Danube Restoration Plan Takes Flight at Summit

BUCHAREST, Romania, May 1, 2001 (ENS) - The Danube river is the subject of a new agreement on environmental protection and sustainable development following a two day summit organized by the Romanian government and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Romanian President Ion Iliescu and WWF president emeritus the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, co-chaired the Summit on Environment and Sustainable Development in the Danube-Carpathia Region.

summit chairs

Summit co-chairs, President Ion Iliescu of Romania and WWF president emeritus, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. (Photos courtesy Administration of the President of Romania)
The presidents of six central and eastern European nations and environment ministers from nine more concluded the summit with a broad declaration.

International cooperation and local bilateral initiatives are at the heart of that declaration, which is aimed at reversing decades of pollution and renewing natural resources in the Carpathian-Danube region.

In his opening address, Iliescu summed up the Danube's malaise and issued a diagnosis.

"Because of neglect and lack of proper coordination, the Danube is now by far the largest contributor to the heavy pollution of the Black Sea, which is reaching a catastrophic point," said Iliescu.


President Ion Iliescu of Romania.
"Unprocessed urban and industrial waste discharges, plus organic nutrients washed down through irrigation systems either directly into the river or through its tributaries have created serious threats to safe drinking water supply downstream and to the very survival of rare species of wildlife, including sturgeon.

"Unique wetlands ecosystems, in particular the Danube delta, require urgent attention through medium and long term coordinated action.

"Some of the daunting problems concerning the rational use, ecological rehabilitation and adequate protection of the Danube go way beyond the possibilities of individual countries, no matter how much goodwill they show and how large the resources they are prepared to set aside for that purpose.

"Water pollution, flood control and other issues with a significant environmental impact are regional in nature and they have to be addressed at a regional level with adequate international guidance and support."


Forested floodplain in Romania. (Photo courtesy © Danube Delta Institute)
Immortalized by composer Johann Strauss as the Blue Danube, Europe's second longest river is anything but blue. From its source in the German town of Donaueschingen, to its estuary on the Romanian coast and the Black Sea, little if any of the 2,860 kilometer (1,777 miles) long Danube has escaped the negative affects of human intervention.

Flowing from east to west, with more than 300 tributaries - 60 of them navigable - the Danube is one of the principal transportation arteries in continental Europe and a vital source of energy to several countries who have dammed the river and built hydroelectric plants.

But this development, combined with war, decades of unmitigated pollution and toxic spills as recently as last year have helped destroy 80 percent of the Danube river basin's wetlands and floodplains over the last century.

The Danube basin is more than 777,000 square kilometers (300,000 square miles) and includes parts of Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine.


The Kalimok Marshes in Bulgaria. (Photos courtesy © WWF, A.Vorauer)
The river and its tributaries in Romania and Hungary are still struggling to recover from the effects of a spill of cyanide tainted waste water from a gold recovery operation in Baia Mare, in northwestern Romania in January 2000.

Monday's declaration builds on an agreement signed last June by Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine to establish a "Green Corridor for the Danube," - a stretch of at least 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of existing protected wetlands and new ones along the Danube River.

Under the Green Corridor initiative, Bulgaria has prepared a conservation and restoration strategy for the floodplain forests on 69 Danube islands, which are crucial to the area's biodiversity.

Romania is restoring floodplain islands and delta areas that had been unsuccessfully reclaimed for agricultural use. The conversion failed because of changes to the water regime and consequent salinization. Rehabilitation will include work to restore the natural balance and the water purification capacity of the floodplains.


White Storks above the Lower Prut Wetlands in Moldova.
Ukraine has started similar projects to complement restoration actions already under way in the Black Sea port of Odessa.

Moldova is working on a project to minimize agricultural pollution on the Prut river, a large tributary to the Danube.

"This is action for nature as well as for the people living in the area," said Jasmine Bachmann, WWF freshwater team leader.

Bachmann said floodplain restoration will increase numbers of fish, boosting local economies, and help develop infrastructure for ecotourists. Floodplains help purify water so their restoration is vital for the drinking water and health of at least 15 million people.

Monday's declaration talks of new intergovernmental regional agreements on maintaining stable development in the Carpathian region. The Carpathians extend 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) along the north and east sides of the Danubian plain, linking the Alps with the Balkans.


European Pelicans.
The presidents and environment ministers of Bulgaria, Croatia, Moldova, Romania, the Slovak Republic and Ukraine signed the declaration, along with environment ministers from Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Germany, Poland, Slovenia and Yugoslavia, which includes Serbia and Montenegro.

The declaration commits these countries to developing national policies to decrease pollution on the Danube.

More details on those policies and how they are to be implemented will be presented to the World Summit on Sustainable Developments, otherwise known as the meeting of the United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development (UNCSD) Rio+10 in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002.

Rio+10, is intended to take stock of progress made towards environmental protection and restoration in the 10 years since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

WWF urged the international community, including the European Union, to help back up the commitments made at the Bucharest summit.


Dragon fly in the morning hours at Kugurlui, Ukraine.
"We think it's high time to invest in keeping one of the region's most important capital assets, its nature, and restore it where necessary," said Philip Weller, director of WWF's Danube Carpathian Programme.

"In addition to the resources already committed, WWF is now approaching the international funding organizations and the European Union to provide expertise and financial help so that the plans for action can become reality."

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pledged UN support for efforts to protect Danube river. In a message to the summit, delivered on his behalf by Danuta Hübner, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe, Annan said cooperation was vital.

"Such cooperation will be increasingly important as the economic and political integration of Europe intensifies," said Annan.


UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. (Photo courtesy United Nations)
"Agriculture, fishing, power generation, manufacturing, tourism and recreation are all directly or indirectly dependent on the river's health, yet that health faces grave threats from industrial and chemical toxins, municipal waste, agro-chemical run off and other harmful substances and unsustainable activities," he warned.

"Any further delay in placing our societies on a more sustainable footing will bring only adverse consequences. The good news is that we possess the knowledge and technology to achieve this goal.

"Your role is to provide political will, a precious resource that is often lacking."