2 October, 2023
(photo: Yavor Michev)

Bulgaria doesn’t take advantage of the river and its Danubean regions are among the poorest in the whole of Europe

Mila Cherneva

This article was published on 19 July 2019 on the site of the Bulgarian newspaper ”The Capital”. It is republished here with the consent of the newspaper and with insignificant modifications.

Some of the richest regions in Germany, Austria and even Serbia are around the Danube. But in Bulgaria it is exactly the opposite. Along the river banks are situated some of the poorest municipalities. They don’t take advantage of the river’s potential. Commercial possibilities are not developed sufficiently, relations with neighbouring foreign towns are weak, and tourism is left behind. On one hand, this is explained by the negligence towards water and the lack of infrastructure, on the other hand it is caused by the lack of initiatives among the local authorities and communities.

Although there is the so-called Danubean Strategy on European level, which should help the Danubean regions to develop, it is scarcely used. That is how the Danube remains a barrier, instead of a possibility.

The first major deficit around Danube is the care for the river itself. “The lack of water management doesn’t create effective and prognosable navigation, therefore there is no development of industries, which depend upon this kind of transport. Because of the large changes of the level of water, no recreational zones for seasonal tourism can be developed”, says engineer Rumen Markov, who is the manager of the firm Large Infrastructure Projects and works on different project along the river region.

He gives as an example the fact that in Lower Danube – from the water plant “Iron Gates” until the influx of the river in the Black Sea, there is no infrastructure for water management. This matters. In Germany and Austria there are successfully developed recreational spaces, bicycle alleys, etc. along the river, where dam walls are built. In Bratislava next to the dam there is a hotel, where canoo-cayaking is developes, where there is a museum of modern art and other possibilities for entertainment. Arhitect Belin Mollov, who is an expert in sustainable planning and urban development and has worked a lot on planning in the Danube region, also notices that the care for waters is basic. “When you make a road, a bicycle way or parks, you have to consolidate the bank first so that the area is protected from mudslides”, he says.

Bulgaria doesn’t respect its commitments for dredging of the river bed, which is of prime importance not only for ship navigation, but also for the prevention from floods. The responsible institution is the Executive Agency “Exploration and Maintenance of the Danube River” (EAEMDR), which had announced two public procurements for dredging technique for more than 20 million leva (10,23 million euro) in January. They were stopped, because of various reasons. EAEMDR has said that until the end of July they will be renewed. Answers of the agency to “Capital” make it clear that from 2007 on on various project there are more than 17 million leva (8,69 million euro) invested, mostly for navigation and measurement. In 2018 the agency has signed a triennial frame contract for dredging to the value of 13,6 million leva (6,95 million euro), which has been done around the islands Belene and Vardik, which are considered “critical zones”.

Without bridge

Not only is the waterway neglected, but the terrestrial infrastructure simply doesn’t exist. The existing two bridges over the Danube are extremely insufficient for the development of the economic relations with Romania. “There has been for years the programme for cross-border cooperation between Bulgaria and Romania, which encourages initiatives of the municipalities and of NGOs. In spote of all the good ideas, the realised project can’t achieve sustainability in spite of their value for one and only reason – there is no physical connectivity through the Danube”, says Eleonora Ivanova – executive director of the Bulgarian-Romanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

This spring on state level a rapid discussion on the third bridge – at Svishtov-Zimnicea, started. This is caused by a Romanian initiative. This bridge doesn’t exist in the Integrated Transport Strategy until 2030 (there are other variants for bridge there – at Silistra, Nicopol, etc.) or in the preliminary study, realised together by Bulgaria and Romania. But according to information of “Capital” the Romanian side has taken the upper hand with its desire the third bridge to be right there. The Romanian Ministry of regional development and public administration has commented before “Capital” that in March 2019 it has received a letter with investment intention by the Southern Danube Company Limited, which is registered in Great Britain.

At the same time the Bulgarian side has initiated negotiations on the intergovernmental agreement for new bridges. But there is still no such agreement and it is not clear when and whether it will be signed, said a source, close to the negotiations.

And without road

There are even problems to cross the river. Architect Mollov reminds that after the bridges on Romanian side at Calafat and Giurigu there are better roads. The road infrastructure in Northern Bulgaria is neglected. The builders of the speedway Vidin – Botevgrad, are still not chosen. Because of the potential contestations in the Commission for Protection of Consumers and the deadlines for the entire speedway, it will not be ready in the next 3-4 years. It will be ready only if the sufficient funds are found, which is not under question, because of problems with introduction of the toll system.

In spite of the affirmations that the highway Ruse – Veliko Tarnovo is a priority for the road agency and that it will be ready until 2020, there is no close temporal horizon for it. Only this week did the court proceedings around the Evaluation of the Environmental Impact of the Project ended. The cassation complaint against the project was rejected by a five member jury of the Supreme Administrative Court. Now licitations for construction will be announced, but the funding of more than 1 billion leva (511 million euro) remains questionable. It means that there is no way that the highway could be finished in three years’ time.

There are other key projects for the Danube region, such as the tunnel below the passway “Shipka”, whose construction has not started yet, and the highway “Black Sea”, which is not in the plans of the government.

Meetings, lunches and nothing?

The Danube region could be developed through the Danube Strategy, which exists on European level. After 2011 (since when it is in force for Bulgaria) its effect is rather invisible. The main funding takes place through the Programme for Transnational Cooperation “Danube” (2014-2020), whose budget is close to 263 million euro. The money, which has entered Bulgaria for projects through this programme amounts to 10,5 million euro, says the regional ministry.

A reason for the weak usage of the European mechanism is that it is not planned sustainable and long-term, but work is done “piecemeal”. “That is how things are done in our country: we see that there are given funds, we decide to make a project, which doesn’t exist in the municipal plan, we renew the plan, as we put in the new idea and argument it documentally. But there is no practical need of this project”, says arhitect Mollov. This can be explained partially why there are no people who work with motivation on the issue in the state administration on local and national level.

It is a matter of capacity. The problem is not money”, says Corina Creţu, eurocommissioner on regional policy, during the 8th Annual Formul of Strategy of EU on the Danube Region in Bucharest in June this year. The strategy itself is often neglected, we learn from Creţu’s words. She tells how at a meeting in Budapest she was disappointed by the level of participation of countries. The delegates were directors of directions or other bureaucrats, not ministers or deputy ministers. “We had nice meetings, nice lunches, but no political decisions”, says Creţu.

The hidden region

Last but not least, planning can’t happen as long as the regional division of Bulgaria doesn’t unite the northern regions in one big Danubean region. Last autumn the ministry of regional development considered changing the areas of the regions. Then the deputy minister of regional development Denitsa Nikolova said: “The Danube region is specific, namely because of the resources of the river and we need to try to use these resources, in order to answer to the possibility for economic development.” The idea remained unrealised and the Danubean cities will not unite themselves in one region.

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