Key threats in the Danube-Carpathian region

One of the channels of the Lower Danube. Some side branches are threatened by planned engineering structures to direct water into the main channel.
© Anton Vorauer WWF

Loss of wetlands and floodplains

Draining wetlands for agriculture often provides only marginal farmland while destroying unique wetland habitat. Introducing foreign varieties of trees to floodplain forests and clear cutting in the name of industry eliminates undergrowth and alters the function of the floodplain ecosystem. Building towns and villages in floodplain areas also leaves them prone to damage from flooding.

Engineered developments

Of all the factors that have reduced the natural heritage of the Danube, probably none is more significant than channelization. Beginning in the early 1800s, flood protection works and channelization for shipping began to destroy the once diverse network of side channels and backwaters, creating a straighter and deeper channel.

Crises and disasters

The last 5 years have seen a number of crises and disasters affect the Danube River Basin. Some of these have gained worldwide media attention. For example, during the 1999 war in FR Yugoslavia, the bombings of chemical factories and other targets resulted in widespread toxic contamination of the river. In January 2000, some 100 tonnes of highly toxic cyanide spilled into the Danube from the Tisza River in Romania, following an accident at a gold mining operation.

Nutrients and eutrophication

Another major threat is eutrophication, a disturbance in the ecological balance of the river caused when too many nutrients are discharged into the water. The main sources of nutrients in the Danube are agriculture (50%) waste (25%) and industry (25%). The total nitrogen load in the Danube is between 537,000 and 551,000 tonnes per year. The total phosphorus load is 48,900 tonnes per year. The legal limit for nutrient content in groundwater is often exceeded throughout the whole basin.


There remains insufficient capacity along the Danube to treat wastewater, both municipal and industrial. More sewage treatment plants are needed. Restoring wetlands would also significantly increase the river’s natural abilities to clean and purify itself. The river is further contaminated by hazardous substances such as heavy metals, oil and microbiological contamination. Increased shipping along the Danube would most likely increase overall contamination, as will future crises and disasters.

Unsustainable rural development

An inevitable result of new economic pressures has been the exploitation of rural environments for short-term (and at times desperate) gain including over-grazing, deforestation and poaching. Over-grazing is leading to a reduction in biodiversity and increased conflicts with the precious carnivores of the forest.

Land restitution and privatisation

Land privatisation and restitution are also resulting in activities that maximise short-term gain above all else – for example, increased cropping on unstable slopes that increases erosion, or the clearing of small privately owned forests. Forest restitution also brings new actors into the equation – owners and administrators – who need to learn and implement sustainable forest management practices.

Lack of financial and technical support

Forest protection measures are often inadequate because of weak legislative framework in the region. The lack of financial resources for the enforcement of existing legislation leads to corruption, illegal logging and the inability to tackle cultural issues. In many cases, state forest governance should be significantly improved.

Unsustainable tourism

Tourism represents both a significant challenge to the biodiversity of the Carpathians, as well as an important opportunity for rural development for the region. Increased sustainable tourism to mountain areas is now considered to bring significant potential benefits to both rural environments and economies in the future. However, if not properly planned and developed, tourism will continue to represent a real threat through over-development of certain areas and by opening up access to natural areas that should be preserved for nature.

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