Unusual drought triggers alarm across Balkans

The waters of the mighty Danube are so low that dozens of cargo ships are stuck, stranded in ghostly fog or wedged into sand banks on what is normally one of eastern Europe's busiest transport routes.

A lack of rain has triggered the worst drought in decades for this time of year, dropping river levels to record lows and sounding an alarm in parts of central and eastern Europe.

Power supplies are running low in Serbia, drinking water shortages have hit Bosnia, and crop production is in jeopardy in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. The Czech Republic is at its driest since records began in 1775.

Meteorologists say they are not sure why the region has had far less rain than average since August — but they don't see any more coming quickly. That is bad news for shipping companies that are already reporting big losses.

“This is a disaster,” said Branko Savic, the manager of a privately owned Danube shipping company in Serbia that he says is operating at only a third of its capacity. “Traffic on the Danube is practically nonexistent. . . We are in dire need of enormous amounts of water, rain, or melting snow in order to better the situation.”

About 80 big cargo ships are stranded at the Serbia-Hungary border on the Danube, Europe's second largest river, which winds 2,860-kilometer (1,777-mile) from Germany, passing through eight countries before flowing into the Black Sea.

“In my many years of experience as a boat captain, I don't remember a drought as harsh as this one,” said Anton Balasz, whose ship is among those stuck where exposed sand banks are preventing boats from passing.

Sunken German World War II-era ships have surfaced on the Danube and unexploded bombs that fell during the 1940s emerged from the Sava river in Serbia. At the normally bustling northern Bosnian port of Brcko on the Sava river, workers have been told not to expect any work until further notice.

“If the situation continues, we could easily send all of our work force home,” said Mustafa Nukovic, the port's general manager, pointing to the empty cargo terminals and boats parked in the docks.

In Bosnia, drinking water restrictions have been introduced at night in Sarajevo and other cities.

“The Bosna river is so low, you can walk from one bank to another,” said Emir Emric, a fisherman. “People catch fish with bare hands — and not only any fish — but 20-kilogram (44-pound) catfish.”

Electricity supplies are also running low in Bosnia and Serbia because hydropower plants cannot produce enough power due to the low river water levels. If there is no rain in the next couple of days, hydroelectric plants will be shut down, said Bosnian Serb Energy Minister Zeljko Kovacevic.

Environmentalists are also worried. A World Wildlife Fund report noted a sharp drop in bird populations along the lower stretch of the Danube because of the persistent drought.

The current level of the river along the Bulgarian bank is at its lowest since 1941, and shipping on large stretches of the river has ground to a halt, according to the Bulgarian Executive Agency for Exploration and Maintenance of the Danube River.

The Bulgarian section between the ports of Somovit and Silistra has a total of 14 spots where the Danube level is below the river navigation minimum of 250 centimeters (98 inches), and 6 spots were the waters are as shallow as 160 centimeters (63 inches).

In Romania, officials say that though the country had a bumper wheat harvest this year, the drought looks set to severely damage next year's production.

“If the drought continues, the wheat crop will be down by at least 20 percent,” said Marcel Cucu, the spokesman for the Romanian League of Agriculture Producers Associations.

After having to deal with large areas of farmland under water in 2010, in 2011 Hungary faces the opposite problem — the lack of rainfall.

While the 2011 harvest has resulted in good yields, expectations for 2012 are not very encouraging, said Gyorgy Czervan, state secretary at the Ministry of Rural Development.

Czervan said the average rainfall measured across the country so far this has year has been between 240 millimeters (9.45 inches) and 500 millimeters (19.7 inches), around half the normal amount.

The dearth of rain has caused the soil to harden in many parts of the country, making autumn planting of some products very difficult.


Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec in Serbia, Alison Mutler in Romania, Pablo Gorondi in Hungary, Veselin Toshkov in Bulgaria, Eldar Emric and Aida Cerkez in Bosnia and Karel Janicek in the Czech Republic contributed to this report.

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