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Ass. Prof. Milena Nikolic, Dragan Duncic: The Danube-Morava-Vardar/Axios-Aegean Sea waterway and the Silk Road Economic Belt

Ass. Prof. Milena Nicolic

Higher Education Institute for Applied Studies, Belgrade, Serbia

Dragan Duncic

Republic Agency for Spatial Planning, Belgrade, Serbia


In her introductory remarks, Prof. Nikolic congratulated Mrs. Helga Zepp-LaRouche and her husband on the 30th anniversary of the Schiller-Institute. She also conveyed the best wishes from her father, Professor Milan Bacevic, who was prime minister of special planning, when this idea, the Danube-Morava-Varda/Axios agency waterway and Silk Road economic belt, came up, and he gave new life of this project after 100 years.

Mrs. Nikolic spoke then (in Serbian) about the historical aspects of the project, followed by Mr. Duncic, who presented the multi-functional and technical characteristic of this canal (in English).

For the purpose of publication, they presented the following, joint paper.

The Danube-Morava-Vardar/Axios-Aegean Sea waterway and the Silk Road Economic Belt

by Ass. Prof. Milena Nicolic and Dragan Duncic

Since we know that 2/3 (two thirds) of Earth’s surface is covered with water, and that 70% (seventy percents) of human organism consist of water, it is clear that water is one of main elements of life.  The availability and accessibility of drinking water has affected the disposition of people on mainland, and that is the reason that first human settlings have developed in valleys of some of greatest rivers on Earth. Ancient civilizations have recognized the importance of water and so they developed various methods of its usage in order to create better living conditions.  One of those methods was building the irrigation system.

The oldest canals found until now were built for irrigation purposes in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC in the territory that in this present day belongs to Iraq and Syria.  Indus Valley Civilization, the ancient India, around 2600 years BC had a developed irrigation system with a system for storage, while in Egypt, canals date back to the period of 2332-2283 years BC, when the canal was built to bypass the cascade on the Nile, near Aswan.

In ancient China, large canals for river transport were established in the period of 481-221. BC, and the longest one in this period was Hong Gou (Canal of wild geese), which connected six countries. Shortly after this period, the Great Canal of China was built and it is still the longest canal. It is 1794 kilometers long and it was built to transport rice from the fertile areas around the Yangtze River in order to bring food to Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty and his palace and troops. The Canal was used not only for the grain transportation, but also as a connection and unifier of the country. That is why it was a powerful political symbol and a target for invaders. At the beginning of the forties of the 19th century, during the First Opium War, the British occupied the intersection of the canal and the Yangtze, and thus cut the supply of grain and tax revenues for Beijing.

In the Middle Ages, water transport was cheaper and faster than road transport because the roads were in very poor condition, and it offered the ability of transporting bulky loads. The first man-made canal of Christian Europe was the Fossa Carolina, which was built in the late 8th century, under the personal supervision of Charlemagne. This was also the first channel that had merged basins of the Rhine and the Danube in order to exchange goods between the Rhineland and Bavaria. According to some sources, the main reason for the construction of this canal was the need to enable Charlemagne’s warships to return from the Danube to the Rhine river. Tendency to connect the Danube and the Rhine basin was continued as well during 19th century, when the Ludwig’s canal, also known as the Danube-Main channel, was built. This waterway was narrow and had a large number of locks, so it soon became  abandoned due to the development of the railway. However, the basins of the Rhine and the Danube were finally connected after the construction of the Rhine- Main-Danube Canal.

Development of trade and the need for transportation of large quantities of bulky and heavy loads have created the need for the use of waterways and so all major ports became the most important trading centers. In the 18th century, during the Industrial Revolution, in Europe began construction of navigable canals everywhere where natural environment allowed it and where capital was invested.

In the period after the Second World War, maritime transport had reached over 70% of cargo in international trade, the average tonnage of ships was increased. In this sense, the strategic importance of countries that had access to the sea became much greater. However, the development of marine traffic was greatly influenced by channels (Suez, Panama, Corinth, Kiel channel) and the straits (Gibraltar, the Bosphorus, Dardanelles, Bab-el-Mandeb, Strait of Hormuz, the passage of Malay and Singapore, etc.) which shorten the marine corridors for thousands and tens of thousands of kilometers. Beside this, connecting the countries that have no natural outlet to the sea with significant ports and maritime transport corridors is of great geo-strategic importance and is a goal of many countries.

Construction of the canals has played a significant role in promoting maritime and river traffic. The Suez Canal was dug in 1869, and after the reconstruction in the 1980s, it is able to let pass large oil tankers from the Persian Gulf. Another major channel in the maritime transport is the Panama Canal which connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean and that way significantly shortens the sail. The construction of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, the Danube became the backbone of a single waterway that connects the North and the Black Sea, or in other words, the port of Rotterdam to Constanta. This created a new trade route between the countries of North, Central and Western Europe, and a direct connection to the Black Sea, which also means the connection with the Suez Canal and the Middle and Far East. Before that, ships used the route across the Mediterranean Sea, around the Iberian Peninsula, which lasted around 8 days longer and was significantly more expensive.

The Mediterranean Sea has a unique global position because of significant geostrategic points – the Suez Canal, Gibraltar and the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, and it represents a bridge between the Arab countries, North Africa and the European Union. Geostrategic and geopolitical importance of Turkey was also increased by linking the North, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, since they have control over the Bosphorus, which is a key point on the fairway and has no alternative for the time being. Most of the ships from the Far East enter the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal and sail straight to Genoa, Marseille, Barcelona and Valencia. The ports in the northern part of the Adriatic Sea – Koper in Slovenia, Trieste, Venice and Ravenna in Italy are also important points. But, Black Sea also created the link with Ukraine and Russia. In geo-strategic sense, Black Sea is important as a natural border between Europe and Asia, or, in other perspective, their bond.

Development of river transport is largely determined by natural environment. In this respect, the great opportunities for the development of river transport are countries with navigable rivers or those that have built channel system. The geostrategic position of the Pannonia Plain and the Sava-Danube connection with the Morava basin, which is linked with Vardar and, further, with the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean, is a unique system of valley-lowland zones of Europe. By linking all of them, a great waterway could be created, one that would connect North, South and Central Europe, thanks to the Pan-European Corridor 7, the Danube, and the existing waterway Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. There are two channels in Romania – Sulina Canal and the Danube-Black Sea Canal, which connect the RMD system with the Black Sea. Beside the obvious economic importance, the construction of these channels had indirectly influenced the increasing importance of Romania as a candidate for joining the European Union, since it became a key point to connecting Europe and Asia. In this sense, the geopolitical importance of the Serbia could also change if they (we) build a proper connection between the Danube River and the Mediterranean Sea (and further to the Suez Canal and the Middle and Far East). That connection would be shorter and economically more profitable than the existing one.

System of valleys of the Great, the West and the South Morava rivers represents the backbone of the spatial structure of central Serbia. Geopotentials that are crucial for the development of Serbia, economic activity, the concentration of population, development of urban agglomerations, agriculture, with strong economic axis, are concentrated in this area.

Morava River basin covers 42% of Serbian land, where approximately three million people live, and its water potential at the confluence is 45% out of the total water resources of Serbia.

The importance of enabling navigation through Morava river was recognized even back in 1841, when this topic was brought to public after four postal ships sailed to Ćuprija and when it was proposed that “Morava should be measured and the possibility of navigation considered” – this was published in “The Serbian newspaper”. After that, a “French – Serbian Society of navigation” was formed and it operated during the period of 1844-1864, organizing the navigation on the Danube, Sava and Morava. Serbia has tried to make Morava navigable in 1867, when the detailed examination was conducted in order to test its capabilities. Afterwards, a special small steamer named “Morava” was built for particular tests and measurements of the Velika Morava river, from the confluence to Ćuprija. The expedition started in 1869, and it was led by Anta Aleksic, an engineering officer. At the beginning of 20th century there was formed a proposal to build a waterway that would connect the Danube with the Aegean Sea. In this regard, they tried to obtain funding for the project from England and Germany. At that time, the waterway from the Danube, across the Morava River, to the Aegean Sea was called the “line of European economic gravity in relation to Suez.”

In the past 100 years, there have been written numerous articles, studies and analysis of the possibilities of navigation on the River Morava, as well as its importance for Serbia, but due to lack of investments, no project was developed up to this day. In 1973, some experts of the United Nations wrote a report on fairway Morava-Vardar / Axios, and The design institute “Ivan Milutinovic” – PIM developed a study on “The addition of the conceptual design – fairway Morava-Vardar / Axios”, in which they showed the technical characteristics of the future waterway.

According to the results from the Conceptual design the fairway Danube-Morava-Vardar / Axios -Aegean Sea would be 650 km long. Through the pan-European Corridor VII (Danube), and the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, it would be the shortest link between the Northern and Western Europe with the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and the Suez Canal. Compared to the existing waterway through the Black Sea and the Bosphorus, it would be shorter by 1,200 km, which would mean 3 days less at the sea. Beside the traffic function and better navigability, the construction of the waterway Danube-Morava-Vardar-Aegean Sea would have a multifunctional character and multiple importance for Serbia.

The project is compatible with the project of building HPP on the Velika Morava, whose preparation is underway. All dam locks on the waterway could be used for the construction of hydroelectric power plants and electricity production. The area of ​​the Great, South and West Morava has been under threat of torrents, flooding and erosion for decades, which affects the surrounding high quality agricultural land, some of the most important infrastructure facilities and settlements. By regulating the river flows for the waterway the problems of irrigation, drainage and protection from high water in the entire area of the river could be solved. Waterway would also improve the tourism offers of Serbia, by developing nautical tourism, fishing and others.

Development of river / canal traffic continues today because of indisputable advantages compared to other methods of transport: lowest transportation costs, smaller investments per ton of built-in capacity and minimum energy consumption, which emphasizes its ecological significance, as well. Due to the overload of the Panama Canal, in recent years there has been a discussion again about the idea of ​​connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through Nicaragua. In 1952, the Russians dug a channel to connect the Volga and the Don rivers, and thus connect the Caspian Sea and Black Sea. It is used for transportation of coal, ore, building materials and grain. According to data from 2004, 10.9 million tons of material had been transported through this channel, and in recent years it is estimated that cargo traffic is about 12 million tons per year. Lately, Russia has been planning to expand its river and canal traffic, due to overloading of the previously mentioned channel. The idea is to build a parallel channel of greater capacity that will connect the Caspian and Black seas. China has recognized the importance of the construction of such canal and of opening the new, alternative waterways. For the construction of the canal in Nicaragua there has been signed a concession agreement with a company from Hong Kong, for construction of the canal Eurasia in Russia there has been signed a protocol of cooperation with the Chinese company, while for the project of the Danube-Morava-Vardar-Aegean sea the Chinese national company has developed a comprehensive plan report on Morava valley, which considers the possibility of regulating the Morava river and thus making it navigable.

The aspiration to connect the East and West, China and Europe dates back to the old days, before Christ. Over time, the foundations of occasional contact of Eastern with Western civilizations had developed the ancient Silk Road, about 6500 kilometers long, which was used for goods (spices, silk, glass, ivory, precious stones, etc..) transportation, religion expansion, interchange of cultural achievements and knowledge. The decline of the importance of mainland Silk Road began with the rise of the Chinese overseas trade. Travelling by the seas proved to be cheaper, safer and faster. In this sense, the digging of the Suez Canal was of fundamental importance for connecting China, India, the Middle East and Europe. This important maritime route is a modern alternative to the ancient Silk Road, and the opening of the waterway that would link the North and the Mediterranean Sea through the center of the Balkan Peninsula is an important strategic project not only for Serbia, but for all the countries of North, Western and Central Europe and the Middle and Far East.

The Project of regulating the Morava River basin in Serbia and the construction of the waterway Danube-Aegean Sea are compatible with the two main tendencies of modern society – connecting countries and natural and water resources conservation. According to data from the Central European Development Forum, by 2025 two thirds of humanity will feel a serious lack of water, so the multifunctional and integrated approach to water resources management is a duty of every responsible society.


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