The Danube, the European Silkroad

By Alexandra Bellea-Noury /alexandra.bellea(at)

Published in German in the magazine “Neue Solidarität” on the 11th of October 2018 (click)

It is enough to only look on the map and to see the course of this river that cuts diagonally the continent linking the East to the center of Europe, and, without going into historical causality, we suddenly understand the role the Danube had, still has and will have – this great road of civilization and commerce.  Citation from Eugeniu P. Botez

Some archeologists consider the lower Danube region as the « Old Europe » and consider that around 8000 years ago, the Danube Valley introduced the Neolithic revolution into Europe, spreading the civilization of agriculture. Today the Danube can serve for introducing into Europe the « New Silk Road » revolution and to set a new standard for international relations, based on mutual benefit and the common aims of mankind. 

The navigable Danube, 2,588-km long, defines a space of cooperation between 10 countries from Central and Eastern Europe where nobody can be a lone player: no nation can navigate alone, everybody has to join to insure its navigability. Today, with the advent of the New Silk Road Initiative, the Danube region has to be placed in the bigger Eurasian development frame. Big infrastructure projects can unlock all bottlenecks, insure connexion to Western Europe and create a space of East-West shared technology and experience. 

Triggering shared development, the Danube can become the backbone of the East-West freight transport on the future Maritime Silk-road. Its navigable part goes from Germany, through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine into the Black Sea opening up Transcaucasia, Central Asia and the Extreme Orient to Eastern and Central Europe, and also to Western Europe, through the Rhine-Danube Canal. 

Romania’s destiny is tied to the Danube and to the Black Sea. The Romanian-Bulgarian part with the Serbian one, until Belgrade, is the only class VII CEMT navigable corridor in Europe, that means more than 1000 km in the heart of Europe.(1) Romania has the only navigable connection between the Danube and the Black Sea: the Danube-Black Sea Canal with its Constanța port. Referring to the 19th century Romania, the great powers used the name « The Danubian Principates » because 47% of the navigable Danube, that means 1,075-km, are running through Romania. Having a long tradition in navigation, Romania has 20 river ports, from which 4 are also maritime and has a solid maritime studies tradition.

Romania has a past of mutual cooperation with developing countries around the globe. In the ’70 it played an active role in technology transfer for non-aligned countries. As Romania has no colonial culture, it can be today a credible initiator of the « new paradigm » of the New Silk Road Initiative.

 Constanța Port, gateway to Europe

The gateway from the Black Sea to the Danube is the bivalent port of Constanța, Romania, a river and a maritime port directly connected to the Danube through the Danube-Black Sea canal. It is the largest port on the Black Sea. The Port of Constanța gives access to the black Sea also for the riparian states of the Danube which are landlocked: Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Moldova and Hungary and for other states connected to the Danube. Constanța Port Authority declares a handling capacity of 100,000,000 tonnes per year, a potential of 156 berths, a total quay length of 29.83 km, and the depths range between 8 and 19 meters. These characteristics are comparable with those offered by the most important European and international ports, sufficient to handle big ships coming from the Suez Canal and allowing the accommodation of tankers with a capacity of 165,000 tonnes deadweight (DWT) and bulkcarriers of 220,000 DWT. The Port is now adapting to container shipping. The first phase began with a new terminal, the biggest in the Black Sea specialized in containers, operated by Dubai Ports World. Its has an annual capacity of approx. 1,5 million TEU a year.(2) Having a length of 600 m and a depth of 14,5 m Ships of 3000 TEU can be handled here. The sea-port town of Constanta has 400.000 inhabitants and has an important Maritime University and a Naval Academy.

The Shipyards

Romania has more than 150 years of ships building tradition and has marine schools with highly qualified specialists in different domains. Before 1989 Romania had a very big shipbuilding capacity with 12 shipyards. (3) Putting to contribution its shipbuilding capacity, Romania’s merchant fleet counted until 1990 up to 300 ships, with an additional fleet of 100 ocean and river fishing ships. Before 1989, Romania’s fleet was the 4th in Europe . (4) After 1989, with the passage from planned economy to market economy, almost all Romanian ships were liquidated and the ports privatized, but the ship-building capacity still exists today. The ships built in Romania’s shipyards are destined for maritime or fluvial freight transport, bulk carriers, oil tankers, convoy pushing crafts, barges, but also trailers, fishing ships, inland waterways vessels, platform supply vessels, deep sea pontoons. The biggest floating crane in the Back Sea and the Mediterranean (St. Mykolai floating crane) was made in Constanța. In short, the potential is broad.

Importance of Constanța and of the Danube-Rhine corridor for OBOR

As we know, the New Silk Road Initiative includes a Maritime Silk Road. In this context, the port of Constanța and the Danube-Rhine corridor have the potential to become the main East-West fluvial connexion for the european part of the maritime Silk Road. China has expressed a clear interest in developing a Danube connexion, engaging in 2013 in a feasibility study for a Vardar Morava Danube canal which could link the Adriatic Sea to the Danube. China also launched with the CEEC countries a wider strategy, the The Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Seaport Cooperation framework. The Riga Guidelines for Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries in 2016 point states as follows

 « The Participants welcome and support Port Area Cooperation between China and CEECs bordering the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Sea, and establishment of China-CEEC Secretariat for Maritime Issues in Poland, to promote cooperation among the major ports of the coastal areas, support building coastal industrial clusters, and encourage cooperation in infrastructure development, including railways, roads, waterways and logistics hubs. » Then it discusses the financial question stating « The China-CEEC Investment Cooperation Fund (stage two) will be launched and put into operation in 2017 ». Concerning this fund, Chinese Prime Minister Li Kequiang stated on November 5 2016 at Riga « China supports to expand cooperation on local currency settlement, as well as supports financial institutions including the Silk Road Fund to, through diverse forms such as equity and bonds, provide financing for “16+1 cooperation” projects. » The questions that remains open are the sums which will be mobilized: we learn on the site of CEE Equity Partners Limited, the investment advisor to China-Central and Eastern Europe Investment Cooperation Fund that « A typical investment will be between 10 million -70 million. », which seems too little if we know that the Doha Port cost more than 7 billion $. Nevertheless, Chinese and CEEC banks have been invited to participate in this fund so it can gain in importance.

The Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Seaport Cooperation overlaps with the Three Seas Initiative, including 12 member states of the European Union, situated between Baltic, the Adriatic and the Black Seas. This initiative aims to build the N-S « Via Carpathia » highway, connecting the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Sea and to the Black Sea. Another aspect is the diversification of gas supplies in order to diminish imports from Russia, a geostrategy plan backed by the USA. The financial question is less clearer for the three Seas Initiative. 

Another future path-breaking development is the future Eurasian Silk Road Canal planned by Russia, China and Kazakhstan in order to connect the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea and it should be taken into account when dealing with the future of Romanian waterways. Through this connexion, the Black Sea would become central on the Maritime Silk Road. In the video presentation of Professor Nuraly Bekturganov, Vice President of Academy of Natural Sciences of Kazakhstan delivered for the Schiller Institute Conference in Bad Soden in 2018, we learn that this canal would connect one million people from China, Russia, Central Asia and that it would be designed for extremely heavy loads with a depth of 11,5 m, potentially passing 120 million tons/year. It would redirect a part of the ocean transport passing today through the Suez Canal. (5)

Austrians are no less interested in the potential of what they call «the Eastern Neighborhood». A study released in 2018 by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (WIIW) on the « European Silk Road » (Die « Europäische Seidenstraße ») proposes a « big push » in infrastructure investments in« the Eastern Neighbourhood of Western Europe ». (6) The study notes that 480 millions people live in this Eastern Neighborhood, almost as many as in the European Union: 30 millions live in the Western Balkans and the other European Free Trade countries, around 200 millions live in the European former Soviet Republics, almost 90 millions live in the Republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, and 80 millions each live in the two riparian states of the Black and Caspian Seas, Turkey and Iran. In what the the study calls « The Southern Corridor », it proposes to link Western Europe, beginning from Milan to the « Eastern Neighborhood », passing along the Danube and through the Constanța port.

The estimated costs for such a « big push » for the southern corridor, with highway and rail building from Milan to Constanța, are  69,900 million Euros for highway and respectively 141, 800 million Euros for quality railway building. For the Northern and Southern corridor altogether, their estimation for building 5 quality seaports is 35,000 million Euros, 10 riverports, 35,000 million Euros and 12 Logistics centers would cost 25,400 million Euros. As an important aspect, the study mentions the importance of not competing with the Chinese Silkroad Initiative, but of working in complementarity.

What needs to be done:

No Loreley on the Danube

The actual Danube Navigability is today far lower than its potential. This is seemingly due to lack of dragging, and also due to lack of canalization works and dams works, creating important charges for the budgets of the riparian states.Two problems have to be addressed.

First, the lack of funds in a European Union worn out by the persisting financial crisis. The European Union’s « Strategy for the Danube » fixes the minimum navigability depth for heavy convoys at 2,5 m, but the same document states that no additional funds will be granted for the « Strategy ». (7) The European Court of Auditors, an organization of the EU, states clearly in a report of 2015: «  The estimated costs for eliminating all identified bottlenecks exceed by far the limited available funding from the EU budget for IWT infrastructures ». (8)

The second, more profound problem, is the lack of vision and a pessimistic set of mind. The « Strategy for the Danube » is based on the philosophy of opposing human intervention to natural equilibrium. In this pessimistic vision, big infrastructure projects insuring navigability, would have a negative impact on nature and efforts should be concentrated on saving the natural environment and infrastructure projects limited. In this vision, Loreley, the beautiful maiden distracting sailors on the Rhine gorges, would still kill, because works for leveling the Rhine’s bottom, wouldn’t have existed.

The « ecological »  argument is also used sometimes by states, like Hungary, who stopped an infrastructure project improving navigability, invoking environmental reasons (9) and endangering thus the idea of common development.

With help of a common bigger vision made possible since 2013 by the New Silk Road Initiative, and of credit-lines, these impediments could be eliminated. A list of bottlenecks has been created at the UN level (10) and an ambitious project of mutual benefit should be proposed in the framework of the CEEC-China cooperation to eliminate these bottlenecks in a short period of time. In a strong common dynamic lone players could be persuaded to think in terms of shared interest.

The Baltic Sea – Black Sea canal 

In the context of the The Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Seaport Cooperation, Romania should propose a feasibility study and then the building of the path-breaking Galati-Gdansk Canal which would connect The Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. This project is being supported in the Romanian business community and has been discussed one hundred years ago. It plans the adjustment of the rivers Vistula-San-Dniestr-Prut (approx. 1900 km) and an artificial 72 Km canal between Dniestr and Prut. This project would significantly reduce the distance between the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, and would avoid today’s 4000 km long bypass route to northern Europe through the Atlantic Ocean. It would give Northern European States access to the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Suez Canal. It would also enable riparian states, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine and Poland, to cooperate on infrastructure building, commerce, flood protection, power plants building, irrigation. This is one of the poorest regions in Europe destabilized partly because of its bad economic condition.

The Bucharest-Danube Canal

This 73 km canal connecting the political and economical capital of Romania to the Danube and to the Black Sea has been dug at 70% during communism and has been stopped after the revolution in 1990. Its evident benefit is to boost Bucharest economy, but it would also help irrigation for 150,000 ha of cropland and assure flood control. The Mayor of Bucharest, Gabriela Firea, affirmed, recently that she supported the restart of the work on the canal and that the project would need 1,5-1,7 billion euros. The town council will propose a project to be financed by the EU. In 2018 she also addressed the Bucharest Forum “Dialogue of Political Parties » from the 16+1 cooperation format, saying « Bucharest can really become the portal through which the New Silk Road can enter into the European Union area» and that Bucharest had to become « a commercial and transport hub on this New Silk Road between China and Europe ». (11)

This Canal needs to be build in a coherent re-industrialisation plan, so goods made in the Bucharest area would be transported on this canal westward on the Danube and eastward through the Black Sea. The ambition of transforming Bucharest into a transport hub of the New Silkroad can be made reality if the port is designed from the start on as an automatized and intelligent port. This project should also feature in the projects proposed by Romania for the CEEC-China cooperation.

Romanian Shipyards and fleet

Playing the role of a transport hub can be interesting, but it would not be enough. Considering the past of shipbuilding and of its fleet, Romania could launch in the context of the Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Seaport Cooperation on the Silkroad a coherent plan of ship production. Romania has an important economic cooperation past with African and other non-aligned countries, and its ship-building capacity could be revived in order to furnish tailor-made solutions for developing countries. Romania has an important confidence-capital in Africa and a reputation of a non-imperial country really signing deals in a  win-win mentality. An example of long-term cooperation opportunity could be the Transaqua plan intended to create a more than 2000 km long navigation canal between the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Lake Chad countries which would thus create a need for an inter-African fleet. 

An inventory study could be done on still existing Romanian shipbuilding capabilities and the needed investments for their upgrading. To make sure that a coherent plan can be carried into effect, a problem which should be addressed is the question of divergent interests acting in the shipbuilding and water transport sector, as shipyards were bankrupted after 1989 and then privatized. Too divergent interests could hinder coordinated action. The same challenge is raised by the current private management of several port terminals. If we examine the success of Rotterdam and its exemplary mobilization for automatization we find out that it is state-owned.

With the creation of new canals and the reviving of the Danube region, the shipping flux between Asia and Europe, both maritime and fluvial, should increase significantly. These new developments should be studied and in this context Romania could project to revive its fleet and to create a shipping company or provide credit for it. This companywhich could become a reference transporter for the future New Silk Road Black-Sea-Rhine connexion and could play a role in the scenario of building the Black-Sea Baltic Sea connexion.

Last but not least, Romania should upgrade its maritime ports and fully automatize them, preparing for the future of intelligent containers and intelligent ports. This task would create good challenges for the Romanian IT sector and for its engineering schools.

The Hinterland blooming

The example of the biggest port in the World, Shanghai, shows us that success is tied to the industrial production of its hinterland. Only 17% of Shanghai’s container transport is oriented towards the international maritime routes whilst 58% of its containers traffic is with the Yangtsé Delta and Valley, a robust industrial production zone. (12) If Romanian ports serve only as hubs for foreign goods, this will engage them in the race of prices to the bottom.

Romanian planners could study in detail the secret of the Chinese hinterland boom and develop a strategy which would relaunch Romanian industrial production in connection with its ports. Development of modern Shipyards and ports could be one of the paths, which could trigger the development of local little and medium enterprises with solutions « made in Romania ». 

The Constanța Port already signed protocols with the Qingdao and Ningbo Zhoushan Ports in China and the business community is organizing periodically forums in order to place the Constanța port on the New Silk Road freight traffic. In order to plan the re-industrialisation of the hinterlands of ports, the scientific community could also be engaged in the process and partnerships could be developed between Romanian scientific institutes with institutes like the Changjiang (Yangtsé) River Scientific Research Institut (CRSRI), the highly renowned institute in hydrology which developed the project for the Three Gorges Dam.

Agriculture and flood control, water damming, is also important for Romania, as its South and  South-East are under desertification threat and also suffer from flooding. Romania risks to lose part of its valuable chernozem. The president of the Institute for Pedolocy and Agrochemistry Research of Romania said in 2013 that 400,000 ha of agricultural land were under desertification threat. Paradoxically, these regions mostly neighbor the water-rich Danube. Moreover, thirteen EU countries declared having desertification problems at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification – UNCCD: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain. 

As a response, an integrated global Danube-valley plan connecting flood control, irrigation and navigation could be organized driven by trans-disciplinary research and engineering teams working on a better understanding of the water-cycle and of the soil but also on engineering responses for navigability, intelligent ports, flood control and irrigation.This kind of plan could also aim at developing the numerous little and medium river-ports along the Danube and its affluents, bringing thus science labs and economic development in very poor regions. The EU DAPhNE network, aiming at developing all ports on the Danube by experience and knowledge sharing, is an interesting approach, although not ambitious enough because of poor financial resources. (13)

The hinterland blooming also means ports connected to a dense high speed rail network and to highways. It is a recognized fact that Romania chronically lacks highways and that its once good railway system has not been upgraded and has been badly maintained, so a new impetus has to be found to fulfill the existing highway projects and to develop others, more ambitious ones, for maglev trains or aérotrains (max 500-600km/h).

Without an industrialization strategy and a hinterland development, Romanian ports risk to become colonial-type ports, serving only for transporting Romanian raw materials, exploited by multinationals. (14)


2 ;

3şi_şantiere_navale_româneşti ;

4 ;

5 ;

6–p-4598.html ;

7 ;

8 European auditors court (EAC), Special Report: Inland waterway transport in Europe:no significant improvements in modal share and navigability conditions since 2001 ( ), 2015, p.30 ;

9 EAC, Special Report: Inland waterway transport(…), 2015, p.32 ;

10 ;

11 ;

12 Karel Vereycken, L’autre secret du « miracle économique » chinois : le transport fluvial ;

13 The project has a total budget of 2.985.406,15 Euros ;

14 We can observe this tendency with American corn exports from Romania to Egypt, highly involved in the Constanța Port.