and enter into a dialogue with scientists and NGOs again! Interdisciplinary debates, which environmentalists say need to be resumed, have in fact never really stopped.

After initial expert workshops in Orth, Bucharest and Zagreb, since June 2007 these debates have been held also at supranational level in the framework of the “Joint Statement on Guiding Principles for the Development of Inland Navigation and Environmental Protection in the Danube Basin” (in short “Joint Statement”).

50 stakeholders are meanwhile participating in the initiative launched by the International Commission on the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR), among them the Danube and the Save Commission, the European Commission, as well as various interest groups and environmental organisations (including WWF).

The main purpose of the Joint Statement is to dissolve potential conflicts between the promotion of navigation and the Water Framework Directive. The ICPDR initiative therefore suggests that early steps be taken to seek agreement on basic matters, avoid conflict, choose interdisciplinary planning and explain controversial viewpoints.

“This is exactly the path bmvit and via donau have followed in the integrated river restoration project”, says Manfred Seitz, “from the very start much emphasis has been placed on incorporating ecological sustainability in technical planning. What could be better than making this project a role model for the neighbouring countries? Through ICPDR, via donau will pass all experiences made with this ecologically sound Danube navigation promotion programme onto other interested countries in the Danube Region.”

While talks seem to have come to a halt only between Danube navigation supporters and environmentalists in Austria, in January bmvit and via donau again expressed their willingness to return to the negotiating table. The ICPDR Joint Statement process, too, will be continued this year.

(Source: aqua press Int. 1/2008, Mag. Christof Hahn)

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