Water resources are experiencing growing pressures due to increasing demands from agriculture, energy generation, industry and urban centers. Addressing these challenges appears to be even more urgent because of the trans-boundary nature of a large share of such water resources in the region of South East Europe. Moreover, we see new challenges emerging such as the nexus between the sustainability of river systems, food security, sustainable urbanization, energy and urban pollution in a context of climate change which provides further scope for regional collaboration in research and innovation. Therefore, emphasizing on the symbiotic relationship between water, climate and energy, we should realize the necessity of improved water management practices in order to make sure that existing demands and challenges are met in an environmentally sustainable way.

Trans-boundary nature of water resources in SEE as a challenge

Our addiction to the cheap energy from fossil fuels is driving accelerating climate change with rapidly rising costs of natural disasters and the threat of mass migrations, setting back development efforts. In all these ways, the world is increasing its levels of economic, social and environmental debt to unsustainable levels, threatening present society and leaving a heavy burden for future generations. In the context of these emerging challenges, SEE, trapped as it is between political conflicts, religious tensions, ethnic divides, tragic histories and long memories, has been a prominent victim of forces of disintegration. The main challenge for Southeast Europe economies is to commit to, and sustain the implementation of long-term reforms aimed at increasing competitiveness and promoting sustainable, inclusive and balanced development. Acknowledging that the protection and sustainable use of water resources plays a decisive role for the future of humankind and pronouncing on the fact that national and regional policy and planning must take an integrated approach to contemporary challenges, trans-boundary cooperation and regional coordination is perceived as the only feasible solution for gaining synergy effects in the region.

Sustainable development as a prerequisite for sustainable water management

Fortunately, at the global level, the United Nations adopted a 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development mapping out the fundamental transformations required to address the many interrelated problems. By means of 17 Sustainable Development Goals that integrate the economic, social and environmental challenges facing the world, UN Agenda 2030 define a paradigm shift for people and the planet. This Agenda of unprecedented scope and significance, calling for cooperation and mutual accountability with the participation of governments and all stakeholders, is also a new definition of sustainable development. In the context of sustainable water management and more and more obvious nexus between different sustainable goals it provide us with the opportunity to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all; to take an urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts and finally, to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.

Water-energy nexus

However, relationship between water and energy isn’t widely understood. Water policy is about far more than making sure people have enough to drink (it is also about transport, agriculture, pollution, droughts, floods, climate change and energy). The fact that water-energy nexus represents a symbiotic relationship which is crucial and will become increasingly important in years to come, urge us to take a wider perspective and to ensure that policies related to water and energy must be integrated into policy areas like agriculture, transport and planning.

The third millennium river

The Danube is the most important river in Europe and is the European Transport Corridor 7, an integral part of the trans-European navigation system Danube-Main-Rhine. Its total length is 3504 km, connecting the Black Sea with the North Sea and linking the West and East of Europe. The major economic contribution of the Danube for the development of SEE in the fields of transport, renewable energy, usable water for drinking, irrigation and industry, development of fisheries and fishing, shipyards, increasing sources of raw materials, waste water treatment, increasing tourism potential, development of recreation and sport infrastructure is undeniable.

However, the strategic importance of River Danube for cooperation in South East Europe and platform for boosting the integration1 could be even better understood when considering the predictions that in the decades to come, geopolitical options will be more and more linked to the geography of transport, and they will exceed a simple geography of resources, or military geography2.

The stability of this part of Europe remains an unfinished business in spite of remarkable progress over the last decades. Namely, this region could, in a way be viewed as a diminished model of the contemporary world and the developments that have been shaping it in the recent past. As we are witnessing the absence of advancement in the strategic matters in" seismic region" of South-Eastern Europe, new strategic visions are needed which could possibly add a new preoccupation. Here we should pose the question - could the European Danube Strategy represent the boost for economic and environmental regional cooperation and renewal of SEE, as well as the encouragement for overcoming the disintegrative processes in the times of great integration and increasingly pronounced regionalization. Moreover, if the possibility of construction of the "Water Bridge" (Danube-Morava-Vardar-Aegean Sea water link) could represent historical opportunity to finish with a several decades of economic abyss, to end with strategic inferiority, to come out of the long crisis and to transform the region from Geographical Pivot to Geographical Player.

The river Danube as the strategic catalyst of change

The current geopolitical conditions along with the new security architecture and geometry of the South East Europe emphasize very important geopolitical processes in this area, such as the Germany tendencies to become official geo – economic and geopolitical prime mover, as well as continuation of NATO advance towards Russian borders, despite American – Soviet negotiations at the end of the Cold War2. Furthermore, considering particular defense/security and economic geopolitical aspects we complete that especially the Central-Western Balkans Subsystem is clear about the competition between US-Berlin and Paris-Berlin. The US wants NATO integration in the Balkan Peninsula in co-operation with France (which is claimed to be formalized by the French military/naval presence in Larnaca) in order to prevent "the Russian descend" on the Mediterranean. In the same time Germany, "discreetly serving" the Berlin-Moscow-Ankara interests, is aiming the creation of a German energy axis. These energy security intentions (independence of the Anglo-Saxon limitations in energy control) have become increasingly apparent from the creation of the Russia-Germany Nord Stream I and II pipeline system. Moreover, Berlin would like to extend its economic and political influence into the zone of the Danube-Morava-Vardar axis. If this is achieved, it is estimated that Germany (as the economic and political leader of the EU), in cooperation with the other international land force, the Russian Federation, could be able to proceed with the implementation of a (South Stream type) Russian-Iranian-German energy corridor, where the recent relations between Moscow and Ankara could help. Further German economic and financial intensions (creation of a future link between the Rotterdam and the Aegean hydrocarbon spot market) are very important issue for an emerging Germany, (as well for probability of increasing of European energy security), and could potentially represent the step forward in achieving "its dream of descending to the Aegean from the Austro-Hungarian era". Eventually, Port Said-Rotterdam axis would be completed with the implementation of the Danube-Morava-Vardar-Aegean Sea waterway. Nevertheless, the expected American reactions, which could indicate if the Washington has lost the geopolitical game in the North Aegean to the benefit of the German-Russian-Turkish-Iranian bloc, in addition to fore coming China`s involvement by using it as part of the "New Silk Road", should not be neglected. Although it is a fact that in the near future, the economies of Central and Eastern Europe will be able to transport goods through "One Belt One Road", an alternative sea route to take advantage of the dynamic economic developments under way in East Africa and South Asia is critical to both Europe and China. Additionally, on the assumption the aforementioned project is considered feasible and sustainable, the involvement of the European Union, which prioritizes inland waterway transport, could be also assured.

Supporters of the Danube-Morava-Vardar-Aegean Sea waterway point out that this project would enhance the transport of products to the markets of Central and Northern Europe, as well as the Caucasus and the Black Sea and would shorten the route between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean In addition, fiber optic cable infrastructures may be developed along this route for high speed data transmission during its construction. The most important arguments against this project are its excessive cost, long construction period (approximately 13 years), possible negative impact on the environment and its profitability. On the other side, the facts such as electricity generation, new workplaces and significantly "transport shortcuts" speak in favor of its further implementation3. As to the Serbia, the possible construction would significantly change its geostrategic, geo-economic and geopolitical position, transforming it automatically in a well-connected river state. Accordingly, sufficiency in electric power supply could be achieved (and to a very good extent the rest of the countries). Especially for Serbia, there may be surplus energy to the extent that it will become an electricity exporter. Moreover, elimination of natural disasters including floods could be achieved in this way4.

Taking into consideration that one of the sustainable goals is clean energy, where the role of natural gas could be perceived as a bridge to sustainable energy future, the importance of sustainable water management in the aforementioned context could be characterized as one of crucial significance.

Trans-boundary cooperation is crucial in preventing the problems

Although there are efforts to improve the water management and the cooperation on trans-boundary issues in the SEE region, still the level of awareness of the consequences of the climate change and pollution that may have on the quality of the water is not very high. Without a transnational approach toward tackling these challenges, this area doesn’t have a chance for success in planning against threats. The continual depletion of South East Europe’s fresh water resources threatens the entire region’s long-term stability, as anticipated impacts of climate change are expected to further diminish future water supplies and force drastic restructuring of land-use practice among many interlinked nations. By developing sustainable management practices throughout SEE region, we could prevent potential conflicts that could arise from destabilization of fresh water availability. Moreover the trans-boundary cooperation could be perceived as crucial in reducing uncertainty through the exchange of data, shared costs and benefits. Finally, it could help to prevent conflict, promote peace and regional integration, as well as wider economic development.

Notwithstanding, the role of the river Danube as a boost for economic development, safety and environmental protection in the region and its potentials should be considered of high priority and value. Danube Strategy, being launched as the “pilot project” to intensify policy coordination among involved grouping of countries in the Danube region has a wider strategic importance. Namely, Danube Strategy is one of the major vehicles for embedding “smart, sustainable and inclusive” growth. Additionally, Danube Strategy has important external dimension in the South-Eastern Europe where it can supplement the EU accession process by stirring regional cooperation and enhancing perspectives for its long-term success5.

Sustainability as the new definition of human security

In recent years, the issue of water security has been gaining traction in the global political agenda and earning attention from national governments at the highest level. Water security offers opportunities for cooperation, collaboration, and for addressing challenges in a multi-disciplinary and cross-sectoral way, to manage continued, sustainable development and growth. Achieving water security is a dynamic goal and the context for achievement is a constantly evolving world.

These, of course, are global goals, and it is the responsibility of each country to translate them down to the regional and national level. Because of similarities across the region, and elements of shared history, it might be useful to explore shared regional priorities for the SDGs, and to found out what is needed to transform the region. The SDGs could also provide one useful framework for identifying the themes that contribute collectively to human security. A new human concept of security can open the door to brighter future for the region where the sustainability could even be perceived as the long-term definition of human security.

1 Kingdom of Yugoslavia in International Danube Commission, Belgrade, 2016.
2 Zoran Petrović Piroćanac, Reality of the New Balkans: Serbian Positions, New Balkans and Europe-Peace Development Integration, Proceedings of the Tenth ECPD International Conference on Reconciliation, Tolerance and Human Security in the Balkans, Belgrade 2014, pp. 275-288.
3 G. Mazis, The Question of Prespa Agreement and Axios-Vardaris-Morava-Danube Axis, Ta Nea 29.09.2018.
4 M. Radaković, Economic and environmental cooperation in the Danube Basin. The Danube-Morava-Vardar-Aegean Sea Water way, pp. 175-185.
5 S. Čvrljak, H. Butković, Danube strategy of EU and its strategic significance for the Republic of Croatia, pp. 81-95.