Morava – Vardar (Axios) Navigation Route


Author: Dobrivoje Jovanovski; at the time of presenting this project working at PIM “Ivan Milutinović”, Belgrade, SCG

Editors note: This paper was first presented at the II International Conference “Danube – River of Cooperation” in 1993 and it proved to be a very popular topic ever since. This is why we decided to republish it in the renewed Danubius.


The idea of connecting the river Danube with the Aegean Sea by a navigable route via the rivers Morava and Vardar (Axios) dates back to the last century. It is based on the geographical-topographical characteristics and suitability of the terrain.

Natural location of the Morava and Vardar river beds and possibility of connecting them on a short section between the rivers Južna Morava and Pčinje affords extraordinary possibilities to materialize a navigable route from the Danube up to Thessalonike in the Aegean Sea.

Long ago, in 1841 raised the question of the river traffic on the Morava; at that time, four, so to say “mail ships” reached the place of Čuprija and it was suggested to “measure” the river Morava and find out the navigable possibilities”. This was published in “Serbian Newspapers”. France was the first to show the interest to invest capital in regulation of the Morava River. During the period of the second reign of Serbian ruler Miloš Obrenović was founded a French-Serbian steamship company for river traffic on the Danube, the Sava and the Morava. During the period from 1844 to 1964 this steamship company named “French-Serbian Shipping Company”, joining its interests with French “Principal Shipping Company” established by decree of Napoleon III dated September 14. 1850 developed the vivid activity to establish the river traffic on the Danube, the Sava and the Morava.

Serbia was very much interested in regulation of the river Morava which was said to be “the river which cut the very heart of the country and which was, by its nature, determined to export our goods and import what our country needs”. This was the best way to make the river Morava “the main commercial road of Serbia. In July 1859 one French company addressed to Serbian ruler Miloš Obrenović, applied for exclusive permission for its steamer to navigate by the river Morava for the period of thirty years”. After longer negotiations, clearing up controversial questions, testing the possibilities and after diplomatic interventions of Russian consul who “made an effort to force the Serbian government to renounce the Russian company the right for navigation”, the contract was made on September 18. 1860.

The company was interested in:

  • introducing the river traffic on the Danube and the Sava,
  • regulation of the river Morava and introducing the river traffic on the Morava,
  • exploitation of Dobra and Majdanpek mines, and
  • design of rail-road tracks in order to avoid navigation difficulties at Djerdap.

The outstanding economic interest of the company was the exploitation of mines as well as the sale of French salt in Serbia and finally the navigation itself, which reflected in this company activities in the following years. Since it was the company of limited guarantee, and later on proved as a company with suspicious business qualities, the contract was broken in 1864 and no building was started on the river Morava.

Serbia never gave up the idea to make the Morava capable for river traffic. In 1867 the first more serious investigations of the river Morava were performed in order to check the river navigable capabilities. Followed the building of a special ship named “Morava” and in 1869 the state expedition team led by Ante Aleksić, an engineering officer, made special measuring on the river Velika Morava from its estuary up to place of Ćuprija. After that date, the constant river traffic was to be introduced on the river Velika Morava, but this intention was never realized due to shortage of the required investments.

In 1879, “Messenger of Serbian Learned Society” published the book “The Morava, Its Present State and Navigation Possibilities” by Ante Aleksić, dealing with technical possibilities and commercial justification of introducing the river traffic on the Morava.

In 1904 was renewed the movement for building the navigable route in order to connect the Danube with the Aegean Sea. To realize this intention special efforts were made to make England and Germany interested in financing the project. Contacts with influential financial circles in England and Germany helped the idea, as well as well as suggestion to make the Americans interested in this project, and through them, the English and Germans too. An American firm of New Jersey (USA) in 19078 made a preliminary project design of a navigable route Morava-Vardar (Axios) in that time named as “the line of European economic gravitation in relation to Suez Canal”.

Nikola Stemenković, professor of Technical Faculty of University of Belgrade, was engaged for the mentioned project as “an expert, authorized in building canals and river regulations”. Reports and preliminary project design with cost estimates for navigable route were submitted to Serbian and Turkish governments in 1909 with ” an application for concession and permission for execution of necessary preliminary works and treatment of site to finance the project up to final building of the navigable route”. However, political situation in Europe in relation to the Balkans put out the action and disabled any hope for any success of political ideas, which could support the project, and any attempt to materialize it was given up. The wars broke out in 1912 and later on it was necessary to eliminate the consequences of the wars. Therefore, any activity associated with realization of building up the navigable route Morava-Vardar (Axios) fade away and technical-economic investigations and building possibilities were not continued before 1961.

Up to now a certain number of studies and projects were done and each of them was dealing with the Morava-Vardar navigable route:

  • The river Morava, its present state and possibilities of navigation by A. Aleksić, Beograd 1879.
  • Project of the navigable routes Danube – Thessaloniki by Prof. Dr. N. Stamenković, Beograd 1909.
  • Preliminary project of the navigable route Danube – Thessaloniki , made by Projektantski Zavod Rečnog Saobraćaja, Beograd 1961.
  • Economic studies of the river Vardar catchment area, made by Zavod za vodostopanstvo S.R.Makedonija.
  • Study of navigation on the rivers Velika Morava, Južna Morava and Zapadna Morava, made by Projektantski zavod “Ivan Milutinović”, Beograd 1964.
  • Study of the problems of traffic in connection with arrangement of Morava catchment area, made by Institut za vodoprivredu “Jaroslav Černi” of Beograd, 1964.
  • The economic base of the river Morava catchment area, made by Združeno opšte vodoprivredno preduzeće “Morava” of Beograd, 1971.
  • Supplement to the preliminary project Morava-Vardar (Axios) navigable route, made by Projektantski zavod “Ivan Milutinović of Beograd, 1973.
  • Navigable route Morava-Vardar (Axios), Report of United Nations Experts, Beograd 1973.

All the above listed studies and projects are approved as accomplishable for realization and justified from technical and economic point of view. Almost all technical parameters of the canal have been determined: the route, hydrological and geological conditions, cross and longitudinal sections, structures on the waterway as well as the structures on Morava-Vardar wider catchment area. This should enable and contribute the successful regulation and realization of the navigable route as well as water utilization of both catchment areas. In addition to this, basic economic parameters of the navigable route have been provided.

Geographic location of Yugoslavia and its hydrographic network enable very favorable conditions for development of river traffic and give chance to this branch to take the adequate place in transport activities specially in international transportation of goods by the river Danube which is the main river of this part of Europe and which connects almost all countries of the West, Middle and East Europe.

Building of navigable route Morava-Vardar (Axios) and its joining and fitting into European magisterial canals through the canal Rhine – Main – Danube shall be of outstanding importance both for Yugoslav economic prosperity and for complementary economics of West, Middle and East Europe.

The length of the navigable route from Belgrade downstream the Danube up to the Black Sea and across it up to the Aegean Sea is 1889km, while the length of the of the navigable route from Belgrade up to the Aegean Sea along the valleys of the Morava and the Vardar (Axios) would be approximately not more than some 700 km. Only this information is sufficient to point out to economic importance of the waterway Morava-Vardar (Axsios).

Technical solution of the navigable route

The navigable route Morava-Vardar (Axios) by the canal Rhine-Main-Danube is foreseen to connect and fit into the European network of magisterial canals. The concept to qualify the route Morava-Vardar (Axios) as the navigable route and the perspective idea to realize its connection by canal through Preševo and Pčinje are the shortest way to join European navigable network with the Mediterranean.

With respect to all these conditions and at the same time perceiving further outlooks of development the rank of the navigable route Morava-Vardar (Axios) has been determined as a canal of Class IV. This corresponds to the conditions accepted for the canal Rhine-Main-Danube; namely it is adequate to the classification of the navigable routes of international importance among the countries which are the members of the European economic commission.

Main elements of the canal are:
depth of water in the middle of cross section 4,00 m
depth of water in the edge of the bottom 3,75 m
maximum width at draught level 43,00 m
minimum width at draught level 28,00 m
side slope up to the height of 1 m above the bottom 1:4
side slope over the height of 1 m above the bottom 1:3
minimum radius of curve R=800 m
Minimum over-all size under bridges:
Free height above normal water level 5,25-10,0 m
Free opening under bridge 50-70 m
Minimum height under high voltage transmission line 10-13 m

These dimensions are applied as minimum ones and on the sections of the navigable route, which is designed as a lateral canal, i.e. on that route which is just downstream from step-dams.

The widths and depths of the navigable route are considerably bigger at those parts of the route, which follow the natural and regulated river courses of the Velika Morava, the Južna Morava, and the Vardar. The dimensions of the canal locks on the navigable route are also the same as those on the canal Rhine-Main-Danube and they are:

minimum free length 190,00 m
free length of lock 12,00 m
depth of water at the lock sill 3,50 m

Total length of the navigable route Morava-Vardar (Axios) is 650,1 km. The beginnings at the estuary of the Velika Morava into the Danube (nearby Smederevo, or some 50 km downstream from Belgrade). The canal continues along the river Velika Morava up to place of Stala} and running farther along the river Južna Morava. The water parting of the river Južna Morava is located on the broad plateau near Preševo, and flows northward and towards the Vardar (Axios) which is running southward. The navigable route is running through the valleys of the river Pčinje and continues by the river Vardar (Axios) up to Yugoslav-Greek border and later toward the Thessalonike By. According to certain characteristics, the navigable route is divided in five sections.

Basic elements of the navigable canal Morava-Vardar (Axios)
Total length 650,10 km
Length of canal in the Morava area 345,74 km
Length of canal in Vardar area 274,68 km
Section on water parting 29,68 km
Total length of the regulated river courses of the Morava, the Vardar (Axios) and the Pčinje 483,60 km
Total length of lateral canals 166,50 km
Total number of steps 63
– dams with ship locks 58
– ship lifts 5
Number of steps within sea area:
– dams with ship locks 37
– ship lifts 1
Number of steps within the Vardar area:
– dams with ship locks 21
– ship lifts 4
Length of canal branch along the river Zapadna Morava up to Kraljevo 73 km
Length of canal branch along the river Nišava up to Niš 15 km
Length of canal branch along the river Vardar up to Skoplje 35 km

Navigable route is foreseen to be provided with all structures required for undisturbed and safe traffic:

  • Steps are designed to surmount the excessive falls of the natural river course. Each step has its own dam with moveable gate for water pass and ship lock. Hydropower plant may be easily built up on dams.
  • Ship lifts are foreseen on both sides of the water parting at Preševo in order to reduce the lost of water: one ship lift is designed on the Morava side and four on the Vardar side.
  • The ship lift consists of a rail track with a gradient of 5% which, for the height of 36 m gives the ship lift length of 720 m. Two tanks size 91 m. long 12 m wide and 3,7 m deep full of water travel along the tracks. When a vessel enters or leaves the chamber, the loss of water is negligible.
  • Five tunnels are designed on the navigable route Morava-Vardar at the locations, which are justified from topographic point of view. Dimension of tunnels: 14,5 m width; 3,75 m depth; 11,0-m free height from water level.
  • Anchorage are designed and located upstream and downstream of the canal lock aimed for vessels waiting to pass through the locks.
  • Passing places are foreseen for double canal locks between two steps and are intended for vessels to cross ways or for possible anchor.
  • All precautions are provided for canal beds or for natural river course as well as for mouth of canal and make of protective embankment and regulation works at the mouth of the tributaries depending upon topographic and hydrological conditions as well as longitudinal section condition.
  • Ports will be built along the canal for handling and storage of goods.

The rank of these ports will be determined by the size and significance of the place through which the canal runs as the expected gross turnover of exports, imports and transit.

Depending upon the goods turnover, in the port would be built one or more trans-shipment points, which would be able to handle approximately 250.000 t of goods per year.

The principal port structures shall be: berth, open storage area, fuel tank, warehouses for cargo, open area for containers, administrative building, road and railway network as well as the equipment necessary for complete cargo handling facilities and organization for receipt and export-import of goods.

Since detailed determining of the rank and size of the ports and goods tonnage handling will be the subject of further studies and designs, here is given only a review of places at which ports and other capacity are foreseen.

Place Rank of port
Annual tonnage
Distances in km of canal
Svetozarevo 400.000-500.000 km 110
Stalać 250.000 km 156
Kruševac 400.000-500.000 on the Zapadna Morava
Kraljevo 400.000-500.000 on the Zapadna Morava
Niš 1,000.000-1,500.000 km 210
Leskovac 400.000-500.000 km 257
Vranje 250.000 km 320
Kumanovo 400.000-500.000 km 386
Skoplje 1,000.000-1,500.000 km 431

The advantages of transport by waterways

The main advantages of river and canal transport over rail and road traffic are in considerably low transport costs, in big capacities, in reduced number of employee, in big advantages in loading and discharging, storage and maintenance of various types of goods and their safety in transit.

Constant increase of waterway traffic has been recorded after the Second World War up to the present time. The attitude that the river traffic is untenable in certain degree of development of other means of transportation showed as a wrong attitude, especially in the most developed countries such as West Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, USA and some others. The advantage of transport by waterways, development of industrial and other capacities and permanent improvement of international relationships influenced to the increase of freightage by river traffic. Therefore the role of water in transport facility should be more used for transport of bulk cargo and for transport of quantities of goods which cannot bear the expensive land transport rates.

Both in Europe and in the whole are carrying out the large projects referring realization of big communications systems, regulation of canals, river courses, construction of canals and other structures intended for joining the areas rich of raw materials with the areas of developed industrial production. Building of big European arterial river canals from north towards west and east enables the connection of big production centers with big marketing centers.


Out of all up to now made studies, projects and supplements on the Morava-Vardar (Axios) navigable route, results one basic conclusion that the building of the Morava-Vardar canal is technically accomplishable and economically justified.

Connected with the European canal network and Rhine-Main-Danube artery, the Morava-Vardar (Axios) canal will have a great influence on the increase of economic benefit of the eastern and western economy, technically coordinated transportation system of water and land transport.

Navigable route Morava-Vardar (Axios) shall be the shorten route Belgrade – Thessaloniki for approximately 1200 km if compared to the route running by the Danube, the Black Sea and Aegean Sea.

Multiple advantages provided by navigable route Morava-Vardar (Axios) are as follows:

  • Stimulation, approvement and speed up of the entire economic and social development of Yugoslavia and Greece.
  • Saving of costs and shorter time of navigation comparing to navigation time by the Danube, and across the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea. The achieved saving of costs is 25% to 30% in favour of the waterway Morava-Vardar (Axios).
  • In addition to it, time of navigation is shortened for three days.
  • Cheaper transport costs pet ton/kilometre comparing to canal and railway (road) traffic. In this case, the average railway transport cost could be twice more expensive.
  • Possibility of paying the shipping charges in national currency.
  • Benefits and advantages in internal ports for the vessels of the countries which would participate in financing the building of the navigation route.
  • Building, exploitation, and maintenance of the navigable route and new ports shall affect to the increased activities connected with the means of production, raw material and equipment.
  • Improved protection of water within the area where water way is passing through and benefits resulting from supply of township and industry, electric power production, improvement of water quality and regulation of flooding wave.
  • Increased possibility for better employment of different occupations required for proper maintenance of waterway, river ports and equipment.
  • Increased value of the ground alongside the navigable route.


Morava – Vardar (Axios) Navigation Route — 2 Comments

  1. Dear Dobrivoje Jovanovski, I am interested for cooperation with you and all who is interested in this project…At the moment I am proposing development of the small feims and large project as it is Morava – Vardar (Axios) Navigation Route… There are many small business participate in the large project …as preparation of the equipment and goods including civil komponents for the River making navigable…
    Regads, Nikola Vucinic

  2. Pingback: Mesto, uloga i značaj Srbije u realizaciji principa i smernica usvojenih u Dunavskoj strategiji