The removal of WWII wrecks will enable safer and faster navigation along the Danube. That’s good for the environment and the Serbian economy

The River Danube has been a source of life and a link between people and economies in Europe for centuries. This summer’s unprecedented heat lowered the water level so much that the river unveiled some of this long history in the Djerdap II (Iron Gates) Gorge in Serbia.

After the worst drought in the last 500 years, the water level of the river was so low that old churches and submerged villages appeared on the surface. So did World War II shipwrecks near the port of Prahovo whose presence has narrowed the navigable width of the river for 75 years from its usual 180m to only 80m, compromising navigation safety and causing delays.

“The waterway is really narrow, because navigation on the Danube today is not the same as before.” says local historian Velimir Miki Trailović, who is from Prahovo. “Today, 700 to 1 000 cruise ships pass here on the Danube every year and it is really difficult for them to pass each other.”

Currently, it takes from 40 minutes up to four hours for ships to pass each other, causing severe delays.

That’s why the European Union is financing the removal of these sunken vessels, a project worth around €30 million that also benefits from a €16.5 million grant channelled through the Western Balkans Investment Framework. The rest is financed with a European Investment Bank loan, as part of the overall project for the improvement of inland waterways signed with the Republic of Serbia in 2018.

“A kilometre away from the ships is the Djerdap II navigation lock, where today’s ships pass through” says Damir Vladić, Prahovo’s port director. ”When the sunken vessels are taken out, it will be much easier to steer towards the lock, both up and downstream.”

The loan for improvements in the navigability of inland waterways along the Danube and Sava rivers in Serbia has been recognised as a strategic investment for the sustainable connectivity of the whole region. It also includes the rehabilitation of ports on the Danube and Sava rivers and the navigation locks Djerdap I and II. The reconstruction of the Djerdap I navigation lock has been completed, leading to a 30% increase in reliability, efficiency and operating speed. The reconstruction of the Djerdap II lock has already started.  

“Thanks to the EU and European Investment Bank funds, in addition to support for local economic development, we will provide wider, safer, and more reliable inland water transport,” says Alessandro Bragonzi, head of the European Investment Bank representation in the Western Balkans. “According to our climate commitments, as spelled out in the Climate Bank Roadmap and new Transport Lending Policy, we see this project as an example of the kind of sustainable mobility we want to continue investing in.”

Operation Danube Elf

The sunken ships belonged to the German navy, which sank its own warships in 1944 on the retreat towards Kladovo, Serbia, to prevent them from falling into the hands of the advancing Red Army in an operation dubbed “Danube Elf”.

After the war, the Yugoslav army abandoned its attempts to extract some of the 200-plus ships lying at the bottom due because of the presence of unexploded ordnance.

In 2021, a team of demining experts carried out bathymetric surveys using multi-beam echo-sonar, as well as other tests and visual inspections by divers, (also financed by the EIB loan). The investigations confirmed the presence of 38 vessels,  removal of which will improve navigation on the section of the Danube between Serbia and Romania. This technical report is a precondition for safe and successful extraction of the ships, enabling the next phase of the project and eliminating bottlenecks in trade routes.

Danube cleanup boosts tonnage

Serbian authorities have made tremendous efforts to make the river navigable, in spite of these severe obstacles.

"I am really proud that we managed to ensure the navigability of the Danube along its entire length on the territory of our country in these record-low water levels, because the river remains a European corridor for cargo and freight traffic,” said Serbia’s Minister of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure, Tomislav Momirović.

According to the Ministry, Serbia is losing around €5 million annually due to unsafe and challenging navigation conditions. “If the river is not passable, it does not have its full efficiency," Momirović says.

In 2019, cargo volumes on the Danube River reached 12.7 million tons, out of which close to 11 million tons and 12 500 vessels passed through the Iron Gate II lock. By 2040, through the elimination of bottlenecks like the WWII wrecks, the volume of cargo handled annually is intended to increase 25 000 000 tons.

Waterway transport is greener and cleaner

Better passage along the river isn’t only about additional tonnes transported. It’s also good for the environment. "Transport by inland waterways is economical, energy efficient and suitable for preserving the environment, also for transporting large amounts of goods,” says Emanuele Giaufret, the European Union ambassador to Serbia. “One ship can carry the same amount of grain as 120 trucks.”

 He adds, “These investments are practical examples of the EU's commitment to the Economic and Investment Plan, as well as the Green Agenda, which is in focus in both Member States and candidate countries.”

The European Green Deal calls for 75% of road transport to shift to alternative modes, such as rail and inland waterways. The objective is to increase inland waterway transport and short-haul sea shipping 25% by 2030. This will require an improvement and capacity expansion of waterways, waterside infrastructure and trans-shipment facilities, as well as of the inland waterway transport fleet.

“As transport becomes increasingly multimodal and international, the efficiency of safe journeys of people and goods will be increasingly dependent on seamless connections between different transport modes and between countries,” says European Investment Bank Vice-President Lilyana Pavlova.

“By enabling uninterrupted and safe navigation, this kind of project enables a gradual shift to less polluting models of transport, thus protecting the environment and reducing the climate impact. This is one of our priorities as the EU climate bank,” Pavlova adds.