What is under threat along the Danube?

Posted on 06 October 2010  | 
Following the breach of the residue reservoir of the Ajkai Aluminia Refinery in Hungary in the Danube River basin, we speak to our conservation experts from the Danube-Carpathian region to find out where the sludge is headed next and what natural treasures might be under threat if the pollution is not contained.

Goran Sekulic, Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia

“The Danube River links Serbia and Hungary. Depending on how well the spill is contained, the most vulnerable areas in Serbia right now are the natural flooding areas along the Danube. This would mean several nature reserves would be affected, including Special Nature Reserve Gornje Podunavlje, which is also a Ramsar site. Gornje Podunavlje is a large flooding area on the border with Hungary and Croatia. Together with the Danube-Drava National Park in Hungary and Nature Park Kopacki Rit in Croatia, it is one of the largest areas of preserved riparian flooding areas in Europe and for sure one of the hotspots of biodiversity. Two of our national parks are also lying on the Danube. Those are Fruska Gora in Vojvodina and Djerdap in the Carpathian part of the country.”


Ivan Hristov, WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme

“The most ecologically-important areas along the Lower Danube in Bulgaria are the island of Belene in Persina Nature Park and Kalimok Marsh. 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. If the spill is not contained, these areas would likely be affected. Persina Nature Park and the surrounding protected areas comprise a string of lakes, marshes and floodplain forests that WWF and partners have been conserving over the past ten years. The marsh areas will be worst affected, because heavy metals will sink in the still waters and become part of the sediment.

"Another place to note is the Nature Reserve of Srebarna, a nature reserve of international importance in north east Bulgaria which comprises Lake Srebarna and its surroundings, and is located on the Via Pontica, a bird migration route between Europe and Africa.

"The reserve embraces 6 km² of protected area and a buffer zone of 5.4 km². The lake's depth varies from 1 to 3 m. Situated immediately next to the river, the lake is currently cut off from it by a dike. If the river carries high waters, they would pose a threat to the lake and its bird populations, as the water may be quite poisonous to them. “

Stoyan Mihov, WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme, based at Persina Nature Park

“Heavy metals are dangerous in high concentration, but they are also dangerous in low concentration, because they tend to build up in the tissue of organisms. Often, the concentration of heavy metals in animal tissue can be higher than the actual concentration in the water. The higher the species in the food chain, the more they will be affected by heavy metals.

"The most threatened species right now are bottom dwelling fish and carnivorous fish. Danube fishermen usually go for precisely these species. The same goes for predatory and fish-eating birds, which are at the top of the food chain – sea eagles, cormorants and herons. The biggest danger is that the concentration of heavy metals in the Lower Danube will not be headline news. But in reality this would mean that the biggest concentration of heavy metals is somewhere upstream, and will continue to circulate around Danube ecosystems possibly forever, much like the pesticide DDT which was banned 50 years ago, but is still found in nature.

Milko Belberov, Director of Nature Park Rusenski Lom

“Kalimok Marsh will be affected if the spill is not contained. This area has been restored in order to improve the purifying function of the floodplain forests. If the spill affects the vegetation, this important wetland area will not be able to serve its purifying functions. Kalimok Marsh is also an important place for spawning, meaning that fish will be affected. The cormorants that live in the area will also suffer. The Black stork, which is an endangered species, will also be negatively affected. “

Mihail Milchev, Water Directorate, Russe

“Several towns in Bulgaria use Danube water for irrigation. We are talking about 150, 000 ha of land. The main threat will be over the next few weeks. If the level of the river rises above 5 m, then water will go over the dikes and remain there permanently. It will be a problem if pollutants stay with us.”

Romania and Ukraine

The Danube Delta is one of the largest wetlands of the world – a unique habitat of channels, reed beds, lakes and ponds. It is rich in biodiversity and is an important breeding site for several rare and threatened water birds. The Delta is designated as one of WWF’s global 200 ecoregions, as well as Ramsar wetland of international importance and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Danube Delta lies within the political boundaries of Moldova, Romania and Ukraine. The richest part of the Ukrainian Danube Delta is protected on global scale by the Danube Biosphere Reserve, created in 1998.

The Delta is characterized by impressive biodiversity and is home to 12 types of habitats, over 1,600 flora species, and over 3,400 fauna species. The Delta is an important site for breeding populations of several rare and endangered birds, including the Dalmatian pelican, Great white pelican, White-tailed and Greater spotted eagle, Pygmy cormorant, and Collared pratincole. Lakes ecosystems are also home for rare and protected mammals such as European wild cat, otter, European mink and others.

Misha Nesterenko, WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme, Danube Delta project manager

“Industrial spills such as the one in Hungary, can strongly affect not only the ecosystems of the Delta, but put WWF restoration efforts under threat. The red mud spill is one of the largest accidents over the last decade after the cyanide spills in Romania. If these pollutants enter the floodplain areas along the Danube, they would be very hard to remove posing significant threat to floodplain wetlands and life. During the autumn floods such pollutants may enter floodplain lakes and accumulate there. Such accidents pose a threat to restoration initiatives along the Danube as the local communities do not want to take risks and remove the dams, opening the wetlands they depend on to pollutions.

"It should be noted that there're still no efficient mechanisms for compensation of transboundary impacts on the Danube. In real life the downstream countries will have to take their own measures to minimise the impacts of such accidents as the upstream countries will just close all the channels and let the chemicals flow into the Danube Delta and the Black Sea. And there they will accumulate not only in flora species, but also pass through the food chain and store in fishes and birds. That can put under risk the health and wellbeing not only of unique Delta fauna but also of local communities.”
Aquatic vegetation on the Danube, Danube Delta, Romania.
© WWF-Canon / Michel GUNTHER Enlarge
This map of the Danube-Carpathian region shows the location of the natural treasurs that may be under threat in the middle and lower Danube.
This map of the Danube-Carpathian region shows the location of the natural treasurs that may be under threat in the middle and lower Danube.
© WWF DCPO Enlarge
WWF is fearful of the long term environmental impacts of the toxic mud disaster in Hungary, following the breach of the residue reservoir of the Ajkai Aluminia Refinery about 160 kilometres south west of Budapest.
WWF is fearful of the long term environmental impacts of the toxic mud disaster in Hungary, following the breach of the residue reservoir of the Ajkai Aluminia Refinery about 160 kilometres south west of Budapest.
© WWF Hungary Enlarge

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