Less Known Face of the Plain
They were endless marshes and brought many troubles. A boundless puddle which sometimes threatened to swallow everything. Efforts to make canals for draining surpluses of water, dry the marsh and turn it into granaries began in the XVIII century. The construction of the 110 kilometers long Big Canal of Bačka began already in 1793. Last year observed sixty years since the beginning of the Danube-Tisa-Danube hydrosystem construction. Today it is a network of natural and artificial water streams, almost a thousand kilometers long, thereof 600 navigable. There are 86 bridges on it, many locks, dams, pumping stations… A real treasure waiting to be utilized better

Text and Photo: Miodrag Grubački

Today a granary, a boundless sea of farmland, Vojvodina looked completely different in the not such distant past. In the early XVIII Century, when the last Turkish conquerors were leaving those lands, the Danube, Tisa, Begej, Tamiš, Brzava and other watercourses flowed into endless ponds and marshes, bringing only troubles to rare inhabitants. Epidemics ravaged, rare and low quality roads were flooded, and the development of agriculture couldn’t even be imagined.
During the great people’s migration to the then Austro-Hungarian territory, when Serbs under Čarnojević, Germans, Slovaks, Rusines, Romanians began arriving north of the Sava and the Danube, the first ideas and plans about drying marshes and turning them into farmland appeared. Finally, in 1793, under management of hydrotechnical engineer Joseph Kish (Budapest 1748, – Sombor, 1813), works on the construction of the Big Canal of Bačka commenced, from Bezdan on the Danube to Bečej on the Tisa. With a total length of 110 kilometers, the canal they also call Kish’s is today the central part of the powerful Danube-Tisa-Danube hydrosystem.
Based on the achievement of Joseph Kish, author, architect and first builder of the canal, other segments of this hydrosystem, the biggest hydrotechnical endeavor in the middle Danube area, on a terrain with particularly complex hydro-geographical features, were realized later. The Big Canal of Bačka was dug manually, hiring up to two thousand workers, and was put into operation in 1802. Its builder, following his own wish, was buried on his estate in Vrbas, on a hill overlooking the canal, Kish’ life’s work.
A memorial was raised in the immediate vicinity of the Vrbas Šlajz, one of the most important hydrotechnical objects on the canal route. Šlajz in Vrbas originates from the time of building the Big Canal, with characteristic oak gates and shackles hammered in Austria, while the lock was built of brick. During the Danube-Tisa-Danube hydrosystem construction in 1967, it was reconstructed and adapted in accordance with then technical requests. Today this area is a city resort and place for resting, recreation, sports and fishing.
Locks, dams, pump stations and accompanying equipment are part of the rich hydrotechnical heritage of Vojvodina and direct testimony of transforming swamps and flooded areas into farmland and wheat fields.


Thanks to the Big Canal of Bačka, as well as other canals in this hydrosystem, many places throughout Vojvodina got their ”rivers”: Sombor, Vrbas, Kula, Crvenka, Srbobran, many smaller towns. In time, people got used to living next to the canals, using all their possibilities and advantages. The Big Canal of Bačka enters the Tisa near Bečej at its end, where nature was especially generous and rich in flora and fauna. Another object, which also became a valuable part of the hydrotechnical heritage, was built here, a dam, both visually and functionally interesting. It is believed that it was designed in the famous studio of Gustave Eifel, who participated in building different steel constructions throughout the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy at the time. It was the first lock in Europe powered by self-produced direct current, from a turbine built on the right bank of the Tisa, immediately next to the canal. It was strong enough to set the šlajz in motion during opening and closing, as well as a big sawmill. When the dam was completed, in 1896, it was a ”technical wonder” for the time. People say that almost all reputable European hydrotechnology engineers were present at the opening, as well as two engineers from Japan.
Out of operation since 1975, it was proclaimed a cultural monument. Today it serves only as a sluice gate during declined water levels of the Tisa. The Bečej šlajz, a place often visited by locals, is also attractive to artists, especially filmmakers.
The sluice near Klek, a settlement near Zrenjanin, was built immediately before World War I, at the time of canaling waters in Banat, in this case the river Begej, from its confluence into the Tisa to Timisoara in Romania. With a role to maintain the water level in the river during low and medium flows, this sluice also represents an interesting engineering and architectural work. A lock with one ship chamber was built next to it. The sluice was upgraded in 1969, within the extensive investments in the canals and objects of the Danube-Tisa-Danube hydrosystem, and enables passage for ships up to 500 tons. Identical to the one in Klek, the sluice in Srpski Itebej was built in the same period, near the Serbian-Romanian border, about twenty kilometers upstream.


Hydrotechnical objects on canals were built to regulate different inflows of water from big rivers, accept surpluses of water during floods if necessary, or, irrigate the surrounding land in dry seasons by pumps. When the idea about constructing the Danube-Tisa-Danube canal network was initiated in 1947, the five existing locks of the Canal of Bačka were connected to the hydrosystem, and ten new built along its route. The Danube-Tisa-Danube hydrosystem, with natural and partially reconstructed watercourses, is almost a thousand kilometers long, thereof 600 kilometers navigable. Its network connects as many as 80 settlements in Vojvodina. Since many roads were cut by digging the canal, 86 concrete bridges were built – for road vehicles, railway and pedestrian.
The previous year, 2017, was thus a year of a triple jubilee – 70 years since the idea about the construction, 60 years since the commencement of building (1957) and 40 since the completion, when (in 1977), the largest object in the hydrosystem, the dam on the Tisa near Novi Bečej, was put into operation. From that dam, a network of watercourses through Banat is connected to the Big Canal of Bačka, until they meet again with the Danube near Banatska Palanka. The mighty river, before its entrance into the Đerdap Gorge, under the medieval Ram fortress on its right bank, proves is power once again, reminding of a large lake with its width.
Miodrag Zarić in Čenta, a village located in the middle of the road between Belgrade and Zrenjanin, gave a unique example of the revitalization of hydrotechnical heritage and its adaptation to elite tourism. The famous businessman and founder of the Special Hospital for Hyperbaric Medicine not only completely renewed the old pump station from 1909 at his estate, used for draining surpluses of water from the Danube and Tisa marsh, but also complemented the estate with 12 apartments in the Banat ethno-style, a restaurant, mini zoo, sports and recreation grounds. After six years of regaining its previous splendor, the desolated and forgotten pump station with powerful steam engines thus became an integral part of a unique eating establishment, together with a white ”Steinway” piano, ownership of the famous Serbian painter Paja Jovanović in 1934...
Thanks to the canal network and numerous hydrotechnical objects on it, the people of Vojvodina gained a great fortune, although it seems it is insufficiently utilized. Development of agriculture, irrigation and drainage, transportation of goods, recreational sailing, tourism, fishing, improvement of river banks, all this can be much more developed than it is the case now. Serbia opens many of its doors to the world, but perhaps it would be easiest and fastest to open the water gates, revitalize sluices and locks on rivers and canals, and greet smaller and bigger ships and boats from neighboring and other European countries in a more serious manner. And offer them resting and enjoying the undiscovered part of the plain…


Ship locks on canals, whose German name schleis has been used to the very day, were places where locals liked to gather. They are arranged areas of river banks, attractive for picnics, somewhere also for bathing. They are especially loved by fishermen, since schools of fish are retained before sluices and there are much more of them than in other parts of the watercourses.


Hydro-Knot in Klek
Also known as Šlajz, the hydro-knot in Klek is an arranged local resort, with tied small ships, nice hidden places for fishing, a place where the youngest can hear and see a waterfall, even in the middle of the plain. Only a few hundred meters downstream, the Begej canal merges with the original river course, and somewhat further – the people of Klek call the place the Triangle – the route of the Danube-Tisa-Danube Canal separates from the river towards the village of Botoš, where it merges with another important watercourse of Banat, the Tamiš.


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