THE CZECH Republic is negotiating with the governments in Bratislava and Vienna to reopen plans to build a canal linking the Elbe, Oder, and Danube, despite long-running controversy over the idea.
The planned canal would be a key step in establishing the long-held dream of a trans-European water transport system connecting the Black, North, and Baltic seas through the centre of Europe.
"We would like the Czech Republic to be linked to the Danube, and so we are looking for a solution to link Břeclav [a town close to the Czech-Austrian-Slovak border] to the Danube," said Czech transport minister Milan Šimonovský.
The first part of the project calls for the creation of a 5-metre deep, 50-metre wide canal from Pardubice in central Czech Republic to Olomouc in the northeast of the country.
Shipping would then move down the Morava river, which forms part of the Czech-Slovak border and much of the Austrian-Slovak border, before reaching the Danube under Devín castle, just west of Bratislava.
Although other routes have also been suggested, Vladimír Haviar from Slovakia's Transport Ministry said: "The best solution, as far as water transport in the Slovak Republic is concerned is to use the Morava corridor."
Similar plans have been around for decades. In the 1980s proposals were already circulating in Slovakia for the construction of a canal and industrial port on the Morava River. In 1994 the canal idea was included in a regional development plan for Bratislava, which also featured a scheme to build hydropower stations.
Increasing waterway traffic is also a stated EU goal. The European Commission white paper on transport outlining key priorities for transport policy from 2001 to 2010 states that a key aim is to "foster waterway transport as a dynamic alternative in a sustainable transport chain".
The paper also directly mentions the joining of central Europe's major rivers, suggesting the proposed Czech route along Slovakia's frontier.
"It is indeed important to upgrade the Elbe, Oder, and in particular the Danube, and to connect them in the long run in a pan-European network," the report states.
The proposed canals, however, have been attacked for both economic and ecological reasons. Even Czech environment minister Libor Ambrozek opposes the plan, and considers the estimated Ř9.5 billion cost to be a waste of money. Last November, he told the Czech press agency ČTK that the Czech Republic does not need the Danube-Oder-Elbe canal.
Environmentalists say the canal would seriously damage large ecosystems already under threat from human activity.
A 50,000-hectare site covering the floodplains of the Morava river basin (as well as the Dyje river on the Czech side of the border) is currently a protected nature reserve, and a large construction project could irreparably damage local populations of endangered species, they say.
"The reasons presented in favour of this monster project, both economic and even ecological, are deceiving," reads a statement on the project from the European Greens caucus in the European Parliament.
"For transporting goods which are suitable for transport by ships, modern railway corridors will be available, and the building of parallel waterways for this purpose is, under the given conditions, useless and economically risky.
"To build a canal between three seas going through their main watersheds is simply nonsense from all points of view. The European Greens appeal to the governments of the Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Austria, and Germany to stop any support for this project," the statement continues.
Last year, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) produced a report warning of serious ecological problems to "vital wetland systems" on the Czech, Slovak, and Austrian borders.
Not only is local wildlife in danger, said the WWF report, but risks to the quality of drinking water and the potential for chemical spillage into the rivers threaten human populations along the waterway. A WWF spokesperson warned that if the Danube-Oder-Elbe project goes ahead, "it will affect 400,000 hectares of land in Slovakia."
The flood plain of the river Morava is vital for the self-purification of its water, and the river moderates the local climate, warns the report, also stating that the river is already badly polluted. Besides the environmental threats, there is no economic justification for the canal, said the report's authors.
"It is highly questionable whether any further industrial development of the overcrowded industrial area of the Breclav-Přerov-Ostrava region along the Danube-Oder-Elbe project makes any sense since it has nearly reached the limits of its growth," the report says.
Until 1989 the river corridor had remained virtually untouched, as it formed part of the border between the capitalist West and socialist East. However, the area is already under pressure from fishing and a lack of respect for local regulations that restrict the use of motor vehicles and industrial activity.
Environmental activists see the canal issue as part of a greater threat to nature as candidate countries rush to join the EU.
"The countries that are now planning to join the EU have many of the last great wilderness areas, cultural landscapes, and near-pristine river systems remaining on the European continent," said Sandra Jen, WWF biodiversity officer.
"It is natural wealth that will greatly enrich the EU and that needs urgent protection," she said.
26. May 2003 at 0:00 | Conrad Toft