Thessaloniki, Greece (PortSEurope) May 17, 2021 – A megalomanic project to construct a Danube River–Aegean Sea Canal has been a Serbian dream for well over a century. For several years, authorities in Belgrade have been talking about a Greek-Serbian proposal to be funded by China which is pharaonic – 651 km long river-based canal worth over $17 billion.
The anticipated Danube River–Aegean Sea Canal network would start from the port of Thessaloniki in Greece and end at the Danube River near Belgrade. Serbia is trying to position itself as an indispensable part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative’s penetration into the Balkans and Central Europe, radically changing the geopolitics of the region.
The technological, financial and political challenges of this project make the “crazy idea” – his own words – of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Kanal Istanbul look like a decent and realistic undertaking.
Erdogan’s “Crazy” Kanal Istanbul project
Kanal Istanbul is a project for an artificial sea-level waterway to be built in Istanbul’s Kucukcekmece Lake-Sazlidere Dam-Durusu corridor. It is projected to have a capacity of 160 vessel transits a day, similar to the current volume of traffic through the parallel Bosphorus Strait where traffic congestion leaves ships queuing for hours and often days to transit.
According to a Bloomberg report, Kanal Istanbul will cost $12.7 billion-$25 billion. Most likely this amount will also include related infrastructure. A sod-turning ceremony for the Kanal Istanbul project is scheduled for end-June.
More information in PortSEurope article: Kanal Istanbul construction to start this summer – first financing banks mentioned – May 17, 2021
Danube River–Aegean Sea Canal project
Although Chinese cargo chips already reach the Danube through the Black Sea, via the port of Constanta-Danube river canal, or via Rotterdam in the North Sea, a canal linking Thessaloniki to Belgrade would reduce shipping time to Central Europe by over three days.
The canal project, along with a new railway link following the same vertical axis from northern Greece to Belgrade, would radically change transportation options in the region. Greece and land-locked North Macedonia and Serbia would greatly benefit from them; the losers would be Turkey, Romania and to a lesser extent Bulgaria.
These countries would no longer have millions of tonnes of cargo destined for Central Europe passing through the Dardanelle and Bosporus Straits, the Danube Delta on the Black Sea or transiting Bulgaria. China’s drive to have as many transportation networks and options as possible ultimately benefits a region that has been mostly forgotten about in terms of development.
With a total length of 651 km, 346 km of the projected navigable route of the new canal belong to Morava Valley section and 264 km to Vardar Valley section. The watershed of the Presheva Valley point in this projected route has a length of 30 km.
The canal will be accompanied by several branches and lateral channels similar to the one along West Morava River to the city of Kraljevo with a length of 73 km; the canals along Nishava River to the city of Nish (15 km) and the canal branch along Vardar River to Macedonian capital Skopje (35 km). Total length of lateral canals is expected to be 166 km, while the total length in regulated river flows of Morava and Vardar and Pčinja River is 484 km.
Other Potential Benefits
As well as reduced transit times for cargo, there are other potential benefits.
Any new dams or locks on the proposed waterway could be used for the construction of hydroelectric power plants and renewable electricity production. This would attract investment in the concerned areas.
Also, a lot of land along the proposed route is subject to regular flooding and erosion. New river structures could help regulate water flows and develop high-quality agricultural land.
Finally, a new extensive waterway could be used for new tourism developments such as nautical tourism and fishing.
A direct connection between the Danube river with the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas would change the geopolitical value of the Balkans. Creating a waterway which bypasses the Turkish Straits would have significant political implications for not just for local countries, but also for global players such as China, Russia and USA, all keen to increase their regional influence for geopolitical reasons.
However, the idea is unrealistic and is promoted primarily by nationalistic politicians in Belgrade. It would require massive funding and regional cooperation between countries with a challenging mutual history.
China has a long history of investment in Serbian infrastructure projects, building railways, roads and power stations, and would most likely be willing to continue this policy as part of its New Silk Road economic strategy. Belgrade has borrowed massive sums from China to finance these works.
On the other hand, Belgrade must balance China’s growing presence in Serbia with its aim of joining the European Union. This requires improving relations with neighbouring countries and adhering to EU financial management regulations. Expanding the economic relationship with Beijing does not seem compatible with EU membership.
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