Defending the Danube

by Suzanne Ebert
Monday, December 15, 2008

Crossing through ten countries and draining the territory of 19 countries, the Danube is the most international river in the world. In addition to the 83 million people living in the river basin, the Danube is home to globally important species of flora and fauna.

In its 2,780 km course from Germany's Black Forest to its outlet at the Black Sea, the Danube basin supports a diverse system of natural habitats and unique biological diversity. The Danube River Basin has more than 100 different species of fish - including five sturgeon species - and it is home to rare birds like the white pelican, white tailed eagle and black stork.

Pelicans in the Danube Delta, Romania
Pelicans in the Danube Delta, Romania
Daniel Petrescu

While large sections of the Upper Danube in Austria and Germany have been regulated, the middle and lower Danube and the Danube Delta feature a highly rich and unique biological diversity that has been lost in most other European river systems. These floodplains provide multiple ecosystem services, such as water purification, nutrient sinks, flood protection, fisheries and tourism.

The River's History

Over the past 150 years, the Danube has been much abused. Dikes, dams and dredging have straightened large sections of the river. More than 80% of the Danube's wetlands have been lost, and with them the rich diversity of fish and other species on which they depend.

Nearly two decades have passed since the fall of the Iron Curtain. In that time, huge changes have swept the Danube region. The top-down control of Communist regimes has been replaced by a multiplicity of actors in politics, economy, environment and protection of nature. The region is being increasingly integrated into the global economy.

The sudden collapse of Soviet industry and agriculture did the environment a good turn. Pollution suddenly dropped dramatically. Tougher environmental standards and massive investment in sewage and waste treatment became the norm, especially in the EU's newest member states. The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) and the EU Water Framework Directive have given the world's most international river a framework for governance and integrated river basin management that has become an example of good practice.

Many former floodplain and wetland areas are being restored, demonstrating benefits not only for fishing, tourism and recreation, but also for flood and water management. In 2006, WWF published a comprehensive study that shows how restoration of wetland areas could significantly contribute to flood mitigation on the Danube.

The Danube has in the past 20 years significantly recovered from decades of abuse. Today, the river is largely swimmable, and many of the worst environmental hot spots have been addressed. But while there have been notable successes for environmental protection, there are also many new and persisting challenges. One of the bigger challenges is reconnecting the Danube up and downstream.

Plight of the Sturgeon

In the Middle Ages, giant Beluga sturgeon the size of a small bus migrated up the Danube as far as Germany. Dams - nearly 60 block the Upper Danube - cut off the sturgeon's migration routes. But the Iron Gates dams on the Danube between Serbia and Romania are the one barrier stopping sturgeon from migrating the 2,000 km from the Black Sea to Slovakia.

WWF is now working with the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube (ICPDR) and the governments of Serbia and Romania to examine options for making the dams passable to sturgeon and other species. A Sturgeon Action Plan was developed and adopted by the ICPDR, giving the Danube sturgeon priority for conservation on the river.

A basin-wide approach is vital for the success of any conservation or restoration measures for sturgeon. This includes requirements to re-open sturgeon migration routes by enabling upstream and downstream sturgeon passage at dams and other barriers to sturgeon movements, and at the same time taking measures to maintain or restore their spawning and feeding habitats.

Unsustainable Development

Despite these efforts, significant threats to the sturgeon and the Danube's ecological well-being remain. One of the biggest threats today comes from EU and government plans to dike and dredge the river to allow for ever-larger ships.

As part of the EU's Trans-European Transport Networks, new infrastructure projects are planned that threaten many of the Danube's last free-flowing sections, and hence the most ecologically valuable areas. Important wetlands along 1,000 kilometers of the river could face destruction if these plans are realized.

"These transport policies are promoting one-sided plans and even moving forward with concrete projects without evaluating their effects on ecosystems and the many benefits they provide to people and nature along the entire river," said Dr Orieta Hulea, Head of Freshwater for the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme.

In December 2007, representatives of Danube governments, the European Commission, navigation lobbies and a small group of Danube advocates, including WWF, agreed to a common vision for environmentally sustainable navigation on the Danube. But the proof will be in the pudding.

The first projects that are now moving forward provide little ground for optimism. A plan by the Romanian government to increase navigation between Calarasi and Braila would unnecessarily cut off the most important migration routes for Danube sturgeon and destroy highly valuable nature areas. Far from good practice, this project would set the worst precedent both for navigation as well as other projects funded by EU taxpayers.

In the meantime, Bavarian plans to build dams on the last free-flowing section of the Danube in Germany between Straubing and Vilshofen suffered a setback in recent months. German Federal Ministers for Transport and Environment have emphasized that only improvement of navigation through river regulation - without construction of dams - is an option.

Map of the Danube River, Carpathian Region
Map of the Danube River, Carpathian Region
Ulrich Schwarz
Closer to being implemented are plans for a section between Vienna and Bratislava flowing through the Danube Floodplain National Park. This project represents a compromise between shipping interests and the environment, and includes deepening the river channel as well as directing water to the floodplains of the national park, which have been slowly drying out. WWF and others are concerned about the great depth that is planned for the river channel, which will set a precedent for river regulation further downstream.

The Ukrainian government has started construction on another project of major concern, a navigation canal for large vessels that runs through the heart of the Danube Delta, Europe's largest remaining natural wetland. Despite international protests and the canal being in breach of international conventions for nature conservation, the first phase of the project has already been implemented. If continued, the canal will cause significant damage to the Danube Delta, both in the Ukraine and Romania.

If shipping on the Danube is indeed to be promoted as an environmentally friendly mode of transportation, then there must be a balance between protection and use along the entire stretch of the river. To date, however, there has been no strategic assessment of the impacts of planned projects on the Danube as a whole. Without such an evaluation, sustainable economic development is a farce and the future of the Danube as a living river is in question.

Existing navigation could be significantly increased with "soft" measures such as improved logistics, modernized fleets, and river information systems for skippers without sacrificing the Danube's most valuable wetlands and benefits.

"National and EU plans threaten to turn the living Danube into a shipping canal," said Dr. Hulea. "This is expensive and unnecessary. We need to use proven technology, logistics and innovation to start fitting our ships to the river, not our river to the ships."


The Danube region has developed tremendously over the past two decades - from an environmental perspective, both for better and worse.

The world is heading toward an ecological credit crunch as human demands on the world's natural capital reach nearly a third more than earth can sustain. That is the stark warning in the latest edition of WWF's Living Planet Report.

This is just one of the many reasons we need to seek smart solutions that balance different uses of our rivers while preserving the essential ecosystems on which we all depend.

More information: 

The author is the Freshwater Officer with the WWF International Danube-Carpathian Programme.

Orieta Hulea, WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme can be reached at