While in Europe last summer I spent several days in the lovely university town of Passau on the banks of the Danube in the far southeastern corner of Germany. While there I got reacquainted with the Danube since my small Altstadt hotel was located right on the river’s bank where I could watch the passing ship traffic from my room (and hear their deep, throbbing motors at night while trying to sleep).
As you may know the Danube is Europe’s longest river, rising in Germany’s Black Forest just 40 miles east of the Rhine River, which flows into the North Sea while the Danube flows southeasterly 1767 miles through 10 different countries before emptying into the Black Sea. (Caution: Many online sources, including Wikipedia, maintain the Danube is Europe’s second-longest river after the Volga River in Russia. Since I don’t consider Russia a part of Europe, I go with the Danube as Europe’s longest river)
In 1992 the new Rhine-Main-Danube Canal opened making barge and ship travel possible between the North and Black Seas via the Rhine and Danube Rivers. Although navigation along the Danube was hindered from 1999 to 2002 by wrecked bridges in Serbia that were destroyed by NATO bombing during the Balkan wars, commercial barge traffic has grown considerably since Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007. Still, freight traffic on the Danube is reportedly only 10% of that carried on the Rhine River. As a result the EU considers the Danube under-used by commercial traffic and recently unveiled plans for expanding barge traffic by improving navigation and harbor facilities throughout the river. The EU also sees expanded barge traffic along the Danube as an alternative to the heavy truck traffic now clogging German and Austrian highways as southeastern Europe becomes economically integrated into the EU core. Since inland water travel (IWT) is reportedly 80% cheaper than trucking, increasing barge traffic along the Danube might indeed lessen the nuisance and environmental costs associated with heavy truck traffic on German and Austria highways. (More about the EU’s Danube plan here)
But the World Wildlife Fund and numerous other environmental organizations have spoken out against the EU Danube Strategy because of fears that improving navigation along the river will harm many of the unique wetland environments they wish to protect. In March 2011, for example) Croatia jointly agreed with Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia to protect the Danube, Drava and Mura as part of a transboundary UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (more about that plan here).