Elbe-Oder-Danube canal – logistic dream or megalomanic nightmare?

Photo: Jaroslav Kubec, Wikimedia Commons, License CC BY-SA 3.0

The tug-of-war continues over one of the most ambitious construction projects ever imagined, the building of a canal linking three of Europe’s mightiest rivers – the Elbe, the Oder and the Danube. It’s a pet project of President Miloš Zeman, who this week unveiled an exhibition devoted to it at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. However both the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Green Party have reasserted their opposition to the idea, saying it would have catastrophic consequences for the environment.

Photo: Jaroslav Kubec,  Wikimedia Commons,  License CC BY-SA 3.0
For centuries Europe’s rulers have dreamed of linking the North Sea, the Baltic and the Black Sea, with the construction of a huge Y-shaped canal connecting the Elbe, Oder and Danube rivers, most of which would be on Czech territory. The highly ambitious – some say megalomanic project – would entail widening and canalizing massive stretches of river to make them navigable to barges. The cost would be astronomical – at least ten billion euros.

So unsurprisingly, the project – which has heavyweight political support in both Poland and the Czech Republic – has many opponents. On Thursday, the Czech Academy of Sciences’s Environmental Commission published a statement dismissing the canal as potentially one of the biggest interventions into the ecosystem of the Czech Republic and Central Europe, saying the environmental cost would be ruinous for short-term economic gain. The non-parliamentary Czech Green Party are also against.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
But that opposition has done little to deter the canal’s backers, including the Czech president Miloš Zeman. He mentioned the idea in his inaugural speech, and has promoted it on several occasions, most recently this week in Strasbourg. The idea is cautiously being considered by the coalition government. In December the interim minister of transport agreed to commission a one-million euro feasibility study, a move the new government also supports.

President Zeman’s captivation with the idea is nothing new; it was also supported by Václav Havel and others. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV was the first to envisage a waterway linking the Oder to the Danube back in the 14th century, and subsequent rulers have toyed with it ever since.

River Morava,  photo: Vladimír Tóth,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Hitler even built a bit of a it – work started on a 40km channel from Vienna to the Austrian town of Angern, on the banks of the River Morava. But only a few kilometres were ever built – Hitler had other things on his mind in 1940 – and so work on the Donau-Oder Kanal was abandoned.