Veritable revolution for Danube wetlands
This week the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is holding its four-yearly global conference in Bucharest, Romania. The little known international convention, which was launched in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971, is dedicated to the protection and sustainable use of wetland areas around the world.
Unfortunately, much of the news coming out of the conference will be depressing. Wetland areas are among the habitats that are under the greatest pressure worldwide. This is bad news, as a great part of humanity depends on these areas for their livelihoods and well-being. Wetlands cover only 6% of the Earth's surface, but are vitally important for people and nature. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment gave wetlands a value of US$15 trillion in 1997, and wetlands are home to an estimated 40% of the world’s species.
Between 300 and 400 million people live close to - and depend on - wetlands. Despite this, latest figures suggest that wetlands are disappearing. Half the world’s wetlands have been lost in the last 100 years, and the rate of loss is probably increasing.
But not all is doom and gloom, and some of the best news the Ramsar delegates hear will be coming from Romania and the broader Danube basin.
In the past twenty years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, a veritable revolution has taken place in the way that wetland areas are seen and treated across the Danube basin. High level commitments have been made to promote wetland conservation and restoration, at EU, regional and national levels.And the results are becoming increasingly evident – not just in high-level meetings, but also on the (wet) ground.
Pikeperch in the desertThe transformation of Tataru Island in the Ukrainian Danube Delta has been remarkable. Like many areas in the Danube Delta and the Lower Danube, in the 1970s dikes were erected around the island to win additional area for agriculture. As in many other areas, the results proved disappointing. Cut off from the ebb and flow of the river, within a few years the area became barren.
But in 2005, WWF and the Ukrainian authorities joined forces to breach the dikes of Tataru and reconnect the island to the river. Within a few years, large parts of the island had once again becomea wetland paradise. The once barren area now teems with pikeperch and other fish and wildlife that are attracting an increasing number of fishermen and tourists that are giving new hope to the local economy.
The transformation that has taken place on Tataru Island is illustrative of the changes that are happening at dozens of sites across the Danube basin.
Breaching the dikes around Tataru was only the first step toward realizing a vision for the future of the Ukrainian Danube Delta developed by WWF and the Ukrainian authorities that has been set forth at further locations, including Ermakov Island (3,500 hectares) and more recently Lake Katlabuh.
In Romania, the government has pledged to restore 500,000 hectares of former floodplain areas, including areas on the Lower Danube and in the Danube Delta. Similar initiatives are underway in Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, Moldova, Austria and Germany. Taken together, they are bringing back at least some of the 80% of Danube floodplains and wetlands lost to diking and dredging since the 19th century.
Remarkable efforts are also underway to preserve the 20% of valuable wetlands that still remain.
In 2000, facilitated by WWF, the governments of Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine agreed to establish the Lower Danube Green Corridor. Ten years on, Europe’s most ambitious wetland conservation initiative is well on its way, with 1.4 million hectares of valuable floodplain areas under some form of protection.
A similarly ambitious initiative is now underway on the middle Danube, where the governments of Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia and Austria have committed themselves to establish another green corridor of protection along the Drava from the Mura to the Danube rivers. When established, the Mura-Drava-Danube Trans-Boundary Biosphere Reserve will be the world’s first five-country protected area and will secure many of the continent’s most outstanding wetland areas, including “Europe’s Amazon” at the confluence of the Drava and Danube rivers.
Just in time for the Ramsar Conference in Bucharest, the Romanian government has officially designated another 500,000 hectares of floodplain and wetland areas as sites expressly protected under the Ramsar Convention.
A new paradigmThese efforts have been all the more remarkable given the record of floodplain and wetland management across the Danube basin. Over a period of 150 years, motivated by agriculture, navigation and development, dikes, dams and dredging straightened large sections of the “blue river”. More than 80% of the Danube’s wetlands were lost in the process, and with them the rich diversity of fish and other species on which they depend, not to mention valuable ecosystem services, from flood management to water purification, tourism and recreation.
What has changed has been a growing realization of the benefits and services that wetlands provide – and that working with nature rather than against it is not only good for the environment, but makes good economic sense as well.
The growing frequency and severity of floods and droughts in the Danube basin – which with climate change are expected to become only worse in future – have called into question traditional paradigms of water management based on diking and dredging. The focus increasingly is on working with the river and relying on wetlands to even out changes in water level by soaking up floodwaters like a sponge and slowly releasing them when water levels decline. Floodplains also play an important role in recharging stocks of groundwater on which many people in the Danube basin – including most Hungarians – depend for their drinking water.
At the same time, the wetlands can be put to work purifying the water of excess nutrients, including phosphates and nitrogen from agricultural fertilizers, which are damaging local waterways and slowly killing the Black Sea, which is often aptly referred to as Europe’s toilet bowl. This in turn makes it possible to avoid some of the heavy investments needed for waste and water treatment plants while providing valuable habitat for fish and fowl, not to mention fishermen, tourists and recreationists.
Indeed, wetlands are the most biologically productive habitats in Europe, providing important spawning, feeding and resting areas for fish, fowl and other wildlife. The loss of floodplain and wetland areas along the Danube has been followed by a precipitious loss in fish populations, including the giant Beluga sturgeon, which once migrated upriver as far as Germany. Having outlived the dinosaurs, these ancient fish are now on the brink of extinction. With them have disappeared former ways of life, including the thriving fisher communities that once lined the banks of the Danube.
Taken together, the economic value of the benefits and services that floodplains and wetland areas provide can be impressive.The value of the various benefits from Danube floodplains, including flood and draught management, climate change adaptation, water purification, fish production, reed harvesting and recreation is estimated to be at least €500 per hectare a year. For example, water purification through nutrient retention of Danube floodplains is worth an estimated €368 million per year.