INLAND WATERWAYS. The Mega-Project of Connecting the Baltic and the Black Sea Shipping via Rivers Leaves Lithuania Behind


Professor Petras Punys 
Faculty of Water and Land Management of Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas-Academy 
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Lithuania’s neighbour Belarus is a landlocked country with no access to the sea, yet they keep intensively searching for the most efficient ways of transporting their goods to ports. Meanwhile the maritime states surrounding it (Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Russia and Ukraine) do their best to offer the best conditions. After all, they get some of the profits and there are also some political dividends. The absolute majority of cargo, transported from Belarus to the Baltic Sea, travels by land – trains and trucks. The latter are especially harmful to our environment and we will not expand on their negative sides – everyone’s already aware of them. Meanwhile, water transport – or shipping by rivers – is much more environmentally friendly option. Inland navigation can compete only in terms of carrying very large goods or bulk cargo, and only in very large amounts. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of the waterways that once used to prosper in the above-mentioned countries, is currently in decay and does not meet contemporary technical standards. We could definitely state that the cargo shipping on Daugava, Vistula or Nemunas rivers has nearly stopped, except for short downstream sections. A similar situation is known in other EU countries, except for Belgium, Holland, Germany, etc. The share of EU inland navigation constitutes a mere 6 % of the entire transport, including both motorways and railways.
Back in the 18th c. the Baltic and the Black seas used to be connected through Lithuanian territory from Nemunas to Dnieper using M. K. Oginski Canal. A similar Dnieper-Bug shipping canal used to connect Bug River in Poland with the Belarusian confluents into Dnieper. Nearly two centuries later, the exUSSR plan of connecting these seas for cargo shipping via Dnieper and Nemunas river was reborn again, in the 1950s. Except that now the direction from Belarus has radically changed, using the Polish river Vistula (waterway E40), instead of Nemunas (E41) as it was planned in the days of the former USSR. The first motive is the restrictive Lithuanian environmental protection legislation, included into the Law on Water, thus, instantly leaving the option of Nemunas behind.
Lithuania, advertised as the ace of transit cargo flows on the East-West axis, is left behind, replaced by the neighbouring Poland. In the future this could have an unpleasant effect on the port of Klaipėda, currently accepting large cargo flows from Belarus. Although, this inland navigation project through Poland is only in discussions and dreams, requiring enormous investments (about 13 billion Eur). Building this connection via inland waterways could take a couple of decades, which is already discussed, yet Lithuania has been left out.

Former USSR plans for the 1950s

Lithuania’s seniors remember well the grand plans of the 1950s to connect the Baltic and the Black seas through Ukrainian, Belarusian and Lithuanian rivers and renewed historical canals, yet the plan was never implemented (Fig. 1).
At that time Nemunas belonged to a single state – the USSR, which made it easier to solve all issues. Its direction also coincided with the historical waterway via M. K. Oginski Canal, built in 1783 between two confluents of Nemunas and Dnieper – Shchara and Yaselda (length – 54 km). According to historians, the opening of this waterway resulted in a prosperity of Kaunas city. An alternative water way to the Baltic Sea took to Gdansk on the Dnieper-Bug Canal through Vistula river in Poland. Historical waterways used to be shallow, while the new one was supposed to be deep (with a fairway depth of 3 m).
Several structures of this grand project were implemented in Lithuania at that time by building a hydroelectric power plant (HPP) in Nemunas along Kaunas and a high berth on the left bank, which were supposed to turn Kaunas into a river-sea port. There was also a plan for Jurbarkas HPP, which was supposed to raise the water level in the city. Upstream the modern-day Kaunas HPP there were also supposed to be a number of dams with HPPs, which would create the conditions for river-sea shipping .
River-sea navigation is one of the most universal of its forms. The same ship, which sails along the sea coast can continue its journey into the continent, using the inland waterways. Some European rivers (Rhine, Seine, Rona, Danube, etc.) take river-sea ships deep into the continent.

European network of inland waterways (Eastern corridor)

Lithuania has signed the Agreement on Main Inland Waterways of International Importance (AGN), which includes the waterway E41 on Nemunas river from Kaunas to Klaipėda and the waterway E70, connecting Klaipėda via Kaliningrad with the Western European inland waterway network and sea coastal route (Fig. 2). According to the agreement, the participants undertake to maintain the technical requirements in these waterways.
Aside from the sea coastal shipping route E60, the inland waterways, most important to Lithuania, are these:
• Waterway E41 from the entry of Nemunas to Kaunas. It meets the minimum requirements of E IV classification for inland waterways, but in reality it is barely alive. The development of the river-sea navigation route (an upgrade to the classification V) requires enormous investments.
• Waterway E70 (Northern route): Holland, Germany, Poland, Vistula Lagoon and rivers in Kaliningrad Oblast (Deyma, Pregolya, Matrosovka) towards Nemunas. Closed from the Polish side towards Lithuania. A complicated relationship with Russia and also difficulties of adapting the rivers in Kaliningrad Oblast to cargo shipping are definitely not something to encourage the development of this route. The best option for Lithuania is to integrate into the Western European waterways and use the E60 Baltic coastal route (river-sea navigation).
• E40 waterway (constantly closed, about 2 000 km long): from the Black Sea through Dnieper, Pripyat and Bug to Vistula and towards the Baltic Sea in Poland or through Western European inland waterways.
As we can see in Fig. 2, both E40 and E70 lack connections and there are also physical barriers – dams, low bridges – which make constant navigation impossible. Although the AGN waterway network had not been yet adopted in the 1950s, there was a plan to continue the E41 waterway on Nemunas eastward to E40.

Belarus aims at becoming a maritime state

Several years ago Belarus, Poland and Ukraine, supported by the EU, have prepared the principal scheme for the modernisation of the E40 waterway. That is a very distinct example for Lithuania, where similar projects, based on a cross border cooperation programme with Belarus regarding the revival of continuous navigation on Nemunas, had been rejected as insufficiently important.
With a huge amount of cargo on its lap, this country is looking in all directions, waiting for the best offers from the neighbours in connecting the major rivers with the seas. It seems that the Baltic Sea would be more important than the Black Sea – Western European market must be more profitable.
In order to access the Black Sea, Belarus has been negotiating with Ukraine and planning to establish a river-sea port in Dnieper since 2016. There also has been an active search for foreign investors, but all that remains in plans and discussions. The navigation route from Dnieper to Brest belongs to the class 4 (like Nemunas from Kaunas to Klaipėda).
There are three possible ways for them to connect to the Baltic Sea: Daugava, Vistula and Nemunas rivers.
Nearly fifteen years ago, Belarus, supported by Ukraine, addressed Latvia regarding the establishment of a navigation route via Daugava (from the Black to the Baltic Sea, with a total length of 2 300 km). This new waterway (unspecified in the AGN, just like Nemunas upstream from Kaunas) from Ukraine and Belarus was supposed to carry 10–100 million tonnes of cargo every year. Unfortunately, Latvians refused to participate in the project, stating that inland shipping is not among one of their priorities. Belarusians had even started planning a canal between Orsha and Vitebsk (length – circa 80 km) towards Daugava.
A good five years ago, Belarus had sent foreign investors to investigate the possibilities of developing a deepwater navigation route on Nemunas river, but were put off by environmental restrictions.
Being unable to come to an accord with these neighbours, Belarusians addressed Poland. Pripyat river between Vistula and Dnieper would become a connecting point of the E40 route in Belarus (Fig. 3). Pripyat is a relatively small river, although its annual flow is only 1.5 times lower than that of Nemunas river. It should be regulated – widened and deepened or cascaded using dams and shipping locks. In truth, it should be heavily adjusted, which brings concern to local ecologists.
The E40 project should attract EU funding and it already has a River Commission, consisting of representatives from all the states. There was a time, when Belarus was quite in trouble and sanctioned by the EU. Now the sanctions are lifted. However, despite the EU sanctions, Belarus continued to develop its water projects and the country has some good experience. The middle of Daugava has two hydroelectric plants – in Vitebsk and Polotsk (2017). One of them has been funded and built by China using its own technology (based on a concession). While the other has been funded with a credit from the Eurasian Development Bank. Before that they had built Grodno HPP using their own funds, but keep searching for another concessionaire for Nemnovskaya HPP (about 6 km from the border with Lithuania). These projects also serve the navigation infrastructure. Meanwhile, the situation in Lithuania and Latvia is completely different. Building dams in Nemunas river is forbidden, while nearly at the same time, when Lithuania was challenging the construction of Kruonis PSHP, the construction of Daugavpils and Jekabpils HPPs had been cancelled due to similar environmental reasons as well.

Poland gives green light for E40 project development

Poland (contrary to Lithuania) has been continuously emphasizing the plans to connect the Baltic and the Black seas through their territory, using Vistula river and expanding the E40 navigation route. However, this territory requires significantly higher investments, compared to Belarus and Ukraine. The major problem is Bug river, which doesn’t meet the technical requirements for navigation. It connects Vistula up to Brest (Fig. 3). Moreover, although Vistula has 1.5 times more water than Nemunas, it has been neglected for a long time and is not suitable for navigation any more. 9 dam cascades are planned in order to ensure a deepwater route in the lower Vistula (Fig. 4). Hydro power has been proven to be the most suitable for river navigation, and results in the greatest public and economic benefits.
Siarzewo HPP has recently been designed to be built on this river, downstream Wloclawek HPP. Despite the protests of environmentalists (they claim that this violates the EU Water Framework Directive, yet, differently from Lithuania, there are no restrictions for dam building), the government has approved this project, but it has encountered issues with investors.

Lithuania – lost opportunities and stagnating inland navigation

Despite the above-mentioned technologically-advanced USSR project of the 1950s, the transport strategists of the independent Lithuania were unable (or perhaps even didn’t try?) to legalise the development of the E41 route stretch on Nemunas to E40 by connecting M. K. Oginski Canal with Pripyat and Dnieper. The unwillingness to coordinate strategic interests with Belarus and restore constant navigation on Nemunas has been clearly bred by some unreasonable ambitions. Differently from Kaliningrad Oblast, Belarus is very interested in this river. This waterway would become a part of a much larger part of the Belarusian territory, enabling to establish and renew more ports than in the E40 waterway.
Of course, there are certain physical obstacles (the dams of Kaunas HPP and the recently-built Grodno HPP, low bridges, etc.) and the connection with Pripyat river requires capital modernisation. The E40 route faces similar obstacles. It’s a pity that nobody tried to compare the both waterway options. Lithuania should have shown initiative here.
And now, when cargo navigation on rivers is barely moving, we’re implementing self-imposed isolation policies, focusing on the stretch of Kaunas-Klaipėda of Nemunas river. The modernisation is crucial: Kaunas should become a river-sea port, otherwise we will not be able to revive cargo navigation on rivers.
There are also purely objective reasons that inhibit our shipping development: we generate too little cargo, the competition with other modes – road and railway – transport is fierce and the inland navigation itself has several natural disadvantages. The recently – built Kaunas Marvelė cargo port in Nemunas has no railway connection and can’t find an operator to this day. Potential investors look at the whole picture and want a modern E41 waterway, which meets current, rather than yesterday’s standards.
What prevents the modernisation of this navigation route to class 5 and, at the same time, develop river-sea navigation, is the above-mentioned Law on Water of the Republic of Lithuania. Efforts to introduce amendments to this law were fruitless, although the majority of politicians in all tenures did understand its flaws in terms of hydraulic construction and economy. Project proposals for the expansion of Nemunas navigation route with Belarusian navigation experts, as well as suggestions to use the EU cross border cooperation programme were rejected. Extended EU sanctions were detrimental to these initiatives too. Strangely, the E40 waterway project suggests that Poland managed to avoid that somehow.

Ecologists rise against the E40 waterway

Despite political differences in various states, the opinion of environmentalists on the modernisation of navigation routes are nearly unanimous. Rivers are natural creations and sensitive to changes – no wonder many of them are surrounded with all kinds of reserves. Ecologists have calculated the number of reserves that would be affected by the E40 project and are concerned regarding the regulation of river flows, new dams and shipping locks. They see navigation on rivers in the ancient past and want it to stay there.


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The magazine JŪRA has been published since 1935.
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