As floods continue to plague much of Central Europe and a large portion of the Midwestern United States, we are reminded both of the power and importance of rivers in the development of nations. The water level of the Danube has risen to dangerous levels, resulting in at least 15 deaths and likely causing billions of dollars worth of damage. These sorts of natural changes in river flow caused by flooding, drought or freezing periodically happen, disrupting nearby economies and damaging infrastructure. But the possession of navigable waterways also increases a country's potential for economic and political prowess, and throughout history nations have fought to retain control of major rivers and the fertile basins that surround them.
The Danube has historically been, and continues to be, a key to the economic development of the countries of Central Europe. Among European rivers, the Danube is second in length only to Russia's Volga River. Beginning in the Black Forest of Germany, it travels through Central Europe, finally emptying into the Black Sea in Romania and Ukraine. In all, 10 countries (Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine) are part of the Greater Danube Basin, and many rely on the river system for trade and agriculture.
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Control of navigable waterways can increase a region's potential for economic and political power, and numerous economic and political centers have sprung up on the banks of the Danube and its tributaries, including Munich, Vienna, Belgrade, Zagreb and Budapest. Transporting goods along maritime routes is generally cheaper than along corresponding land-based routes, often contributing to the economic success of countries with navigable inland waterways.
But possessing a major river such as the Danube within one's borders has its drawbacks. Natural disasters can and have disrupted travel along the river, such as flooding in 2002, a drought in 2011 and a widespread winter freeze in 2012. Protective engineering measures can help mitigate damage to cities along the river during floods, but manmade disruptions also have affected trade along the river in recent history. The Kosovo war caused a significant decline in regional trade along the river, and trade did not fully recover for nearly a decade after the war.
Rivers, including the Danube, have an economic impact beyond transport and trade. They are often vital to sustaining agriculture in a given area and can be sources of drinking water (the Danube provides drinking water for 20 million people), provide power and meet industrial demands. The Danube runs straight through the Pannonian Basin, which has some of the most fertile soil in Europe. At the crossroads of Central Europe, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, the Pannonian Basin has been the object of numerous conflicts throughout history. It was once a part of the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Hungary occupied the entirety of the basin before it became a battleground between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires.
Today, the majority of the basin is within the borders of modern-day Hungary, but the Czech Republic, Serbia, Slovakia, Romania and Croatia also have some portion of the land within their borders. Heavily farmed under communist rule in Hungary, roughly two-thirds of the land in the basin has been cultivated. Although the intensity of farming has fallen off somewhat since the fall of communism in the region, the basin remains an important agricultural area.
Disasters such as the flooding currently taking place along the Danube are unfortunate, but they are a natural consequence of building a civilization around a river. Rivers are also so vital to a nation's development and prosperity that people will fight to maintain control of them and their surrounding territory.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this Diary misstated where the Danube River empties into the Black Sea, which it does in Romania and Ukraine.