With a canal through the Vistula Spit, Poland wants to secure further access to the Baltic Sea. In the future, ships are to call at the port of Elblag without having to pass through Russian sovereign waters. The PiS government celebrates the building as a liberation.
In the dense mixed forest behind the beach of the Baltic Sea, a deep aisle suddenly opens up. The high dunes are severed. Steep slopes lead down to a building that Poland’s government wants to inaugurate with great pomp on September 17th.
A one kilometer long shipping canal through the Vistula Spit will in future connect the Baltic Sea with the Vistula Lagoon. With the breakthrough, Poland wants to ensure free access to the sea for the port of Elblag (Elbing) – and make shipping independent of Russian approval.
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The canal is a prestige project of Poland’s national conservative PiS government. She sees the construction as a liberation against Russia. Economists consider the canal to be economically pointless, and conservationists criticize the destruction of the coastal biotope.
But the Ukraine war and the recent dispute between Lithuania and Russia over Kaliningrad have given PiS boss Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s pet project, which was once ridiculed, new political relevance.
The Vistula Spit is a 70 km long tongue of land that separates the Vistula Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. The border between Poland and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad runs across the Spit. The northern part of the lagoon also belongs to Russia.
Only here is there a natural transition to the Baltic Sea. This means that ships that want to get out to sea from the port in Elblag have to go through Russian sovereign waters. And for many years, Russia has been slow to issue permits for this. This harms the port of Elblag.
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Warsaw chose a highly symbolic date for the inauguration of the canal: On September 17, 1939, the Red Army invaded eastern Poland during World War II, after German troops had invaded the country on September 1.
At the groundbreaking ceremony in 2018, Kaczynski emphasized the historical significance of the building for him: “Poland lived in the situation of a non-sovereign state for many years. By building this canal, we are showing once and for all that we also have full sovereignty in this area.”
The Polish state is willing to pay for its sovereignty. The piercing through the spit alone cost 992 million zlotys – the equivalent of 210 million euros.
In further construction phases, a fairway has to be created through the lagoon and the Elblag river has to be dredged. The total cost is currently estimated at 2.2 billion zlotys – almost half a billion euros.
Traffic expert Wlodimierz Rydzkowski from the University of Gdańsk sees no sense in the investment. The canal can accommodate ships with a maximum length of 100 meters, a width of up to 20 meters and a maximum draft of 4.5 meters.
“This allows the use of ships with a carrying capacity of up to 3,500 tons. There are no such small cargo ships on the Baltic Sea. They sail on the Rhine.” In addition, there is an ultra-modern deep-water port in Gdansk, just 60 kilometers from Elblag, which is used by large container ships.
The canal is a “fantasy of PiS boss Kaczynski,” says Rydzkowski: “These are purely prestige considerations to show the Russians that we have our way from the lagoon to the Baltic Sea.” He only sees opportunities for pleasure boats.
Conservationists fear the construction will have negative effects on the ecosystem of the lagoon and spit. Nitrogen compounds and phosphates from agriculture have been deposited in the bottom sediment of the lagoon, says Krzysztof Cibor from Greenpeace Polska.
“The moment the fairway is dredged, these substances are whirled up. This could trigger an algal bloom – we recently saw the tragic consequences of this when the fish died in the Oder.”
In addition, the canal cuts off deer, wild boar and elk in the north-east of the spit from the way to the rest of the country. “This artificial island location is bad for the animal population.”
The building is controversial among the residents of the Vistula Spit itself. A citizens’ initiative that wanted to mobilize against the project has fallen asleep. In the small fishing and tourist town of Katy Rybackie, a guesthouse owner has high hopes for the canal.
“This increases the attractiveness of our entire region. The canal will bring many tourists who will come here with their pleasure boats and yachts,” says the 74-year-old, who does not want to give his name for fear of hostilities.
He will soon demolish his pension. A French expert in real estate projects wants to build a large complex with holiday apartments on the property.
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