Drought Chokes Romanian Economy

With the Danube at its lowest level for a century, many southern residents have seen their livelihoods dry up.

Drought Chokes Romanian Economy

With the Danube at its lowest level for a century, many southern residents have seen their livelihoods dry up.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Drought is hitting Romania's already weak economy hard, and is threatening the health and livelihoods of residents in the south of the country.

The river's dramatic fall - to its lowest level in a century - has caused chaos across the Balkans, but Romania seems to be one of the worst affected areas.

The southern town of Cernavoda, with a population of around 20,000, has had no fresh water since the middle of August. However, life is even tougher for those living in several smaller villages in the region, which have been without drinking water for nearly a month.

"We haven't had fresh water for over a week now, as the Danube is almost dry," complained Cernavoda resident Mihail Arsene. "It's not enough that we haven't got enough food to feed our children with, now we're going to die of thirst as well.

"Some of us get water from fountains near the town, but they will dry up very soon. I have never seen such a drought in my whole life."

Arsene's neighbour Gheorghe Catana used to earn his living as a fisherman, but the falling river level put paid to that. "The Danube is so low that we can often see the river bed," he said.

"If it doesn't rain in the next few days, we will probably be able to walk across to the other side of the Danube."

The drought has had further implications for the region beyond a lack of drinking water. On August 24, the local authorities took the decision to shut down the Cernavoda nuclear power plant - the only such station in Romania, and which provides more than 10 per cent of the country's energy - for at least four weeks. The reactor needs a steady supply of cooling water, and the low river levels had raised questions about how safely it could operate.

The Romanian media reports that the closure of the Cernavoda plant would cost the country around half a million US dollars a day. The closure occurred just a few days before the government is expected to increase electricity prices by 17.5 per cent.

The dry weather in the past three months has had other serious consequences in Romania as well, as river traffic on the Danube has been brought to a standstill.

Most of the raw material used by the steel plant in Galati county arrives via the river. Dumitru Dorian, head of the local shipping routes authority, told IWPR that - for now - the situation was under control.

"We decided last month that barges' loads couldn't exceed 30 per cent of their capacity. We also dug deep channels in the Danube and in this way we have made sure that it's safe to navigate," Dorian explained.

"However, many ships have run aground. At the port of Zimnicea, around 250 ships are waiting to move to markets in central Europe, and at Bazias, the level on the Danube is under two yards, more than a metre below the minimum needed for barge traffic.

"If it doesn't rain soon, I doubt that shipping will be possible at all on the Danube."

The drought also means that Romania will have a large grain deficit this year. Authorities have announced a wheat shortfall of around one million tonnes, which will now have to be imported mainly from Russia.

Ecologists have drawn attention to environmental problems. Grigore Baboianu, director of the Danube Delta Reservation, told the media that 10 per cent of Romania's unique wetlands had already dried up, while 40 per cent of the water had evaporated.

The situation in other parts of the Balkans doesn't look bright either.

Croatia's major rivers are at their lowest ever level, threatening water and electricity shortages, while the Serbian authorities announced that the rivers in this country were at their lowest in 100 years.

For most Romanians, the rushing waters of the Danube seem just a thing of the past.

"I have heard on the radio that the forecast for the river level will continue to drop for the next week," Arsene told IWPR.

"With no water to drink, no means of earning a living because we can't go fishing or use our boats for goods transportation, with the nuclear plant shut down and the spectre of an outrageous hike in electricity prices, we surely face a grim future."

Daniela Tuchel is an occasional IWPR contributor in Bucharest.

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