The Lower Danube Green Corridor Declaration, signed by environment ministers of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Moldova in 2000, pledged to boost protection for 775,000 ha of existing protected areas and bring another 160,000 ha under protection along the river’s final 1000 kilometres.
The level of achievement however was much higher with some 1.4 million ha has been brought under protection to the benefit of some of Europe’s most outstanding wildlife and in enhancing water security, flood control and recreational opportunities for the area’s 29 million people.
Running behind target however is the task of wetlands restoration with the countries slightly more than a quarter of the way to their target of restoring 224,000 ha of former wetlands.
It is calculated that over the past couple of centuries, some 80% of the Danube’s original floodplains, including important wetland areas, have been lost mostly due to drainage for agriculture and industry as well as flood prevention and navigation.
Wetlands protection and restoration key to a healthy river
“Wetlands protection and restoration is the key to a healthy river able to better deal with both droughts and floods,” said Andreas Beckman, Director of WWF’s Danube-Carpathian Programme. “Wetlands are not only cheap to maintain, but also save money and this is why we are taking steps not only to protect what remains, but actually to regain at least some of what has disappeared.”
The wide array of benefits provided by wetlands include flood and drought management through holding and slowly releasing water and water purification through filtration. Wetlands are also areas rich in resources such as fish and reeds.
€500 per hectare a year in wetland benefits
The value of the various benefits from Danube floodplains is estimated to be at least €500 per hectare a year.
But while WWF would like to see more work on wetlands restoration, Beckman said it was still appropriate to pay tribute to the protected area achievements of the four countries.
“The Lower Danube Green Corridor was and still is the most ambitious wetland protection and restoration initiative in Europe,” he said.
“We are looking forward to more ambitious targets for the next phase of developing the green corridor – and hopefully to celebrating again that the river is better protected than we had expected.”
Ministers of the environment and their deputies from the four nations gathered in Vienna this week to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the Lower Danube Green Corridor and affirmed their commitment to continue working together to develop the corridor. The celebration was a side event at a ministerial meeting of all 14 Danube nations to adopt a five year management plan for the river, one of the world’s most international waterways.
Key topics in the plan, which will also benefit the efforts in the lower Danube and its outstanding delta area include reducing pollution, offsetting the impacts of structural changes to the river, improving urban wastewater systems, bringing phosphate free detergents to all markets and better managing pollution accidents.
WWF research around the world has also shown that rivers and basins functioning naturally will be those best able to cope with challenges of climate change such as more frequent and severe floods and longer and deeper dry spells.
'WWF is calling on all countries of the Danube basin to set qualitative and ambitious targets for each country for wetland protection and restoration as a cost-effective means for securing a host of essential ecosystem services including flood management, clean drinking water and better protection from climate impacts,” said Andreas Beckman.
“Let us continue giving life to the Danube, so that the Danube can continue giving life to us.'
Along the Lower Danube Green Corridor
After squeezing through the Iron Gates gorge and dams between Serbia and Romania, the Danube flows free for 1,000 kilometers through Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine before emptying into the Black Sea. The Lower Danube is one of the last free-flowing stretches of river in Europe.
Dependent on this part of the river are not only Europe’s greatest natural treasures, but also the 29 million people who live in the Lower Danube River basin – people who directly benefit from the many services that the river provides, from drinking water to natural resources and recreation.
In the Lower Danube the natural dynamics of the river have formed and re-formed nearly 200 islands that are home to rich floodplain ecosystems. The islands are important elements of the Danube migration corridor – stepping stones for fish, fowl and other fauna as well as flora on their journeys up and down the river.
The Danube’s greatest jewel is its delta, Europe’s largest remaining natural wetland area and, as regarded by WWF, among the 200 most valuable ecological areas on earth. A total of 5,137 species have been identified along the lower stretch of the river, including 42 different species of mammals, and 85 species of fish.
The Lower Danube and Danube Delta are especially important as breeding and resting places for some 331 species of birds, including the rare Dalmatian pelican, the white-tailed eagle, as well as 90% of the world population of red-breasted geese.
Beluga sturgeon, which can grow to a length of 6 meters – the size of a large dolphin - are famous for their caviar. They spawn in the gravel banks of the Lower Danube and migrate downstream to spend the rest of the year in the Black Sea.
The most ecologically-important areas along the Lower Danube Green Corridor in Bulgaria are the Islands of Belene and Kalimok Marshes. There, former floodplain forests and wetlands are being restored, reconnecting them with the river, creating rich feeding, breeding and spawning grounds for fish, flora and fauna. This has provided opportunities for fishing, and economic benefits from grasslands and wetland resources, along with the survival of the riverine floodplain forest as an ecologic benefit. These model projects are the first of its type in Bulgaria.
The Danube Delta is one of the world’s most important eco-regions for biodiversity. In Romania, dry and unproductive land on the major islands of Babina and Cernovca has been returned to the river. The islands have been turned into a mosaic of habitats that offer shelter and food for many species, including rare birds and valuable fish species. The economic benefits of the restoration works (3,680 ha), in terms of increased natural resources productivity (fish, reed, grasslands) and tourism, is about €140,000 per year. Progress with restoration is also moving forward on the Lower Danube islands from Calarasi to Braila.
In Moldova, large sections of the Lower Prut River have been brought under protection and management plans are being prepared. With the support of the local community, a new management plan will be implemented at the Lake Beleu Scientific Reserve. This first attempt for an integrated management of wetlands will be expanded in the Lower Prut area as part of a Trilateral Biosphere Reserve between Moldova, Romania and Ukraine.
On the Ukrainian side of the Danube Delta, authorities and NGOs are working hand in hand to develop a vision for the protection and restoration of the wetland areas – and have taken steps toward its realisation. Bulldozers have breached dikes on Tataru and Ermakov Islands, restoring natural flooding to 800 ha. This has allowed for the re-establishment of natural flooding conditions, creating rich feeding, breeding and spawning grounds for fish, flora and fauna. Today amazing rare birds, such as white-tailed eagles, pygmy cormorants and ferruginous ducks, thrive on Tataru Island, while inner lakes serve as spawning places for young fish from the Danube.