Eco-warriors fight "Suez canal plan for Europe's Amazon"

By bne IntelliNews October 3, 2011

Guy Norton in Zagreb -

Local and international environmentalists are in uproar over the Croatian government's plans to revive an 18th-century project to canalize three major rivers in eastern Croatia using funds from the EU.

As part of her electioneering odyssey around Croatia, Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, who heads a right-wing coalition which faces a tough fight in parliamentary elections on December 4 to stay in power, recently gave the green light for work to begin on the fiercely contested Visenamjenski kanal Dunav-Sava (VKDS)/Danube-Sava multi-purpose canal (DSMC) project that will link the Danube, Sava and Drava rivers.

The estimated €950m development would entail the construction of 61.4 kilometres of canals, five ports and docks, and 23 road and pedestrian bridges. It will be carried out under the auspices of state-owned utility Hrvatske Vode (Croatian Water), with building set to start as early as next year.

The development will form part of the 570-km Danube Corridor that will run from the Adriatic Sea in the west of the country through to the east. Alongside better railway links, it will improve transport connections between Croatia and Central Europe, claims Branko Bacic, minister for environmental protection, spatial planning and development.

According to Bacic the canal, which has been proclaimed a national priority project, will make the rivers navigable by both freight and tourist ships and will also ease irrigation problems for roughly 36,000 hectares of agricultural land, as well as reduce flooding in the eastern Croatian counties of Vukovar-Srijem and Slavonski Brod-Posavina, the heart of the country's farming belt.

Save the forest

For a cash-strapped Croatia, the project represents a major investment, given that it will cost almost twice the HRK3.8bn (€508m) that the country allocated to its agriculture, fisheries and rural development budget in 2010. The authorities are therefore hoping that the EU will stump up at least part of the money for what is being dubbed Croatia's version of the Suez Canal.

However, the revival of this project, which was first proposed as long ago as 1737 but subsequently dropped because of the astronomic construction costs, has been met with a storm of protest by environmentalists who are contesting its implementation at home and abroad.

Tibor Mikuska, head of the Croatian Society for the Protection of Birds and Nature (CSBNP), has filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court in Croatia alleging that the government has failed in its duties to properly assess the environmental aspects of the project. Other local opponents include the HSD (Hrvatsko Sumarkso Drustvo/Croatian Forestry Association), which claims that the project could have potentially devastating effect upon the Spacva forest, one of the last major oak forests in Europe. Before embarking on any construction work, the HSD wants the government to conduct comprehensive research into the effect that the project could have on groundwater levels in what is dubbed "Europe's Amazon" because of its abundant biodiversity. According to its studies, a 0.5-metre fall in groundwater levels would cause the Spacva forest to wither and die, while a corresponding rise would swamp the forest and also cause its death.

Both bodies also claim that the canal will prove to be an economic white elephant. Mikuska at the CSBNP questions whether the project will ever attract the shipping volumes to justify the initial investment and support its continued upkeep given the fact that only around 200 boats a year currently use the country's waterways. And the HSD says that the project could potentially lead to the destruction of 70,000 hectares of valuable forests, which have an economic worth of €20,000 per hectare from timber sales.

There has also been plenty of support for local protestors from abroad. "These type of projects are an enormous waste of public money, which will only benefit a small group of profiteers in Croatia and will leave citizens with old and damaging water management infrastructure that will destroy their environment," says Martin Schneider-Jacoby, director of the European Natural Heritage Fund (EuroNatur).

He adds that the principal beneficiary of the proposed development would be the port of Brcko in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina, which would benefit from increased traffic volumes without having to have spent any money to support the VKDS project. Meanwhile, he says the canalization plan will potentially cause more problems than it solves, as the wetland areas in the region absorb water that would flood towns and cities downstream and act as a natural water purifer.

Arno Mohl, an official at the Austrian branch of the World Wildlife Fund, says the VKDS project is part of an old-fashioned system of river management, which is being implemented before Croatia joins the EU in July 2013, when it would face much tougher scrutiny. "The enforcement of such outdated projects just before Croatia's admission to the EU is a big scandal and a slap in the face to all those who take EU accession and environmental protection seriously. The Croatian Water management board is obviously trying to quickly approve projects that would never normally comply with the stronger and more modern EU legal system," says Mohl, adding that the VKDS and other river regulation projects in Croatia, completely undermine Croatia's commitment to its protecting its natural treasures and threaten the extinction of endangered species such as the white-tailed eagle, European otter and sturgeon. Important tourist attractions such as the Kopacki Rit nature reserve near Osijek would also be affected.

"The commitment to protect this area would not be worth more than the paper it is written on if these plans will be executed," says Mohl, adding: "We expect the Croatian government to immediately step back from these outdated projects."

Altogether some 12 international and national NGOs have sent a complaint to the European Commission as well as the Croatian government, protesting Hrvatske Vode's development plans and calling for the EU to withhold funding for what they claim are both an environmentally and economically destructive projects.

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