Battle looms over Elbe as government seeks to push water transport

Photo: Tomáš Kolařík, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Czech Republic is dissected by some major rivers but water transport is now very much a Cinderella sector compared with road, rail, and air transport. But there are now moves to give rivers a much greater role. President Miloš Zeman would go even further and launch a massive construction project making the country the focus of a revived Central European water transport system. We look at the ambitions and problems encountered so far to revive river transport in the Czech Republic.

Dan Ťok,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Where there’s a will there’s a way; and where there a really big will there’s a waterway. That was one of the comments last week at a conference aimed at paving the way to get a long stalled and crucial waterways project for the Czech Republic back on track.

And the revival of Czech waterways, which currently account for around one percent of cargo transported in the country, as a cheap and environmentally friendly mode of transport now has backing at the top. This is what Minister of Transport Dan Ťok had to say: “If you consider one percent now, there is a really huge potential for water transport. And we would like to help people doing business in water transport much more. Our aim is towards being able to operate the water route on the Elbe throughout the whole year and I think that today’s conference should help us to do this as soon as possible.”

The conference the minister was referring to was raucous and sometimes rowdy event focused on plans to make the Elbe river navigable almost all year round. Some backers of the plans to improve navigation accuse environmental opponents of being funded by the German rail company, Deutsche Bahn. That’s an argument roundly rejected by the Czech environmental group Arnika, but it is an indication of how high feelings are running.

If you consider one percent now, there is a really huge potential for water transport.

At the moment, this key river running through much of eastern, central and northern Bohemia before heaving north-westwards through Germany and to Hamburg and the sea can only be used by large cargo barges for around half the year. During much of the summer there is not enough water and at some times of the year there is the opposite problem that the river is flooded.

One of the key obstacles to making the Elbe navigable is a relatively small stretch of the river between Ustí nad Labem, Děčín, and the German border. And that has been the focus of a near 20 year battle over construction plans to create a channel which barges could use. One set of plans was forwarded for a so-called environmental assessment back in 2010 and sparked considerable opposition. It was returned to the sender, the Ministry of Transport, and in particular the state Directorate for Waterways of the Czech Republic, for further work.

Environmental enough?

Photo: Tomáš Kolařík,  CC BY-SA 3.0
The directorate says its new project now includes a host of environmental improvements, for example, enabling fish and other wildlife to head up river. It adds that 25 percent of the costs of the whole project are now connected with environmental measures. But environmental groups are still opposed to the project saying that it will lead to the disappearance of some river habitat that has a Europe-wide significance.

Head of the waterways directorate, Lubomír Fojtů, says it has gone a long way to meeting the environmentalists demands: “There is no single solution that would meet all of the demands and it is a question of some consensus. So in some respect the environmental situation will be worse anyway, but we plan measures which will compensate for these problems to a very high degree.”

The revised plans, plus environmental measures, are now poised to be resubmitted to the Ministry of the Environment for it to conduct its assessment of their impact. Approval could mean that billions of crowns of European funds could be released covering around 80 percent of the costs of the Děčín works and improvements further up the river all the way to the outskirts of Pardubice. A negative ruling would stop the project in its tracks.

The assessment will put the environment ministry very much in the spotlight and minister Richard Brabec even suggested last week that parts of the environmental assessment could be spun off to experts outside the Czech Republic if this is believed to be some extra guarantee of impartiality.

Lubomír Fojtů,  photo: Czech Television
Waterway directorate head Fojtů says there are compelling arguments why the country should make the Elbe once again a major waterway even if there are some environmental downsides that cannot be avoided: “Hamburg is the biggest Czech port actually because the major part of Czech exports which go overseas goes through Hamburg. And in this corridor, there are about 20 million tonnes a year shipped. And water transport accounts for only 400 tonnes. but the potential is to have three or four million tonnes. So it is fully possible if the river becomes fully navigable.”

Added to this are the arguments that water transport has around half the costs of rail and less than a fifth the costs of road transport. In addition, the noise, pollution, and use of uncrowded infrastructure means that the indirect environmental costs of waterways are reckoned to around an eighth of road transport. This makes waterways ideal for shipping bulk goods such as chemicals and heavy machinery that in some cases can hardly even get onto the roads.

Prague pirate

After decades of argument over the future of the Elbe and some serious damage to the Czech merchant fleet in the 1990s – it was privatized to the infamous ‘Pirate of Prague’ Viktor Kozeny who sold the vessels off piecemeal - some doubt whether the sector is really ready for a comeback.

Elbe in Děčín | Photo: Ondrej.konicek,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 3.0
Fojtů says there are now 100 vessels flying the Czech flag, though most of them are doing business on other European waterways. Some could be modernized and improved for a return to the Elbe and new vessels could be built, he argues. The important thing is to get the Elbe functioning and then the business will come back, he says. Minister Ťok believers pleasure cruisers and light craft could also make return to the river.

In many ways the arguments about the Elbe are a precursor to the much bigger project that has been punted on president Zeman. He is the main backer of a huge infrastructure plan to join the Danube, Elbe, and Oder rivers with new canals stretching for around 370 kilometres, mostly across Eastern Moravian. They would be connected by what would look like a massive ‘Y’ system of canals. Getting near all year navigation on the Elbe and the connection to Hamburg would be a key to getting this project anywhere near looking feasible.

The project could cost an estimated 300-400 million crowns but the waterway system resulting might be able to ship around 9.5 million tonnes of goods a year with final outlets offered on the North Sea, Baltic and Black Sea.

The Czech government has so far been cautious on giving its backing to the project, with a feasibility study being commissioned by the Ministry of Transport. Last week, however, support was forthcoming from Slovak prime minister Robert Fico and that added to existing heavyweight political support in Poland.