25 (120) 2016
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Water protection requirements versus development of the inland waterways in Poland

by Artur Rentfleisz, water and environment manager, and Marta Saracyn, water management team leader, Mott MacDonald
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For decades, there’s been an ongoing discussion on the urgent need to develop the Polish inland waterways.

Ever since the beginning of that discussion the political and economic situation in Poland has changed, including EU accession.

The need for change remains urgent. Late last year, the new government set up a new Ministry of Maritime Economy and Inland Waterways, which will hopefully introduce a novel momentum and much-needed investments to Poland’s inland waterways. The plans are concentrated on improving navigability on the Odra Inland Waterway (E-30); building several new barrages on the Vistula, a connection with Brześć (E-40) as well as connecting the Odra with the Vistula and the Vistula Lagoon (E-70). The plans are ambitious and require 8.9 billion zlotys to be spent by 2020 and another 77 billion zlotys by 2030 .

Funding is not the only challenge. Reconstruction and modernisation of waterways is strictly connected with modifications of the existing riverbeds causing changes in the river bottoms and bank structures. This is where the engineering part requires compliance with EU regulations and requirements e.g. the Water Framework Directive (WFD) – the EU regulation in the field of water protection. The WFD sets specific requirements for the investment process in the context of achieving environmental objectives. The most common understanding is that WFD is generally against the development of existing inland waterways, or more specifically against the interference to the existing river ecosystems –  so if you’ve not done the investment before the WFD came into force, then there’s no chance to do it now. But is the WFD really an investment blocker?

As a principal rule, the WFD points out that all economic activities need to be carried out without putting the “good status”, or a process targeted to achieve the “good status” of a water course at risk. The “good status” refers to the quality of water, as well as of aquatic and water-dependent ecosystems. It means that all modifications to rivers cannot deteriorate living conditions – e.g. for fish living in the river ecosystem. Typical works required for waterways, such as dredging or building barriers, strongly influence river morphology. Does this mean that the development of the Polish inland waterways is not possible under EU regulations?

The answer is no!

The WFD provides an option – the possibility of applying exemptions. Article 4 (7) of the WFD defines terms of applying the exemptions for investments causing an impact on water conditions. Above all, the aim of the investment needs to be of superior public interest or must benefit the environment and society in terms of achieving environmental objectives. There are also supplementary requirements that need to be met. There must be no other option to achieve targets of the investments that would have a lesser environmental impact, for technical or cost reasons. And of course all possible and reasonable mitigations need to be applied. Finally, the investment needs to be analysed and described in the most important planning document in the field of water management in Poland – the River Basin Management Plan (RBMP).

What is required then for the development of the Polish inland waterways? First of all - the right set of people from different organisations. EU requirements are not investment blockers, but all parties engaged in the process need to work collaboratively to find the right balance of needs and aspirations, engineering capabilities and environmental conscience. In the end, that is what makes our future more sustainable.

1Information presented by Jerzy Materna – secretary of state in the Ministry of Maritime Economy and Inland Waterways at the Global Compact meeting on 26 April 2016.

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