Prospects for modernizing Polish inland waterways are shaped by the EU and environmental factors writes Gordon Feller.

The EU has increasingly recognized that inland waterway transportation is one of the cheapest and most environmentally friendly types of transportation – especially when compared with other forms of transportation. This is due to its relatively lower energy consumption, lower air pollutant emissions, relatively lower water pollution, and lower external costs.

Inland waterways are increasingly being classified by the EU as a form of “sustainable transportation”, since the measured impacts taking -- economic, social, and environmental – are so favourable.

However, in order to be truly sustainable, investments are needed in the hydrotechnical infrastructure on rivers and canals, as well as in fleets. Attention is therefore being paid to multiple environmental factors, including the size and seasonal variability of water resources, so the feasibility of inland waterway transport can best be determined.

In 2017, the President of Poland signed the act to ratify “The European Agreement on Main Inland Waterways of International Importance”. According to the Agreement’s provisions, Polish waterways will become international shipping routes by developing and modernizing them up to class IV navigability. There is another impetus: the document entitled “Assumptions of the Development Programmes for Inland Waterways in Poland for 2016–2020 with an outlook to the year 2030”, as laid out by Poland’s Ministry of Maritime Economy and Inland Navigation. The Agreement’s purpose was to establish the necessary legal framework - which makes it easier to construct a world-class inland waterways network.

“The White Paper”, as adopted by the European Commission, set out initiatives which could unify the European transport area using inland waterways - with a target date of 2050. They include creating favourable conditions for increasing the use of inland waterways, and for upgrading them. The Commission says that, by the end of 2050, at least 50% of transportation over a distance of 300km must be transported by means other than road transport.

Poland has relatively few water resources, and the average annual surface water outflow in Poland is about 60 billion m3. The lower part of the Vistula River holds about 65% of the water resources in its basin, and about 30% of the hydroelectric potential of Poland.

Hydrological conditions in the Vistula basin are characterized by high seasonal variations. The area has a tendency to experience extremely high water stages and long periods of low water levels. This sometimes results in poor navigation conditions, due to the lack of required transit depth inside the waterway.

The total capacity of all storage reservoirs in Poland amounts to about 3.0 billion m3. Dam construction can have some positive effects on the natural environment (including water stage equalization, increased flood safety, and the elevation of ground-water levels in adjacent areas, etc. But all dam construction is surrounded in controversy. Flood prevention on Polish rivers may cause a reduction in the potential costs due to flooding. The cost of the last floods in 1997 was about 12 billion PLN, and about 2.3 billion Euro in 2010.

Developing inland waterway transport is constrained by existing environmental protections within the Vistula’s catchment area. Restrictions to any planned investments aim to help maintain the integrity of the natural environment. Natura 2000 areas are protected and areas stipulated by the Nature Conservation Act: Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation. This second type includes, among others, national parks, landscape parks, nature reserves, etc.

There are two basic documents required by the national Water Framework Directive (WFD) and by the national Water Law Act: the National Water and Environmental Program (NWEP); the River Basin Management Plans (RBMP).

The WFD requires the development of RBMP in the main river basins in Poland. In the first (2004– 2009) and the second (2010–2015) planning cycles, the President of the National Water Management Board developed ten RBMPs for the river basin districts: Oder, Vistula, Dniester, Danube, Jarft, Elbe, Neman, Pregolya, Świeża, and Uecker. Currently, Poland is in its third planning cycle (2016–2021). The Minister of Maritime Affairs and Inland Navigation appointed Przemysław Daca as the Head of Polish Waters, the National Water Management Holding Company. He is required to develop nine plans – without the river basin Jarft and Uecker, and with the Banówka River basin.

Each RBMP includes a general description of the characteristics of the river basin district, a summary of the identification of significant anthropogenic impacts, and an assessment of their impact on the state of surface and ground waters, setting environmental objectives for surface water bodies and protected areas, a summary of the results of economic analysis related to the use of water, and activities included in the NWEP. The document also contains a list of other detailed programs and management plans for the basin district, the catchment area, economic sectors, problems or types of waters, including the content of these programs and plans, information on methods and procedures for obtaining information and source documentation used to draw up the plan, and information on the expected results of the plan.

The lower Vistula River includes an important section: from the mouth of the Narew River to the Gulf of Gdansk (approximately 350km long). However, due to the construction of the Wloclawek Reservoir in 1963–1970, the division of river water bodies (RWB) in the administrative dimension for this article was adopted for the lower section of the Vistula River segment from the Wloclawek Reservoir (approximately 675km long) to the estuary in the Gulf of Gdansk (approximately 941km long). The total area inside this defined river catchment is 39,500km2.

The total length of navigable Polish inland waterways is 3655km, of which less than 6% are inland waterways of international importance. In 2017, Polish inland waterway transport carried 5777.5 thousand tons of cargo, which represented less than 0.4% of its share in the transport services market.

The Vistula River’s transport corridor, of which almost 88% of its length (920.3 km) is defined as an inland waterway, links the south of Poland with the Baltic Sea. The section of the Vistula River connecting the Baltic Sea with the mouth of the Narew River is included in the system of European International Waterways known as “E40”. The Vistula River contains three classes of navigability: Ib (from km 674+850 to km 718+000); II (from km 718+000 to km 910+000); III (from km 910+000 to estuary to the Baltic Sea). These differentiations are the result of environmental factors and infrastructure.

The Vistula River is covered by various forms of natural protection, both at the European level and at the national level. The river’s section from the Wloclawek Reservoir to the estuary flows entirely to areas belonging to the European network known as “Natura 2000”. The habitat protection areas included Włocławska Dolina Wisły (km 675–704); Nieszawska Dolina Wisły (km 704–728); Dybowska Dolina Wisły (km 745–758); Solecka Dolina Wisły (km 764–813); Dolna Wisła (km 848–904); and Ostoja near the mouth of Vistula river (km 939–941).