Make Room for the River: Restoring the Danube Delta

Swollen by heavy rain and melting snow, the Danube River — Europe’s second longest river behind the Volga — hit its highest level in Romania in 111 years in April, swamping ports and thousands of hectares of farmland.

Floodwaters have returned to central Europe, menacing towns, villages and human lives. Swollen by heavy rain and melting snow, the Danube River — Europe’s second longest river behind the Volga — hit its highest level in Romania in 111 years in April, swamping ports and thousands of hectares of farmland.

In Bulgaria and Romania, the floods come less than a year after having caused enormous damage and even loss of life, serving to underline man-made changes to the river’s floodplains.

Beside their natural flood control function, floodplains have multiple values, such as keeping high water quality by trapping sediments and pollutants, providing habitats for plants and animals, supporting sustainable tourism, forestry and rich fisheries, and replenishing groundwater tables.

But human interventions in the floodplains of the Danube and its major tributaries have led to a dramatic situation that is altering the natural flow of the river. The long-term practice of forcing water into a narrow corset and expediting its run-off has failed. In order to provide natural flood protection and restore the health of the river, the Danube needs room. But, is it getting the space it deserves?

Digging up the Delta
In May 2004, dredgers began chomping their way through the core zone of the Danube Delta biosphere reserve in Ukraine, one of the most valuable wetland areas in the world, to make way for a massive canal project.

Without public notice and in violation of national and international environmental law, the Ukrainian government, then under the regime of President Leonid Kuchma, began dredging a canal through the delta to allow large vessels to travel directly between the Danube River and the Black Sea. The government claimed that the construction of the canal was important to reviving the country’s depressed shipping industry in the delta and a solution to the region’s unemployment woes.

“The construction of the canal would have a severe negative impact on both the ecology and the socio-economic situation in the delta,” said Michael Baltzer, director of WWF’s Danube-Carpathian Programme. “The action by the previous Ukrainian government demonstrated a serious lack of commitment to international conventions that Ukraine is signatory to and showed that the government was prepared to renege on promises made to protect the delta.”

Since its inception, the construction of Bystroye Canal unleashed a fury of protests. The EU Commission noted its strong disapproval, while the secretariats of international environmental conventions, including the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the Bern Convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats, agreed that the decision went against international agreements.

Not least, the project was opposed within Ukraine by a relatively small, but vociferous and dedicated group of environmentalists, local communities and civic activists, often at great risk. In attempts to dissuade opposition, the biosphere reserve’s administration gasoline supplies were cut, making it difficult to patrol the delta area, and was subjected to numerous tax and other inspections. Employees were even threatened.

But that did not deter people like Olya Melen, a young, but gritty environmental lawyer, who fought against the canal in the courts, unveiling the project’s shaky legal grounds. Working with the Ukrainian-based Environment-People-Law (EPL) organization, Melen filed lawsuits to prevent the construction of the canal and filed complaints with several international environmental conventions to force the Ukrainian government to justify its canal plans at a time when the country was seeking acceptance to the European Union.

“As a public interest environmental lawyer, my goal is to seek the rule of law to preserve nature for present and future generations,” said Melen who recently won the prestigious Goldman Environmental prize for her work in the Danube Delta, an area where WWF has long been concentrating its conservation efforts.

In her first significant victory, Melen proved that the environmental impact assessment of the canal was inadequate. The judge ruled that the canal development flouted environmental laws and could adversely affect the Danube Delta’s biodiversity.

“Olya really put her life on the line. She represented the other side before it became safe to do so,” said Baltzer, “She and her colleagues and the other people that were fighting against the canal really do symbolize the whole spirit of the Orange Revolution.”

The Orange Revolution, a series of protests and political events that took place throughout Ukraine in response to allegations of massive corruption and direct electoral fraud during the 2004 presidential election, saw Viktor Yushchenko sweep into. The change of government has so far changed the situation in the Danube Delta for the better. The dredging ships have been sent back to port and the project was been put on hold after the new Ukrainian Environment Minister rejected plans for the second phase of the proposed canal.

Despite these positive signs, it is still unclear how and whether the project will continue. In February, just weeks before the national election and scarcely a week before the start of an international conference on the future of the Danube Delta, the Ukrainian government announced that money had been set aside in the 2006 budget to finance the second phase of the project to build the Bystroye Canal. Whether that budget item will in fact be used is still uncertain.

Other threats
The Bystroye Canal is certainly the most dramatic, but by no means the only long-term threat to the future of the Danube Delta. A major oil terminal is currently being built in the sliver of Moldovan territory that reaches into the delta. Fears of a potential oil spill are not far from many people’s minds, especially with a long history of crises. In 1999, the bombings of chemical factories and other targets during the war in the ex-Yugoslavia resulted in widespread toxic contamination of the Danube River. In January 2000, some 100 tons of highly toxic cyanide spilled into the Danube from the Tisza River in Romania, following an accident at a gold mining operation.

In addition, uncontrolled development of tourism, residential and other infrastructure, much of it illegal, is also fragmenting and encroaching on the river’s exceptional natural areas. In the Danube Delta in particular, poorly planned mass tourism developments are gradually destroying the very features that are the area’s greatest attraction. And, draining wetlands along the river for agriculture over the past several decades has compounded the situation.

But, of all the factors that have reduced the natural heritage of the Danube, probably none is more significant than channelization. Beginning in the early 1800s, flood protection works and channelization for shipping, hydropower and agriculture began to destroy the river’s natural flow, creating a straighter and deeper channel. Altogether, some 15,000-20,000km2 of Danube floodplains have been cut off from the river by engineering works. Today, less than 19 per cent of the former floodplains in the Danube basin remain compared to what existed in the 19th century.

Even the EU, which on the Bystroye issue counts itself among the defenders of the Danube Delta biosphere reserve, may be responsible for promoting further such projects in the future. According to the EU, the Danube is one of the continent’s most important future transportation arteries. Among the priority projects identified by a high-level group to expedite transportation across the continent are unplugging a series of “blockages” on the river, including the entire lower stretch of the river, including its delta.

Traditional approaches to inland navigation, such as dyking and dredging, risk turning the river into little more than a transport corridor. Essentially, the river is being manipulated to meet the needs of boats, and not the other way around.

“There is still plenty of opportunity to increase shipping without destroying more of our natural wealth and ecosystem services,” said Christine Bratrich, head of WWF’s Danube-Carpathian freshwater programme.

“The most important step is to begin fitting our boats to the rivers, not our rivers to the boats. It is important that the European Union uses the innovative technology that is now available to ensure more sustainable shipping on the Danube.”

Preserving the Delta
Securing the long-term future for the Danube Delta will require a comprehensive approach to the protection as well as sustainable development of the area. Although the expansion of shipping on the Danube and through the delta is inevitable as a result of EU enlargement and globalization, its impact on the local environment and communities can be limited.

In particular, WWF is working with shipping and ship building companies in Germany and the Netherlands to identify innovative technologies that can limit the need for expensive and destructive dredging and related infrastructure. New kinds of shallow-bottomed boats and propulsion systems and navigation systems also hold the promise of reducing damage to the river’s fragile ecology.

But the real success to saving the river is restoring parts of the Danube’s floodplains to its original glory.

“Floodplains are like natural sponges, they act as natural storage reservoirs allowing large volumes of water to be stored and slowly and safely released down rivers and into the groundwater,” said Orieta Hulea, coordinator of the WWF Lower Danube Green Corridor Programme.

“If we destroy these areas, by cutting them off from the main river beds and draining them for agriculture as has happened on the lower Danube and across most of Europe, their potential for flood retention is lost and the risk for major flooding increases.”

WWF is also working with the local organizations and governments of Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova to help realize an integrated ecological network of healthy, restored and protected wetlands covering some 600,000ha along the lower Danube, as well as promote sustainable socio-economic development in the area.

“We are trying to make the lower Danube a living river again, by connecting it to its natural flooding areas and wetlands,” Hulea added. “This will help reduce the risk of major flooding in areas with human settlements and offer benefits both for local economies, including fisheries and tourism.”

On Ukraine’s Tataru Island, for example, WWF and its partners have begun restoring a former wetland area and developing tourism infrastructure, including bird viewing platforms, to promote tourism as an attractive source for local incomes.

Tataru Island is part of a small archipelago once well known as an important spawning site for Danube fish and nesting site for birds. However, some 40 years ago the island was dammed to facilitate the establishment of poplar tree plantations. With the change in water flow, the island’s ecosystem deteriorated. The main objective now is to restore the island’s ecosystem and adaptation of local economic practices to those based on nature.

“The future of the Danube Delta very much hangs in the balance,” said WWF’s Michael Baltzer. “When it comes to the delta’s long-term protection, it will take a bold change of culture and political will based on regional cooperation and a common vision to see a sustainable river system.”

Andreas Beckmann is Deputy Director of WWF’s Danube-Carpathian Programme.


”¢ The entire Danube Delta has been selected by WWF as one of the world’s 200 most important regions for biodiversity conservation. It is the second largest wetland in Europe and the largest reed bed in the world. It is a critical to a number of globally threatened species. It is home to about 330 bird species, 70 per cent of the world’s white pelican population and 60 per cent of the world’s pygmy cormorants. The Delta is home to a remarkable population of glossy ibis, spoonbill, different species of egrets and herons. Most of the European freshwater fish species (around 70 species) exist in the Delta.

”¢ About 83 million people live in the basin and more than 20 million people depend directly on the Danube for drinking water ”“ primarily groundwater from domestic wells. The basin also unifies and sustains a wealth of diverse cultures and traditions.

”¢ WWF’s Danube”“Carpathian Programme focuses primarily on freshwater and forest resource conservation in the Danube River Basin and Carpathian Mountains. The region between the Danube River Basin and the Carpathian Mountains includes all or part of Germany and Poland, Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia & Montenegro, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine.

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