The Danube

Early in 1971, the waters of the Danube River will begin backing up behind the giant Iron Gates Dam on the Rumanian-Yugoslav border. The new dam will be of immense significance in tapping the power and navigational potential of Eastern Europe’s most underexploited natural resource. It will almost double the present power production of each of the two countries building it. It will more than quadruple the traffic capacity of the river at that point.

Dams and détente

The Iron Gates Dam is one of twenty multipurpose projects proposed on the Danube, at a probable cost of well over $5 billion. In terms of power alone, the impact on the pace of industrial development of the riparian nations is immeasurable. But power may be less important than navigation. Taken together, the projects now proposed could turn the Danube, whose present annual traffic is only a sixth that of the much smaller Rhine, into a major means of transport. Two of the projects — one under way, one still only a proposal — would link this 1500-mile waterway to Western Europe and Atlantic ports.

The Danube could become a major channel of East-West trade, for six of its eight riparian nations are under Communist rule. In five of these six (excepting the Soviet Union, which borders the Danube only near its Black Sea mouth), planners are acutely conscious of their river’s potential. They are especially interested in the effect of a link to the Atlantic.

But left to their own resources, the Danube riparians will build slowly. Capital is desperately short, and most of them are trying to industrialize in a dozen expensive directions at once. The possibility that the Communist Danube riparians would accept long-term Western financial aid to develop hydroelectric and navigational works on the river is remote. The first tentative feelers, however, have already been put out. The Soviet Union has not so far blocked such exploration, and indeed, may support it.

Russian river no more

The interest of the Danube nations in closer links to the West must be assessed in the context of their careful restriction of Russian control of the river since the early 1960s. In the early post-war years, the Soviet Union made the Danube a Russian river, and a major vehicle of its economic penetration of Eastern Europe. Before the war, Russian shipping on the Danube was negligible. Since the war, while traffic volumes on the river have quintupled, the Soviet Union has moved to undisputed first place on the Danube, originating today 45 percent of all international trade on the river, by volume, and carrying a third of the trade in Russian-flag ships and barges.

The Russians thus not only realized a century-old ambition for Danube trade. They also succeeded — playing in part on deep-seated nationalist resentment among Danube riparians of a half century’s control of the river by Atlantic nations — in reshaping international law on the river. In 1948, over strong American and British protest, old treaties were abrogated. Supervision of Danube navigation was assumed by the six Communist riparians (including, of course, the Soviet Union). Austria has since become a full member of the new Danube Commission, and West Germany is an active observerparticipant now seeking membership. But control of the commission has from its inception been in Russian hands.

While serving their own interests, however, the Russians also acceded to the nationalist sentiment of their Danube partners. They did this by keeping the powers of the new commission sharply curtailed in contrast to the powers of earlier commissions dominated by oceanic powers. There has in recent years been a trend — led by Rumania and Yugoslavia, supported by Austria — to interpret this narrowed mandate in the strictest terms. Eventual West German membership on the commission could strengthen the “independent coalition” on the commission to a fifty-fifty proportion.

The riparians distrust not only Soviet domination, but each other as well. Communist solidarity has done little to ameliorate the latter malaise. Both currents of distrust are most apparent in the Iron Gates Dam now under construction.

The dam will be Europe’s biggest and most powerful, and the world’s seventh largest outside the U.S.S.R. It will flood the most treacherous rapids on the Danube; its two-stage locks and still-water lake will allow at least four times as much traffic, perhaps eight times as much, to pass a bottleneck which had reached absolute capacity.

The project was first envisioned at the turn of the century. It was first placed on a priority list by COMECON, the Russian-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, in 1958. By 1963, the “gatekeepers” — Rumania and Yugoslavia, whose common border is the 73-mile narrows — had completed plans. Construction of the dam is administered by a cumbersome bilateral commission. Each of the two nations, Rumania and Yugoslavia, will build, own, and operate exactly half a dam, which will meet in midstream. The dam would be rigidly symmetrical, even to the point of having one set of locks on each side rather than a dual locks on the Rumanian side, where construction would have been easier and cheaper. A Yugoslav suggestion that their locks be bigger to accommodate occasional oversize vessels was rejected. One of the tasks of the continuing bilateral commission which will oversee the dam’s operation will be to equalize traffic through each partner’s locks. Each nation will own and operate six massive turbinegenerators, with minimal arrangement for power transfer.


The two gatekeeper nations’ tenuous cooperation, however, is cordial compared with their joint relationship with the other Danube riparians.

When the two builders first presented their plans to the Danube Commission four years ago, they proposed that all eight riparians underwrite an estimated $95 million worth of locks and other navigational aspects of the project, almost a quarter of its expected total costs. They testily rejected a suggestion that all the riparians might supervise or even build the entire project. That kind of international authority on the river, the gatekeepers reminded their fellow riparians, had been voted out in 1948.

Since then, although Rumania and Yugoslavia have reduced their demand on the other riparians to $55 million, agreement seems no nearer. As a bargaining gambit, the two have formally withdrawn their proposal for cost-sharing, and propose instead to charge tolls on all shipping passing the locks. They have the historic legal right to levy tolls for their maintenance of the dangerous rapids and provision of piloting and towing services.

The other Danube riparians are adamantly opposed to tolls once the rapids have been flooded. They fear an Iron Gates tollgate would set a precedent for other dam-builders which might price the Danube right out of the transportation market. But possession is nine tenths of the law, and it seems likely that they will yield to the threat of tolls and agree to some form of cost-sharing.

These massive frictions in the construction and financing of the first Danube dam in Eastern Europe foreshadow difficulties on future projects, most of which will span international frontiers. Cooperative financing and more efficient design and joint construction techniques must be arranged. More important, the question of priorities must be solved. Czechoslovakia, for instance, urgently wants to build a dam across the border to Austria. It would back waters up to facilitate an ambitious Czech canal project; it is a high Czech priority.

Austria agrees the dam would be worthwhile, but places it at the bottom of a list of nine other smaller, more efficient dams on wholly Austrian-owned stretches of the Danube.

Hungary is interested in a complex of dams and navigation improvements along its Danube border with Czechoslovakia. But the Czechs place higher priority on their joint project with Austria, if the Austrians can be persuaded.

Bulgaria, which has all but run out of damsites on its interior rivers, is pressing Rumania to build a major dam across their Danube frontier. Rumania, in part for political reasons, would like to cooperate, but faces some serious problems of lowland flooding if the dam is built, and in any case is reluctant to tackle any new dam until the Iron Gates is completed. And the Rumanians weigh the proposed dam with Bulgaria against far more efficient damsites on interior Rumania rivers, against a promising site downstream on the wholly Rumanian Danube, and also against a site at the Rumanian-Bulgarian-Yugoslav juncture on the Danube. The administrative, legal, and cost problems if such a trilateral dam were built with the same ground rules as the bilateral Iron Gates stagger the imagination.

It is clear that no Danube nation is prepared to surrender any of its dam-building autonomy to the Danube Commission. Whether the riparians will yield any significant autonomy to any international body, even one not dominated by the Soviet Union, is problematical.

COMECON, despite its role in initiating the Iron Gates, seems at this point an unlikely vehicle. Even if the Eastern Europeans were willing to accept Russian arbitration or priority-setting in the allocation of Russian credits, one wonders how enthusiastically the Soviet Union would finance developments whose principal thrust is upstream and westward.

On to Vienna

The potential for trade with Western Europe underlies much of the Danube planning described here. The immediate goal is to achieve channel depths sufficient to bring oceangoing ships all the way to Vienna. This is feasible only through the series of dams now being studied; dredging and channel improvement have accomplished substantial deepening, but their limit is about reached. Electricity and flood control alone will not provide economic justification for most of the major projects, and they must derive a significant part of their cost-benefit rationale from improved navigation.

Increased traffic between the Black Sea and Vienna, along with growing industrialization, might make these projects economical. But the possibility of traffic beyond Vienna, and by canal to the Rhine and thence to the great Dutch ports, would enormously improve the economics of every project.

It is not the prospect simply of increased volume which makes this Western link so attractive. It is the appeal of trade specifically with Western Europe and the Atlantic community, with the promise of new hard-currency markets for Eastern products, opportunity to buy Western hardware and know-how, and decreased reliance on Communistbloc trade.

This is apparent even in Bulgaria, which is geographically most remote from Western Europe, industrially the weakest in Eastern Europe, and perhaps the most closely tied to the Soviet Union. Several commerce planners I asked recently to evaluate the improvement at the Iron Gates described it almost disparagingly as a sine qua non of increased Danube traffic, but of no immediate significance to their trade. But when asked for an evaluation of the RhineDanube canal link, they grew markedly enthusiastic. That link, which may with luck be opened in 1981, will be the culmination of sixty years’ work by a private German company, with help from both the Federal Republic at Bonn and the state of Bavaria. The Bulgarians cannot yet measure the potential of the RhineDanube link — still ten years away — but they already have market analysts studying it.


West Germany does not have a monopoly on routes from the Danube to the Atlantic. Communist Czechoslovakia is nearing completion of detailed engineering planning of a dual canal from the Danube to both the Oder and the Elbe. Both routes look ambitious indeed. But the Czechs, and their West German competitors, say the Czech canal could be finished first, despite the substantial German head start. It is the Czechs who have been most direct in suggesting they might accept Western financing for this Danube project.

The Danube-Oder-Elbe Canal proposal is ambitious both economically and politically. There are as yet no economic studies to demonstrate that two canal routes westward from the Danube will be viable, even in the long range. The political obstacles are even higher. The eastern leg of the proposed Czech canal would follow the Oder River through Poland to Stettin, on the Baltic Sea. Bonn is neither encouraging nor blocking the project. The western leg, however, would follow the Elbe River to the West German port of Hamburg on the North Sea — through East Germany. West Germany, with support from its Western allies, has studiously blocked all consideration of the western Elbe leg by the Economic Commission for Europe, and has in fact blocked East Germans from participation — even as observers, in some cases — in any of the technical bodies now studying European cooperation in trade, power, and transportation.

While West German intransigence thus seems to bar serious consideration of one part of the Czech canal, that might change. Hamburg has steadily lost business to the Dutch ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and stands at present to gain little if any Eastern European business via the Rhine-Main-Danube canal. The Czech Danube-Elbe canal, on the other hand, would bring Eastern European traffic direct to Hamburg, apparently at lower cost than the barge trip to Rotterdam.

The long and short of it

None of this, of course, means that East-West cooperation to build up Danube trade and development is a sure thing. The Soviet Union, which has supported the Czech activity in the Economic Commission for Europe, may be using the canal as a way of pushing for recognition of East Germany. The Czech canal, and even some of the Danube dams, may prove uneconomical in the face of growing atomic-power competition.

And long-term financing may prove hard for both East and West to swallow. The West still labors under self-imposed limitations on duration of credits, although they are increasingly observed in the breach. The East has been notoriously shy of committing itself to long-term debt to the West, let alone anything smacking of Western control. But this, too, is changing. There are more and more joint ventures, and Western quality-control inspectors have even been allowed on Eastern assembly lines.

Many economists, both East and West, moreover, feel the Communist nations have about reached the limit of short-term credit they can repay. If trade is to continue to grow, the East must accept longterm loans, and the West must assume that the Communist nations will expand their economies rapidly enough to be able to repay, in fifteen or twenty years, debts they could not repay in the next five to eight years.

It is ironic that while the immense potential of the Danube languishes virtually unnoticed in the West, the Mekong River in Southeast Asia is repeatedly hailed as a testing ground where the world’s capital can create prosperity, stability, and regional harmony through intensive development.

The fact is that the Mekong’s potential is long-range. If all the power potential of the river were tapped in this century, the electricity could barely begin to be gainfully used. Navigation and commerce are distant possibilities. By contrast, every watt of electricity the Danube could generate could be used tomorrow. Navigation may be an even richer possibility. The two together could prove the catalyst to bring the nations of Communist Europe to the regional cooperation which COMECON’s bludgeon technique failed to accomplish. Equally important, no Communist nation sees its Danube trade potential pointed eastward to the Soviet Union, as it has been for a generation. Eastern Europe’s young men look west, and the Danube can be an important route.

— Don O. Noel, Jr.