by Dragan JOVANOVIC
Bernard Chenevet, the boss of the Danube commission, recently calmly told representatives of the Novi Sad local authorities that the Novi Sad bridges over the Danube, destroyed in the NATO bombardment in 1999, will not be rebuilt. And the cleaning of the Danube riverbed will start only around the end of the year, rather than in May, as was initially announced. Because, projects for the cleaning of the riverbed haven't been completed yet. That is what Bernard Chenevet said.
Bodo Hombah was also surprised: "I cannot understand that the decision to destroy the bridges was made with so much ease, while their reconstruction has been considered for two years already."
In May 2000, the European Union set aside 26 million Euros for the clearing of the Danube riverbed near Novi Sad and eight million for the reconstruction of one bridge in Novi Sad. By the way, European shipping companies are loosing 32 million Euros every month because of the interrupted shipping on the Danube!?
French Minister of Foreign Affairs Hubert Vedrine stated during his visit to Belgrade, immediately after October 5, 2000, that the clearing of the Danube riverbed is among the priorities. In October 2000, Bernard Chenevet, a well known French traffic expert, was appointed for the director of the Danube project.
Bodo Hombach, the coordinator of the Balkans Stability Pact asked president Kostunica to send a trusted person as a representative to the Danube Commission in order to end the blockade of the Danube.
While the European bad conscience was still fresh, 80 million Euros were promised for the clearing of the riverbed and reconstruction of new bridges. Then, later, the promised assistance began to melt, so that in the end the European Union approved only 26 million Euros. Mladan Dinkic on behalf of group G17 stated that the donation for the clearing of the Danube riverbed was a gift from the European Union and a symbol of their bad conscience because of the bombardment. It should be taken as consolation, said Dinkic, that some of our companies will participate in the clearing of the Danube and that we shall charge tolls from the passing freight ships. For now, none of that seems likely.
Deadlines are another issue. Bodo Hombah claimed that the Danube riverbed was going to be cleared by the end of 2000. On the other hand, Helmut Schrasser, the president of the Danube Commission, expected that everything was going to be finished by July 2001. Today, in May 2001, it is clear that the clearing of the Danube riverbed near Novi Sad will not be done in 2002. For example, between 15 and 20 months are needed for the construction of the new Liberty [Sloboda] Bridge.
Mayor Novakovic says: "I cannot calmly accept that someone, two years after the NATO aggression, deliberately or not, wants to turn Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina, into a blockaded city and promotes a long-term ecological catastrophe".
According to Novakovic, before the destruction of the Novi Sad bridges, their daily capacity was between 45,000 and 47,000 vehicles. "Currently, the Varadin bridge has the throughput of 15,000 vehicles daily, and the same number of vehicles crosses the rived over the barges [pontoon bridge], which means that already now we need a bridge with the capacity of about 15,000 vehicles daily to return to the more or less normal functioning of the city."
What if they remove the pontoon bridge on the barges?
"If the pontoon bridge on the barges were removed, as the Danube commission insists, and the Liberty Bridge is not rebuilt, Novi Sad would be left with only one, Petrovaradin bridge. The city with 400,000 inhabitants and 80,000 vehicles would be left in permanent traffic chaos; lines of cars would travel at 10km/h. Further, that would mean great pollution, noise, and destruction of already worn out city infrastructure. Indeed, that would be a new ecological catastrophe in Novi Sad."
Novakovic, based on all of his contacts with Zoran Sami, the federal minister for transport, and Marija Raseta-Vukovavljevic, the Serbian Minister, is convinced that the federal and Serbian governments will not give in to the pressure of the European Union and betray Novi Sad by removing the pontoon bridge on the barges.
"You know what! Even though it was said that Novi Sad cannot directly deal with the Danube Commission, but that only a state can do so, as mayor I can confirm that we want to actively participate in the decision making process regarding the clearing of the Danube riverbed and the construction of the bridge."
What does the active participation imply?
"We do not see Novi Sad as a mere service of the Danube Commission. The destroyed Liberty Bridge was city property! Therefore the city is an unavoidable partner in the talks with the international community. We should also have investment rights! Why? Because the program for the clearing of the Danube riverbed and the construction of the bridge must be carried out based on the regulations of this state and Novi Sad. The law specifies that Novi Sad would have to provide all the infrastructure and provide construction permits. We must provide expert oversight of the construction work and issue documents about the regular conclusion of the work and everything else that comes with the investment rights."
Finally, we asked Novakovic who, in his opinion, was slowing down the clearing of the Danube riverbed and European river shipping?
"There is no rational explanation. So far the European shipping has suffered damages to the effect of 500 million Euros while the construction of a bridge in Novi Sad would cost only 27 million Euros. European river shipping is losing 1 million Euros every day! If this goes on, European losses will soon add up to billions of Euros."
Dusan Strugar, general manager of the Yugoslav River Shipping company, warns about another problem that hasn't been spotted by anyone so far. He says:
"During the last ten years the Danube has been akin to a neglected highway. And when certain road, regardless of whether it is a land or earth highway, isn't used for a long period of time, it gets filled with all sorts of obstacles. In ten years of the blockade a totally new geography of the Danube riverbed has been created, so that it is necessary, at the least, to deploy new signalization marking potential new obstacles. Our country so far did not have sufficient funds to mark the obstacles, let alone for regular cleaning of the riverbed."
"For several decades already, since Tito's death in 1980, our state leadership has failed to understand the significance of the protection and use of the Danube transit waters. Yugoslav scientists have managed to prove to the upriver countries that the Danube, slowed down by the Djerdap dam, processes enormous amount or pollutants dumped upstream in western and central Europe. The pollution is equivalent to that produced by extra 40 million inhabitants. In other words, about 20 million tonnes of industrial sludge settles down in the Danube riverbed every year!? The accuracy of these results was recognized by our colleagues in Germany, above all distinguished Mr. Miller, who is a world renowned limnologist".
Perisic believes that it is high time to do something to save the lower reaches of the Danube river and that we should not permit that the Danube officially get the status of a transport route without adequate protection measures. To understand the urgency of Perisic's warning, just consider one factoid from the doctoral dissertation of Dr. Ivan Matic from the Belgrade University Mining-Geology department. According to Matic, there is roughly 500,000,000 tones of European industrial waste upstream from the Djerdap dam, which is equivalent to the volume of a smaller mountain, such as Mt. Avala near Belgrade!?
This is the last chance for the Yugoslav side to raise the issue of the Danube. Not only because the river will be increasingly shallow at the Djerdap dam, resulting in decreased production of electricity, but also because the wells near the Danube are slowly becoming polluted and unsafe as sources of drinking water, while the floods of the southern Banat will be more and more catastrophic so that the third of population of Serbia that gravitates towards the Danube will be both ecologically and economically endangered.
Therefore, it turns out that the clearing of the river transport route near Novi Sad only scratches the surface of the problems related to the Danube riverbed. If Europe is not prepared to even finance the sprucing up of the Danube near Novi Sad, how is the German ship baptized by Ms. Ruzica Djindjic supposed to pass the Danube next to Novi Sad?
"The clearing of the Danube must be in accordance with the European Union regulations. If the Danube riverbed was cleared in one of the European Union countries, that would imply not only the clearing of the riverbed but also the corresponding storage of the debris and its transportation to the garbage dumps. This is above all an ecological issue which must receive appropriate attention in Serbia as well."
What is the attitude of the Serbian government regarding the demands of the Danube Commission to remove the pontoon bridge on the barges in Novi Sad?
"The official view of the Ministry for Transport and the Government of Serbia is that the removal of the pontoon bridge on the barges can only happen in conjunction with the reconstruction of the Liberty Bridge."