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, this waterway cost more than 3 million Hungarian forint, employed 3000 laborers, 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. They 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 Werbass-Kula-Cserwenka 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 needed 12.6 km of the main waste water sewer pipeline. A central water filtration plant is also in the works. Crvenka’s mayor, Dr. Zeljko Vidovich, announced in September, 2010 that a clean-up of the Great Batschka Canal was a top priority. All of these projects rely on funding from the EU and the regional government.
Vojvodina has a lot at stake in the clean-up effort. 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. Back in the 19th century, the following words were engraved in Latin on the marble gravestone of canal engineer Jozséf Kiss: “This marble is the proof of his mortal body, and that canal of his immortal deed.” If the governments of Vojvodina, Serbia and the EU work together, there is still hope that his immortal idea will survive the 21st century.
The following link takes you to a short video clip about the Great Batschka Canal:
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.
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