The Great Batschka Canal – From Environmental Disaster to Regional Engine of Growth
“What is this awful smell? I can not breathe. Please mummy closes the window. It smells like we have an angry skunk in our car” said my nine-year old son while we were passing through Crvenka, Kula and Vrbas. These words brought me back to my childhood. They were the same words I said to my parents while passing through the same places while I was a little girl. After more than thirty years the unpleasant smell is the same.
If you drive out to the village of Batsch Monostor in Serbia’s Vojvodina province, you will see what remains today of the Great Batschka Canal, one of the most important engineering feats of the Hapsburg Empire. Built between 1793 and 1802 and later known as the Franz Josef Canal, and was designed by brothers Gabor and Jozséf Kiss to connect the Danube and Theiss rivers as a shortcut for transporting precious salt. At the same time, the canal project served to drain the surrounding marshlands, turning the Vojvodina into the empire’s breadbasket. The region prospered thanks to the canal, but as the importance of salt as a commodity declined, so did interest in maintaining the canal and its infrastructure.
After years of neglect, the visionary project of the brothers Kiss is today one of the most polluted waterways in Europe and represents an environmental hazard for the entire Danube basin. The section of the canal that runs through the industrial towns of Kula, Crvenka and Vrbas is closed for navigation for a length of 6 km and is only 30 cm deep in some parts. Depending on the influx of pollutants, its water changes color from murky green to dark grey, with a perennial layer of white scum on the surface. A 2002 survey by the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) found that the section from Vrbas to Triangle at the junction with the New Canal is covered with 400,000 m³ of poisonous sediment. There is no sign of life in the water, and the air quality near the canal has also deteriorated causing locals complain of respiratory difficulties. Because of that, the frequency of cardiovascular and cancerous diseases among the inhabitants of this part of Batschka is higher than in any other place in Serbia. The local tell the story of a man who tried to kill himself by jumping into the canal, but instead got stuck in the toxic mud and is alive today to tell about it.
The problem of pollution is not a new one. The first complaints were recorded in 1936 in an article written by a group of concerned citizens in the “Szenttamas Herald”. They protested the fouling of the water by sugar beet refineries and noted that fish were dying in great numbers. Twenty–five years ago, prior to the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Construction Institute of Vojvodina conducted a waste water study of the canal’s Vrbas-Kula-Crvenka segment, finding extensive pollution by community waste and local industrial plants that were sending untreated run-off into the canal.
More recently, the process of privatizing public enterprises has brought about a welcome change in ecological awareness. New owners realized that they had to respect the law and protect the environment if they wanted to export to the European Union. The sugar producer Crvenka, located in the town of the same name, took the first step by installing filtration equipment for its waste water, making it possible to use this treated water for fish farming. The government contributed as well, building 10 km of the main waste water sewer pipeline. All of these projects rely on funding from the EU and the regional government. But the major issue of Vojvodina is the cleaning-up of the canal.
The Great Batschka Canal has the potential to become, once again, an engine of economic growth for the region, creating opportunities in transportation, tourism, agriculture, energy, food processing and more. The cooperation of all the towns along its route is key to creating a sustainable development plan that also incorporates habitat and wildlife protection. This kind of development can bring more possibilities for the women of these communities, as well.
Unfortunately, the Canal, as it is now, is a proof of an odious future for all of us. This happens in Serbia now, but maybe tomorrow this can happen around anyone’s house, or in any country. These areas can be turned into playgrounds and not abused by the local businesses. Do not let this happen!
Without sustainable development and a responsible behavior we do not have a bright future. We have to be aware that “we have not inherited this land from our ancestors, but we have borrowed it from our offspring.” (Words of the Sitting Bull quoted).
The following link takes you to a short video clip about the Great Batschka Canal:
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