Consequences of a Frozen Danube River

16 February 2012


The Danube River, Central Europe's key waterway, has frozen in several places, bringing trade in the region to a halt. Unlike most of Europe, which has diversified away from water-based freight transport, Central European countries on the Danube still rely heavily on the river for trade. However, this freeze is temporary; in the long term, the most harm to trade along the Danube will come from continued political instability in Central Europe.


Extremely low temperatures in the past few weeks in Europe have caused several of the continent's inland waterways to freeze, particularly the Danube River. Before the freeze, the region through which the Danube runs experienced a severe drought, dramatically reducing the river's flow and increasing the likelihood that it would freeze over in the cold.

Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Serbia have suspended shipping on the river, which is 90 percent impaired by the ice. The Bulgarian Agency for Exploration and Maintenance of the Danube River announced that the river is completely frozen near the Bulgarian city of Silistra, and authorities temporarily halted two Bulgarian-Romanian ferries. Hungarian officials reported Feb. 10 that the river was 60 to 70 percent frozen there and have closed it to traffic. Shipping also was stopped in certain sections of the river in Austria, making transnational shipping impossible.

While European countries have shifted away from inland waterways as their main shipping route, several countries still rely heavily on the Danube for trade -- particularly Bulgaria and Romania -- magnifying their transport difficulties caused by the freeze. However, this freeze is temporary. In the long term, the most harm to trade along the Danube will come from continued political instability in Eastern Europe.

Navigable rivers are a geopolitically significant feature of a given region. Transporting goods by water is much less expensive than by land, historically allowing residents to spend capital it would otherwise need for building transport networks on other investments that could increase its economic potential, such as education, energy or technology. Waterways enable industries to acquire intermediate products, expertise, raw materials and markets from farther away, increasing competition among the local suppliers. Europe has around 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles) of navigable canals, rivers and lakes regularly used for transportation of goods. This network is mostly concentrated in the northwestern part of the continent, with one major exception -- the Danube.

The Danube flows for 2,872 kilometers through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine to the Black Sea. On its way, it flows through four capital cities -- Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade -- and its tributary rivers fostered the development of important trade centers such as Munich and Zagreb. The completion of the 171-kilometer-long Rhine-Main-Danube Canal in 1992 allowed for travel to the Danube from the North Sea port of Rotterdam via the Rhine.

In 2008, 79.1 million tons of goods transited the Danube. About 70 percent of these goods went between ports on the river, meaning the river is still mostly used for regional transport. Goods transported on the river consist largely of petroleum products, iron ore, processed construction materials, solid mineral fuel, grain, natural and artificial fertilizers and raw and processed minerals (which account for approximately 20 percent of Danube transport).

The freeze will have the heaviest effect on Bulgaria and Romania, both of which transport about 20 percent of their freight via inland waterways -- mostly the Danube. These countries cannot easily switch to other modes of transport such as road or rail due to the nature of the commodities transported via the river and a lack of capacity on those other routes.

Contrast this with the rest of Europe, which largely has shifted its goods trade to faster -- albeit more expensive -- routes. Only about 5 percent of Europe's total inland freight (excluding sea, pipeline and air) is transported via its waterway network, compared to 74 percent by road and 16 percent by rail. This diversification has given countries that are not dependent upon water-based trade more options when dealing with frozen rivers. Moreover, northwestern Europe's most important waterway, the Rhine River, currently is still navigable.

Apart from weather conditions, the main detriment to the Danube's importance in European trade is the historically unstable political climate of Central Europe. The multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups and various cultural and linguistic heritages in this region are constant fuel for conflict. For example, 78 million tons of goods were transported on the Danube in 1980, a figure that dropped to just 24 million tons in 1998 when the Kosovo War began. The bombing of bridges in Serbia by NATO during the war limited the use of the Danube. The resulting debris was not fully cleared until 2005, and the river is only now beginning to reach prewar trade levels.

The region will recover from the freeze, but it will be incumbent on the littoral states of the Danube to create a stable political environment and foster trade. Historically, the region has seen stability only when external powers impose it. The Danube can only maximize its potential if access beyond the Black Sea, through the Dardanelles, is guaranteed. This has not been the case since the 18th century under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. With the European Union undergoing a period of instability and Russia exploring the historical boundaries of its sphere of influence, stability in the region is not assured.