Bringing life to the lower Danube – a real success story for WWF in Ukraine | WWF

Bringing life to the lower Danube – a real success story for WWF in Ukraine

Posted on
24 November 2009
The Danube River has been subject to extensive development over the past century. According to a WWF case study “Floodplain restoration along the lower Danube” published this month in the journal “Climate and Development”, conversion of the river’s floodplains has cut off 95, 75 and 28 percent of the floodplains of the upper Danube, the lower Danube and the Danube Delta, respectively.

Until 50 years ago, the Ukrainian part of the Danube Delta remained largely intact, boasting some of the most important wetlands in Europe. However, in the 1960’s various dikes were constructed and wetlands converted to be used for forestry and agriculture. These dikes interrupted natural hydrological processes that, among other things, help filter and cleanse water before it reaches the Black Sea. Wetlands also absorb floodwaters, helping reduce high water levels on the mainland.

At first, the crop and wood production were economically viable and provided locals with income, but in later years a number of problems began to arise. Fish population and catch declined due to the disappearance of natural spawning places in the cut off wetlands. Water in the inner lakes became salty and unsuitable for drinking or irrigation. Soil fertility was lost because of the formation of salts during the summer and the lack of spring flooding to cleanse the cut off areas. River water was no longer purified by reedbeds and passed directly into the Black Sea, contributing to the problem of hypoxia, or a ‘dead zone’ at the bottom of the sea. Therefore, the long term costs to the environment and natural resources far outweighed the initial economic benefits.

WWF commenced work on the Danube in 1992 and promoted the establishment of the Convention for the Protection of the Danube River in 1994 and the European Union Water Framework Directive in 2000. Also in 2000, WWF secured agreement from the heads of state of Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine to restore 2,236 km2 of floodplain to form the 9,000 km2 Lower Danube Green Corridor.

The tiny Tataru Island in the Ukrainian Danube Delta was the first WWF restoration project. In October 2003, WWF, together with the local forestry authorities who manage the island, removed 6 km of dikes built around the island. This 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.

In 2005, a herd of grey cattle was released to roam wild on Tataru Island. Grazing animals, like grey cattle, used to live on the island, but were hunted. Without them the floodplain forest ran wild due to lack of grazing. Four years on, the herd has multiplied and soon it may provide the local community with organic meat.

“For the local forestry authority, the restoration work is a milestone in the management of the island”, says Katya Kurakina, Communications Officer of WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme in Ukraine.

Ermakov Island – with an area of 3,500 ha one of the bigger islands in the Ukrainian Danube Delta – has only recently followed suit. Removal of the dike in August 2009 will make way for the annual spring flooding, which over time will return water and life to the island.

Resilient, healthy habitats such as wetlands and natural river side arms not only provide habitat and shelter for the Danube’s rich biodiversity, but also enhance the services that ecosystems supply to local people, such as drinking water and availability of natural resources like fish, reeds and timber.

From a development perspective, floodplain restoration appears to enhance local livelihoods. The WWF study gives an average value of about EUR 500 per ha/year for provision of ecosystem services for fisheries, forestry, animal fodder, nutrient retention and recreation through floodplain restoration.

As of 2008, WWF estimates that 14.4% of the Lower Danube Green Corridor area has been restored, or is undergoing restoration and about 80% has been designated as protected on the national or international level. “If the total area of 2,236 km2 is fully restored to mirror the restoration work on Tataru and Ermakov Islands, the potential benefits to people and nature on the lower Danube would be even larger”, says Orieta Hulea, Head of Freshwater for the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme and one of the authors of the case study.

The case study on the lower Danube is one of seven in a special edition of "Climate and Development" published on 20 November 2009 that highlight WWF’s work on freshwater climate adaptation around the world, including Brazil, China, India, Mexico and Tanzania.


This story refers to the article published in “Climate and Development” titled “Floodplain restoration along the lower Danube: a climate change adaptation case study." by Ebert, S., Hulea, O., and Strobel, D. “Climate and Development” is a leading international, peer-reviewed journal on understanding of the links between climate and development. It is published in partnership with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).


Orieta Hulea,, M: +40730098711
Katya Kurakina,, M: +380672917655

Donate to WWF

Your support will help us build a future where humans live in harmony with nature.

Enter Yes if you accept the terms and conditions
Enter Yes if you accept the terms and conditions