Fog over border river Oder in the morning. Oder is river between Poland and German.

Controversial plans for destructive Danube-Oder-Elbe waterway moving forward

Czech Republic plans on paying an exorbitant sum for a colossal river infrastructure project that has no proven economic benefits, yet produces an astronomical environmental bill. The first stretch is approved and construction might start already in 2030, writes Asger Mindegaard.

This article is written together with Jiří Dlouhý, Board Member in the EEB, Chairman of Society for Sustainable Living and Head of the Department of Environmental Education at Charles University Environment Centre in Prague

Strategically mistaken, economically meaningless, ecologically damning, organisationally difficult and internationally problematic: Professor Bedřich Moldan, former Czech Minister of Environment has strong reservations about the Danube-Oder-Elbe (DOE) waterway plans, an enormous and absurd infrastructure project at odds with the laws of nature. 

He is far from alone in his judgement, the gigantic infrastructure project is highly controversial. Environmental impacts, economic feasibility, acceptance by all the countries involved and the infrastructural relevance of the entire project are being questioned by civil society, researchers, and some national authorities and government officials.

Nevertheless, the Czech authorities recently gave the green light to initiating the first stage of the project in Czech territory. The DOE project is ultimately foreseen to connect the three major European rivers by constructing 500 kilometers of canal (2.5 times the Suez Canal) in the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany and Slovakia. 

All aboard for environmental destruction

Only hours after authorities declared a Covid-19-related state of emergency in the Czech Republic on 5 October last year, Transport Minister Karel Havlíček posted a tweet. With 222 humble characters, the tweet ignited both outrage and celebration as it declared the government’s approval of the first section of the DOE waterway project, connecting the Czech city of Ostarava with Polish Koźle. 

“A significant step in the transport, economic, energy, water management and recreational strengthening of the Moravian-Silesian Region. The international project for the preparation of the navigability of the Oder on the section Koźle-Ostrava recently got the green light of the government.”

Based on a feasibility study commissioned by the Czech government and carried out by the companies Sweco and Aquatis, the government claims that the project is economically viable and will boost regional industry’s access to EU and global markets. The study, however, was not reviewed by independent experts and did not assess the environmental impacts of the project. 

Just a few days after the announced approval of the first phase, 78 Czech scientists published a joint declaration condemning the decision. In the declaration, they criticise the lack of consultation of experts and of public debate and list a long series of the project’s negative environmental impacts. 

Based on the feasibility study and scientific assessments, the experts say the project clearly will have a significant negative impact on the hydrological regime of the river basin and will fundamentally damage the environment,” says Jiří Dlouhý, Board Member in the EEB, Chairman of Society for Sustainable Living and Head of the Department of Environmental Education at Charles University Environment Centre in Prague. “The planned canal cuts through several biologically valuable territories, all in danger of complete destruction should the project be carried out.

One grim example is the Oder Border Meander Nature Park, an important Natura 2000 site, which would be fundamentally damaged by the first construction phase in Czech territory according to the experts. The same goes for terrestrial and riparian ecosystems and surface and groundwater resources along the entire planned canal. The project will destroy fertile agricultural soils and endanger the biodiversity of numerous unique areas along the river landscapes.

Jiří Dlouhý: “A broad group of civil society organisations agree with the scientists’ stark opposition to the project. In a letter to the EU Environment Commissioner from March last year, undersigned by organisations from all the affected countries, they warn that the project would damage flood protection and the unique landscape of floodplain forests, wetlands and meadows along hundreds of kilometres of the implicated rivers.”

Questionable benefits

According to the official website, the DOE waterway promises “significant benefits for nearby business and industry. After completion, it will help generate a wide range of benefits that significantly contribute to economic development and improve quality of life in the vicinity of the DOE corridor.” This summarises well the main argument in favour of the DOE canal. The reality, though, is more nuanced.

The alleged potential of the rivers for freight transport is strongly questionable. Since 2010, only about one percent of transported goods have been shipped by water annually in the Czech Republic and no gradual transfer from roads to waterways has taken place. Even officials from the Finance Ministry explicitly call an update of existing infrastructure or the construction of high-speed railways the ‘preferred and logical solution’. 

Only about five million tonnes of goods are transported annually on a similar canal connecting the Danube and the Rhine rivers, an amount that could be transported in one day with a few freight trains. These are much more important rivers than the Oder and Elbe in terms of shipping potential and even here the traffic is declining. The authors of the Czech feasibility study base the project’s economic viability on an assumption of 20 million tonnes of goods moved on the canal annually, which seems rather optimistic considering the Danube-Rhine example.

Very little cargo is transported via water in the Czech Republic and the potential for expanding is limited. (Image by Andrey Sharpilo on Unsplash).

In addition, the Oder and the Elbe are not very suitable rivers for heavy inland navigation. Several hundreds of kilometers are not navigable for up to six months a year due to very low and unpredictable water levels. The numerous dams, sewers and deepened riverbeds needed to compensate for this are extremely costly and would cause an acceleration of flood waves thus exacerbating flood risks. 

Apart from the project’s multiple and severe impacts once constructed, it already has direct negative influence on people and nature. “A moratorium is blocking all development on territory touched by the planned route of the canal. Even for territory no longer part of the new and amended plans. This means that new construction projects, renovations and even nature restoration projects in dozens of municipalities are frozen indefinitely, causing frustration and uncertainty for thousands of people,” explains vice chairwoman of the Czech Senate, Jitka Seitlová. 

Problems beyond borders

The DOE waterway project is massive and its success is completely dependent on a close cooperation and coordination between several countries. According to Jiří Dlouhý, the planning, construction and use of the waterway project will only be viable if based on a clearly expressed and legally binding agreement from all countries directly affected by the project. This counts the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Austria and, due to the transboundary impacts, also Hungary, as well as the European Union. This seems close to impossible, as only Poland is showing significant interest in joining the Czech Republic in the project while Austria is explicitly opposed to it.

Poland is keen on moving the project forward and the two governments signed an agreement on further cooperation in August 2019. Unsurprisingly, many of the same environmental threats described for the Czech case are equally relevant for the Polish plans for regulating the Oder river. “In Poland, the DOE project is presented as a great promise of development, but it is important to put more focus on the negative consequences for protected habitats and biodiversity, critical wetlands, valuable soil and flood protection,” warns Ewa Leś, River Basin and Wastewater Management Leader for Coalition Clean Baltic and active in Polish EEB member Polish Ecological Club.

Due to the transboundary nature of the Oder river, the project would cause disastrous impacts in German territory as well. Despite this, the German government has officially committed to developing a bilateral agreement on the project. This has been severely criticised by scientists who called on the German government to take diplomatic and legal action against the Polish development project and stop the German development plans. They urged all levels of government to support the protection of the Oder river as an ecological focus area. When it comes to the Elbe river, German authorities have clearly expressed that they do not intend to approve construction to make the stretch between the Czech border and Dresden navigable for freight transport.

Riparian ecosystems crucial to biodiversity and flood control will be damaged or destroyed all along the planned canal, like this one on the West Oder River close to Mescherin, Germany. (Image by Fotokon).

In Austria, the DOE project will likely impact water flows in the Danube river. In a letter to Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans from 15 January 2020, the Austrian Minister for the Environment, Climate Action and Transport made it very clear that the Austrian authorities in no way will be participating in the project. She also expressed deep concerns over the potential negative impacts on Austrian ecosystems if the project were to be initiated by the other parties involved. A position repeated by Austria’s president in October the same year. For this reason, the plan is now to make the connection to the Danube through Slovakia, but the Slovakian authorities have not yet approved this.

To Ewa Leś, the Austrian approach is to be applauded and followed: “It shows responsibility for the country, its people, economy, and the environment they live in. In Poland, I would expect, as a citizen, that our government will speak and act with similar wisdom and responsibility, thinking about us and our future. Not least in the implementation of the recent National Surface Water Re-naturalisation Programme.

Who pays the bill ?

The DOE waterway project is projected to cost an astounding €23 billion with annual operation costs amounting to €20 million. The first stretch approved by the Czech authorities alone is expected to cost €566 million and €35 million have already been spent although construction is foreseen to begin in 2030 at the earliest. 

A report by national Czech experts deemed the entire project to be unviable from an economic perspective and the Czech Supreme Audit Office assessed the project to be economically risky. The former waterway adviser to the Czech Republic’s president, Petr Forman has made this clear, saying that “when the assessment was made only for the connection with Poland, it didn’t work out economically.”

The Czech authorities are expected to rely on EU funds for financing the project. However, there should be no EU funding available for this project according to Policy Manager for Water and Biodiversity at the EEB, Sergiy Moroz: “The DOE waterway project is in direct conflict with key EU legislation such as the Water Framework Directive and the Nature Directives which should make it ineligible for EU funds. In addition, none of the project’s elements are included in the Trans-European Transport Network of planned transport infrastructure, making EU funding unjustifiable.

The original feasibility study already flagged the issue of breaching the Natura 2000 protection as a threat to the project and both academic and NGO experts consider it impossible to imagine funding the project with EU resources under the current set-up. While funding by private investors is a possibility, the rapidly increasing focus on sustainable investment makes it unlikely to reach sufficient levels.

The DOE waterway project will be a disaster for nature and for people and it is imperative that such damaging infrastructure projects are not realised. Any infrastructure project needs to be compatible with the objectives of EU nature and water legislation and must not result in further deterioration of our threatened aquatic environment.