Blue River - The Danube

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White pelican on the lower Danube
© Anton Vorauer, WWF

The Danube is the single most important non-oceanic body of water in Europe and a future central axis for the European Union.

The European Commission

Crossing through ten countries and draining some 817,000 km² and the territory of 18 countries, the Danube is the most international river in the world. In addition to the 83 million people that live in the river basin, the Danube supports unique habitats and globally important species of flora and fauna, including the White pelican and Beluga sturgeon.

Europe's lifeline

Flowing 2,857 km from Germany’s Black Forest to the Danube Delta in Romania and Ukraine and the Black Sea, the Danube is Europe’s only major river which flows west to east, from Central to Eastern Europe. The European Commission now recognizes the Danube as the “single most important non-oceanic body of water in Europe” and a “future central axis for the European Union”. Major tributaries of the Danube include the Tisza, Drava, Sava, Inn, and Prut rivers.

The Danube basin is home to a diverse system of natural habitats. Among these are the Germany’s Black Forest, the Alps and Carpathian Mountains, the Hungarian puszta plains, the Bulgarian islands and the giant reed beds and marshes of the Danube Detla.

These habitats are home to a rich and unique biological diversity and species. The Danube River Basin has more than 100 different species of fish – including five sturgeon species – and it is home to rare birds like the white pelican, white tailed eagle or black stork.

While large sections of the Upper Danube in Austria and Germany have been regulated, the lesser-intervened areas of the middle and lower Danube and the Danube Delta feature a highly rich and unique biological diversity that has been lost in most other European river systems. The floodplains of the Middle and Lower Danube are outstanding landscapes that provide multiple ecosystem services, such as biodiversity conservation, water purification, pollution reduction, flood protection and support for socio-economic activities such as fisheries and tourism.

The Danube, particularly the Lower Danube and Danube Delta, is included in WWF’s “Global 200” list of ecoregions – the world’s 200 most valuable ecological regions, with ‘exceptional levels of biodiversity, such as high species richness or endemism, or those with unusual ecological or evolutionary phenomena.’

People and nature

About 83 million people live in the Danube River Basin and more than 20 million people depend directly on the Danube for their drinking water – primarily groundwater from domestic wells. The basin also unifies and sustains a wealth of diverse cultures and traditions.

Until the end of the 19th century, the Danube was a wide branching river with an extensive network of tributaries and backwaters. Nostalgically referred to as the Blue Danube, its course was always changing and it had a dynamic natural exchange with its floodplains.

Since then, drastic interventions, especially extensive regulation, have resulted in the loss of most of the basin wetlands and a severe reduction in habitats and biodiversity. More than 80% of the length of the Danube has been regulated, and over 700 dams and weirs have been built along its main tributaries. In the northern and western parts of the watershed, the rapid economic growth of the 19th and 20th centuries further reduced the basin’s biodiversity, eroding lands, cutting down forests, and polluting waters. Black poplar trees and beavers, which ones flourished in the river’s floodplains, have virtually disappeared. 

Such developments have devastated the health of the river, affecting wildlife and as well as many of the environmental services, from fish production to flood protection and water management to nutrient removal, that are vital for the people living within the river basin. Only in the last 30 years has conservation begun to gain priority in the basin and resources and policies have been devoted to environmental restoration.

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