In 2016 the government of Poland adopted a development strategy for inland waterways, to adapt the country's rivers to the criteria of international standards for inland waterways, corresponding to at least navigability class IV. The Act relating to Poland's ratification of the European Agreement on Main Inland Waterways of International Importance came into force on 15 February 2017. The Act, even if only partially implemented, will pose a grave threat to the largest Central European rivers. The strategy's main aims include modifying river beds, drainage, dredging, and the construction of dams, reservoirs, levees and riverside revetments along the lengths of Poland's longest rivers. The strategy is only viable if the main rivers are converted into a series of canals by the construction of barrages. This would have a dramatic impact on pan-European environmental corridors and river ecosystems in Germany, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Belarus.
Implementing the strategy in the Oder valley would undermine the integrity of the entire chain of protected areas along this river, including 17 Natura 2000 sites from the Czech border to the Baltic Sea. A preliminary analysis carried out by a team of scientists and NGO experts, led by the Naturalists’ Club (www.kp.org.pl/pdf/stanowiska/wodne/2016-09_Risk_influence_inl_waterways_develop_on_nature.pdf), indicates that the project threatens some of the most valuable rivers in Europe, including associated riparian, ash–elm–oak forest, and large numbers of nesting and foraging sites of threatened species such as the white-tailed eagle Haliaeetus albicilla, black kite Milvus migrans, red kite Milvus milvus, black tern Chlidonias niger, corn crake Crex crex, middle spotted woodpecker Dendrocopos medius and others protected by the EU's Habitats and Birds Directives. Most of the unique oxbow ecosystem together with its plants and animals would disappear, including many localities of the floating water-plantain Luronium natans, northern crested newt Triturus cristatus, European fire-bellied toad Bombina bombina, yellow-bellied toad Bombina variegata, Eurasian otter Lutra lutra and Eurasian beaver Castor fiber. The estimated cost of the works on the 742 km of the Oder alone is USD 7.1 billion during the next 15 years.
In the Vistula valley the integrity of the 10 Natura 2000 areas and 10 nature reserves between Warsaw and the Baltic Sea would be damaged. Habitats for rare species of birds (e.g. the largest Polish breeding populations of common ringed plover Charadrius hiaticula, common gull Larus canus, sandwich tern Sterna sandvicensis, common tern Sterna hirundo and little tern Sternula albifrons) would be destroyed, as would sandbanks, the sole resting sites of the grey seal Halichoerus grypus in Poland. Barrage construction on both the Vistula and Oder would hamper the migration of diadromous fish, reducing access to their spawning grounds.
Important aspects of the strategy are canal connections with the Dniester and Danube basins. These would threaten Europe's freshwater ecosystems by facilitating migration of alien plant and animal species between basins.
The Polish government's strategy appears to contradict EU law, and contravenes the Habitats and Birds Directive and the Water Framework Directive. Nevertheless, some aspects of this strategy are to be financed by the European Investment Bank (part of the so-called Juncker Plan) and are being considered by the World Bank. The European Commission is, however, investigating whether the strategy's environmental impact has been properly assessed. In response to the threat posed by the strategy, more than 20 NGOs (including WWF Poland and BirdLife Poland) have formed a coalition under the name Koalicja Ratujmy Rzeki! (Save the rivers!; www.kp.org.pl/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1173&Itemid=353).