Water worries endanger Poland’s coal transport plans – POLITICO


WARSAW — Poland’s government is scrambling to ensure there’s no coal shortage this winter and that’s raising talk of reviving river transport to move coal around the country.

“Investments in waterways are a priority as they have the potential to complement transport corridors linking seaports with hinterland,” said a spokesperson for Poland’s Infrastructure Ministry.

The government plans a series of investment projects on the Oder River through the end of the decade aimed at making the river navigable along most of its length. On the Vistula River, there are plans to enable navigation along the river’s lower course from Toruń to Poland’s key port city Gdańsk. 

But Polish environmentalists worry that tailoring the country’s two biggest rivers, the Vistula in the center of Poland and the Oder in the west on the border with Germany, to the requirements of inland waterway cargo could destroy their unique ecosystems and set off a new conflict with Brussels.

Drought is also lowering water levels, making any revival of river transport a costly and environmentally controversial decision.

“A waterway construction program would permanently violate the coherence of the Natura 2000 network in Poland. The losses could not be compensated in any way as we simply do not have other great river valleys in Poland in do it,” said Piotr Nieznański, a river ecosystems expert with WWF’s Polish office.

Poland’s nationalist government is ending all coal imports from Russia, which before the war in Ukraine supplied around 7 million tons of coal annually, amounting to three-quarters of Poland’s coal imports.

Coal is used for home heating by about a third of Polish households, and domestic production can’t be ramped up fast enough to make up the gap by this winter, Polish miners warned.

That means the country is going to have to import coal from places like South Africa and Colombia through its ports and then distribute it around the country

But it’s unclear if railways will be able to handle the extra demand.

“Polish railways have shown many times that they are able to carry out the most serious tasks. The only question is whether they will have rolling stock, the right number of cars and train engines,” Infrastructure Minister Andrzej Adamczyk told the state-run local Radio Kraków last week.

River transport “is cost-competitive, environmentally friendly and low-carbon” according to former transport minister Jerzy Polaczek | Jean-Francois Monier/AFP via Getty Images

That’s where river transport could help.

“It is simply necessary. It’s a type of transport that is in line with the government’s goals and the European policy, and is cost-competitive, environmentally friendly and low-carbon,” said Jerzy Polaczek, a former transport minister.

German worries

But Warsaw grumbles that other governments — notably in Germany — don’t share the enthusiasm for reviving river transport on the Oder River.

“The Brandenburg government is blocking the construction of spur dikes on the Oder due to their alleged adverse environmental impact. We don’t see it that way,” Marek Gróbarczyk, an MP with the ruling Law and Justice party and deputy infrastructure minister, told state-run Polish Radio last week.

The Polish plan spurred the Brandenburg state government and some environmental organizations to take legal action against Poland in a Warsaw court, which in June halted work on the river. 

“In the opinion of our experts, the associated changes are likely to have a significant and lasting impact on the protected species and habitat types and thus worsen their conservation status,” a spokesperson for Brandenburg’s ministry of agriculture, environment and climate protection said in an emailed statement.

Spur dikes prevent the river from meandering, making it deeper and more suitable for navigation.

The Oder hasn’t been used for large-scale river traffic in decades. That’s led to a recovery of wildlife along the river’s banks, much of which is covered by the EU’s Natura 2000 nature protection scheme.

The Vistula — Europe’s 15th longest river — is even more unique. It runs unregulated for hundreds of kilometers, including through the heart of Warsaw, where it is protected by Natura 2000.

Debate over whether to keep rivers wild has intensified as the EU pushes to shift freight from roads to rivers and rail to cut emissions from trucks. While in the past, an unregulated river may have been seen as an economic waste, now such watercourses are treated as valuable assets in the fight against climate change-induced drought, said the WWF’s Nieznański.

“The replacement of freely flowing Polish rivers with artificial, technical waterways is contrary to the principles of sustainable development as written into the Polish constitution,” he said. 

More barges would also mean losing benefits supplied by natural ecosystems.

“For example, filtering water along the Vistula’s sandy banks is worth 350,000 złoty (€74,400) per just 1 kilometer. And it’s just one thing the rivers do,” Nieznański said.

Naturally flowing rivers reduce the risk of flooding, boost retention, help maintain reservoirs of ground water, and are good for local economies by attracting tourists, he added.

But losing precious ecosystems is just one problem facing any effort to make Poland’s two biggest rivers suitable for navigation.

Drought has lowered water flows and both the Odra and the Vistula are now less than 1 meter in depth in places, according the Poland’s meteorological office.

That means spending billions to make the rivers fully navigable.

“The discussion is surfacing again when Polish rivers lack water, there’s a hydrological drought and wells are drying up. This shows how politics became detached from reality and the real needs of rational financial management and rational water management,” Nieznański said.

This article has been updated with comment from Poland’s Infrastructure Ministry.

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