The governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia have decided it's time to work together to revitalise the Sava River.
By Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 04/06/12
Businesses along the Sava have suffered in the years since fighting changed its navigability. [Nada Bozic/SETimes]
The Sava was the longest national river back in Tito's Yugoslavia, snaking its way through what are now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, and three of the capitals -- Ljubljana, Zagreb and Belgrade.
Three of the four countries fought against each other in the 1990s, and the river itself -- the natural boundary common to all three combatants -- still bears the scars of battle.
Years of conflict stopped the transport of goods. The river was peppered with mines, some of which remain today. Remnants of destroyed bridges and other debris clogged the waterway. The Sava became non-navigable, and when shipping stopped, ports closed. The ripple effect was profound, affecting scores of economic activities related to shipping and river life in all three countries.
Today, 13 years after the conflicts, the three Sava countries are attempting to tackle these issues -- chief among them -- fully reopening the river to shipping. In May, the countries signed agreements on navigation and technical maintenance of Sava roads, as the basis for joint work and official co-operation.
Given the current economic situation, all three countries working to revitalise the river are dependent on assistance from different EU funds, which are supported by World Bank.
Zaneta Ostojic Barjaktarevic, director of the oldest institution in this area specialising in waterway navigations -- the Directorate for Inland Waterways in Belgrade -- says the economic impact requires the most immediate attention.
"We can have fantastic water ways but it is nothing if we do not have ports, transport, economic investments in this field and infrastructure. Transport of any kind of goods via water is the most cost-effective, but the ports for goods storage are also very important. Without ports, we will stay just transit. Boats sail here but do not stop," Barjaktarevic told SETimes.
Ports that have managed to stay open are grossly under-utilised, hampering local and regional economic development. The port in Brcko, BiH, is one example. Its current capacities are the same as they were before the war, according to a recent case study financed by the World Bank, a situation that leads to backlogs of cargo in Croatia's ports.
The Sava River is nearly 950 kilometres long, flowing through Slovenia, Croatia, along the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina and through Serbia. [SETimes]
Mustafa Nukovic, director of the Brcko Port, told SETimes: "We cannot serve all this cargo because the Sava here is not cleared yet. This is an ongoing process and its continuity is very important for Brcko District and the whole region since this kind of transport costs are the lowest possible. But, it is important to say that the co-operation among all Sava countries plays the key role in processes like this, in order to get funds for them."
This co-operation among the Sava countries is key, too, for the Port Authority in Croatia's Slavonski Brod. "It is necessary to make additional investments in the development of transport communications in order to re-actualise transport corridors. Due to the war in these areas … they [remain] forgotten by foreign investors and the transport community," Vjekoslav Jankovic, the lawyer for Slavonski Brod's Port Authority, told SETimes.
He also stressed the importance of harmonising activities aimed at returning the Sava to its former status of a natural transport corridor.
The river, after all, is the most efficient way to move a range of goods back and forth between BiH, Croatia and Serbia. Currently, large volumes of liquid cargo, including fuel oil and diesel, as well as significant quantities of bulk goods such as coal, fertilisers and metal products are transported via the river.
Although the amount of transported goods is consistently rising, the capacity for transporting cargo is under-exploited. There are numerous companies that share the common goal of boosting that capacity. One of them is Agent Plus, which specialises in organising transport along inland waterways and the sea, the handling of ships, as well as the development of documents for customs audits.
Zoran Netkovic, Agent Plus director, thinks that improved political relations among the three countries contributed to better economic ties, which in turn contributed to the Sava's importance in terms of trade. He also thinks that the river's capacities currently in use are being utilised properly.
Water levels -- mainly on the Danube, Sava and Drina rivers -- hit their lowest levels in 30 years back in December. [Reuters]
"The main problem is navigating during the bigger part of the year, [given] low water levels, which are often very difficult to predict. The other problem is the occurrence of sandbars, phenomena that cannot be repaired by regulatory measures. But, there are the elements on which it is objectively possible to affect, such as the working hours of customs and border authorities in order to perform audits," in a more timely fashion, noting they do not work weekends," he told SETimes.
In order to use all natural and geographical capacities of the river for different purposes -- and to improve economy co-operation between it countries -- the 17 chambers of commerce from this area signed the Protocol of Regional Co-operation. This was the symbolic remainder for the extension of the project "Economic region in the Sava River basin" comprising a market of about 6.9 million people and approximately 140,000 businesses.
"The goals of this project and regional co-operation are the development of economic relations, infrastructure, environmental protection, tourism and merging of science and practice with the ultimate effects of strengthening cross-border cooperation, sustainable development and faster European integration. The river that brings people together with all of its potential is the backbone of co-operation aimed at reaching these goals," Dragan Stefanovic, secretary of the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce Association for Transport and Telecommunications, told SETimes.
The potential for tourism lies in the lakes fed by the Sava: Ada in Belgrade and Jarun in Zagreb are attractive locations drawing both locals and foreign tourists. Ada Lake used to be called the "Belgrade Sea" and hosted the Rowing World Cup this year.