Plenty to celebrate but more to do as 19 nations mark Danube Day

Posted on 28 June 2010    
In the summer of 2006, American Mimi Hughes spent 89 days swimming down the entire length of the Danube River from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, travelling an average 33 km per day.
© Konstantin Ivanov / WWF
Vienna, Austria: The waltz might have celebrated a Blue Danube, but for those who lived on its banks it was the polluted and often smelly Danube.

But now, as the 83 million people in the basin of the world’s most international river prepare to celebrate Danube Day, there is plenty to celebrate - the Blue Danube is on the way back, thanks to an impressive display of multilateral cooperation by the 19 Danube basin nations.

Video: Preserving the Danube as a natural jewel of Europe

And while the water is becoming more blue, the banks are becoming more green, with world leading programs to restore wetlands and floodplains that keep the river healthy, provide natural and more effective flood mitigation, boost recreational use of the river and are playing a big part in bringing back threatened wildlife.

While the Danube boasts one of the world’s key examples of river basin cooperation and some of the leading global projects in river restoration, there is still some way to go on the path to a healthy river able to face the full challenges posed by development and the looming threats of climate change.
WWF has plenty to celebrate too.

Not so blue

Johann Strauss Jr was exaggerating the Danube's water quality when he composed its anthem in 1867 - Vienna and other cities on the 2850 kilometre long river were already ingrained into the habit of using the river as a convenient sewer.  More intensive Industry, agriculture and navigation accelerated adverse effects with the low point being reached in the mid 1980s.

“I was not allowed to go down the river when I was growing up, because the river was far from the house. But the oil on my legs which I could not wash off, always gave me away!”, remembers Georgi Ivanov who grew up in Silistra on the Bulgarian stretch of the Danube in the 1980s.

“Oil slicks are no longer there.”

But early moves to clean up the river were conducted on a state by state basis, with some states being serious and some having other priorities. Key events leading to one of the most outstanding multi-national river use, protection and restoration projects in the world were the coming into effect of the Danube River Protection Convention in 1998 and the European Water Framework Directive in 2000.

Now limited monitoring by a few concerned scientists and some health authorities have been replaced with a network of  79 monitoring locations with up to three sampling points each across the Danube and its main tributaries measuring water quality up to 12 times per year.

Water quality issues remain, however.  Although oil has mostly gone, in the last ten years many analyses, including the ICPDR’s Danube Basin Analysis (published in 2005) and the second Joint Danube Survey carried out in 2007, have identified pollution (e.g. cadmium, lead, mercury, DDT, lindane and atrazine) of the watercourses and groundwater due to agriculture, industry and household discharges as a significant water management issue that endangers environment and people alike.

Intimately acquainted with the quality of the water

In the summer of 2006, American Mimi Hughes spent 89 days swimming down the entire length of the Danube River from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, travelling an average 33 km per day. The 51-year old high school teacher and mother of four became the first person to swim the Danube without fins and only the second to attempt the feat at all.

Like the fish that swim the Danube, Mimi became intimately acquainted with the quality of the river’s water. Although pollution from chemicals has improved over the past decade or two, biosolids – Mimi’s euphemistic expression for sewage – remain a major problem, especially downstream of Budapest and Belgrade, which still dump a significant amount of sewage into the river untreated. Throughout the swim, Mimi took an anti-biotic effective against E. Coli bacteria, and wore a full wetsuit, swimming cap, goggles and ear plugs.

According to the ICPDR Danube River Basin Management Plan, "The highest microbial contamination levels for the Danube River were found in the stretch between Budapest and Belgrade; while the tributaries, Arges and Russenski Lom, and side-arms, Rackeve-Soroksar and Moson Danube, can be considered as hot spots.”

This emphasises the need for ensuring the sufficient treatment of wastewaters - something listed as a priority in recent river initiatives. The situation should improve in coming years thanks to massive investments in wastewater treatment especially in the EU member states which make up the majority of Danube countries. Thanks to a new wastewater treatment plant in south Budapest, which is planned to open at the end of this year, over 90 percent of Budapest's sewage will be taken care of.

Cleaning up detergents

The excessive nutrients and pollution in the Danube are not only affecting the basin but also the Black Sea into which the Danube spills. Anthropogenic nutrient loads to the Black Sea over the last 50 years have left a clear mark. Eutrophication is caused by excessive inputs of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus and it is a condition that stimulates the growth of algae leading to imbalance in water systems, such as intense algal blooms, production of excess organic matter causing decreased water transparency, oxygen depletion with resulting dead zones at the sea bottoms as well as death of for example fish.
Today WWF is promoting an EU wide ban on phosphates in all detergents, including for laundry, for dishwashers and for cleaning, for household as well as for commercial use. In practice this means for laundry detergents a concentration limit of 0.2 % phosphorus (i.e. 0.8 % phosphate) and for dishwasher detergents a concentration limit of 0.5 % phosphorus (i.e. 2.0 % phosphate).

The most effective way for both industry and governments to reach these goals would be an EU wide ban. European negotiations on a phosphate ban have been ongoing for years but there is still no harmonized EU legislation on the use of phosphates in detergents.

WWF urges the European Commission and the European Parliament to prepare respective legislation as quickly as possible as an easy, fast and low-cost way of reducing the phosphate load of surface waters and thereby improving overall water quality.

Navigating a way to improving fish populations

Historically the Danube and some of its tributaries have formed important trade routes across Europe. The harnessing of these rivers to facilitate navigation has radically changed their physical and ecological characteristics, while pollution from ships and boats is also a significant problem.

Current plans for developing navigation on the Danube disregard many of the river's other uses and benefits - including the even more historic use of the river as a significant food source.

River regulation works that develop shipping conditions on the Danube can have severe effects on the rich flora and fauna of the river, on biodiversity and on the natural supply of fish.

As a boy, Gábor Guti used to fish regularly downstream from Budapest, near Százhalombatta.

"In those days we could catch many fish," he said. "Although the members of my family liked fish meals, sometimes my parents told me not to carry home any fish when I went fishing.

"Nowadays I go fishing with my son, and I realized that in the same places, with the same methods we cannot achieve the same catch I fished 30 years before."

Dr. Gábor Guti heads the Hungarian Danube Research Station of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and is the veteran of nearly two decades of research on river fish.

"In the negative effects of riverine traffic, I have to mention the considerable water backflow that is caused by the bigger ships," he said. "The speed of this flow is 4-5 times faster, than the swimming speed of young fish. "

Therefore the strong drifting kills many of these young animals along the shorelines. Strong waves stir up the silt, which has negative effects on plankton organisms, which are the most important food of young fish. What is more, these waves disturb the spawning of fish species and the ontogenesis of young fish, which can lead to the decrease of natural fish supply, emphasized Dr Guti.
Earlier in the year, WWF, Bund fuer Naturschutz (Friends of the Earth Germany) and LBV (BirdLife Germany) presented the president of the ICPDR with 100,000 signatures of a petition calling on Danube governments to protect the Danube as a living river and to avoid damage from infrastructure development connected to navigation.

Bringing back a living river

"The only stable aspect of a living river is its permanent change," said Georg Frank, Project manager for the Danube Network of Protected Areas. And living rivers lack the hard structures erected for navigation, bank protection and in the belief that they are the answer to flood control.

In 2003, he began tearing down hard embankments and structures in a pilot stretch of three kilometres of the Danube in Austria's Donau-Auen National Park .

"For the first time since more than 100 years, a Danube river section here in the Upper Danube was unembankend," he said.  "With great results: river dynamic has returned, enormous hydro-morphological processes have been restored, new habitats for characteristic and endangered animal and plant species have been established again.

"More and more key players - including sectors like navigation and water management - have learned to accept river dynamic as part of the game in the work on a river. Only recently side erosion began to be accepted as a positive change, serving e.g. for flood protection; large scale gravel islands are no longer seen as "lifeless deserts" and dead wood deposited by the river is seen more and more as an important structure.

"The pilot restoration projects were only the first steps in habitat restoration, but they changed the thinking of stakeholders."

Eda Pogany, Public Affairs and Communications Director at Coca-Cola HBC Hungary started working on Danube related issues five years ago, when a memorandum of understanding was signed between Coca-Cola HBC and ICPDR in Hungary.

“I am by far an optimist and I believe that the biggest opportunities for the Danube lie in Public Private Partnership, that is all stakeholders and the relevant sectors working together on conservation in partnership transnationally, for one goal”, she said.

Since 2005, Eda Pogany has been involved in events surrounding Danube Day in partnership with NGOs and her company has introduced a school programme for kids, Danube Box. This programme runs in over 400 schools.

Coca-Cola HBC are also involved in Hungary’s biggest wetland conservation project financed by Coca-Cola and the EU, that on Liberty Island in the Hungarian stretch of the Danube. The company has also initiated and maintained a strategic partnership with the Danube Drava National Park.

New plans with a source to sea focus

The adoption of the Danube River Basin Management Plan by all Danube states last February marked an important new step in the management of the Danube. The first comprehensive management plan for the river, which has been officially adopted by all Danube countries, including EU and non-EU member states, outlines concrete measures to be implemented by the year 2015 to improve not only water quality but also the ecological health of the river and its tributaries.

Measures include the reduction of organic and nutrient pollution, offsetting environmentally detrimental effects of man-made structural changes to the river, improvements to urban wastewater systems, the introduction of phosphate-free detergents in all markets and effective risk management of accidental pollution.

The plan takes a source-to-sea approach and addresses key requirements of the European Union Water Framework Directive.The EU's innovative and farreaching Water Framework Directive pushes EU member states to achieve not only good water quality but also good ecological status for its rivers, lakes and other surface waters by 2015.

It is the first such comprehensive legislation in the world and essentially provides a strict timeline and guidance for achieving Integrated River Basin Management — one of WWF's top priorities related to freshwater management. All countries within the Danube River Basin, including EU member as well as non-member states such as Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Moldova, have committed themselves to implementing the EU Water Framework Directive.

Cleaning and greening opens up tourism possibilities

The Lower Danube Green Corridor Declaration, signed 10 year ago by the governments of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Moldova, commit the four countries to preserve a total of 935,000 ha, including enhanced protection for 775,000 ha of existing protected areas, and new protection for another 160,000 ha, and to restore 224,000 ha of former wetland areas. The four countries also pledged to promote sustainable development along the Lower Danube.

The Green Corridor has been quite beneficial for developing tourism in the area. Michael Zhmud is one of the pioneers of tourism development in the Ukrainian Danube Delta. The effervescent 50-year old is in a unique position to evaluate the Delta’s future, both from an environmental and economic perspective: he is a professional ornithologist with 25 years experience studying bird populations of the Delta, first for the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve and more recently for the Black Sea Ornithological Research Station.

But he is also a successful businessman, running a thriving tourism business with 50 employees, one of the leading companies in the town of Vilkovo and offering a range of excursions and other tourist products in the Danube Delta.

Zhmud started his tourism business, Pelikan Tours, ten years ago, inspired by experience he had gained visiting other Deltas in his capacity as an ornithologist. The business has been expanding rapidly ever since.

Most clients come from Ukraine, including the surrounding area and Odessa, which is about 3 hours away by car, but a growing number also come from abroad, from Russia, Moldova, Belorus as well as Western Europe. Many come for beach holidays and river cruises, but a growing segment of Zhmud’s business are special excursions, including for bird watching.

Doing well in the Danube - why it matters

The Danube is the most international river basin in the world, including all or parts of the territories of 19 countries.  The region includes some of the economically poorest and richest countries in Europe, as well as a major portion of the continent's natural wealth.

The key challenge and opportunity for the future of the Danube basin is to find ways to enhance livelihoods while preserving and even enhancing the ecosystems that provide essential goods and services for people and nature – and addressing through this significant differences in socioeconomic development between countries such as Austria and Germany on the one hand, and Bulgaria and Romania on the other.

The EU and Danube countries already have most if not all of the tools they need to achieve this objective, from progressive legislation such as the EU Water Framework Directive to funding programmes that in theory can provide financing for investments in a green economy, including investments in wetland restoration or nature conservation.

"The dialogue between the main stakeholders has improved, the pressure from EU to better consider environmental issues helped, but the key threats of pollution and unsustainable infrastructure are still there," said Orieta Hulea, Head of Freshwater for the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme."To keep this river alive so that it can continue providing valuable benefits, conservation of natural values and functions should be at the foundation of any development plan or programme."

The Danube Strategy

In an effort to provide a more coordinated approach towards its so-called macro regions, in February the European Commission launched an initiative to develop a Danube Strategy, which can help bring together and implement existing policies and legislation to achieve long-term sustainable development across the region.

A five-month public consultation process for the Danube Strategy got under way in early February with a kick-off conference that took place in Ulm, Germany. Follow-up events took place this month in Vienna, Ruse (Bulgaria) and Constanta (Romania), providing input for a draft to be developed by the European Commission that is expected to be officially adopted under the Hungarian EU Presidency in spring 2011.

Development of the Strategy comes at a time when the Danube region faces a series of unprecedented crises: financial, economic and - even more ominously - from climate change and loss of biodiversity and related ecosystem services.

"The EU Danube Strategy presents an opportunity for the countries of the Danube region to get ahead of the development curve - to pull themselves together and put themselves on a path toward a long-term and prosperous future, including a green, carbon-free and resource-efficient economy," said Andreas Beckmann, director of the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme.

Interventions planned through the Danube Strategy must maintain and enhance the region's natural and social capital as the foundations for long-term development in the region.

"The unprecedented crises that we are facing are ample proof that business as usual is simply not an option", Beckmann said. "We need a paradigm shift, and with a bit of imagination and courage, the Danube Strategy can provide this by painting and helping to realise a bold and long-term vision for sustainable development in the region."

Phillip Weller, former head of WWF's Green Danube programme and now executive secretary for the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, is excited about the possibilities that the Danube Strategy of the European Union offers to further create political attention and support for measures needed to restore and protect the Danube.

"I am an optimist, he said.
In the summer of 2006, American Mimi Hughes spent 89 days swimming down the entire length of the Danube River from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, travelling an average 33 km per day.
© Konstantin Ivanov / WWF Enlarge
'When I was a child we could catch many fish. Although the members of my family liked fish meals, my parents told me not to always carry home fish when I went fishing. Nowadays I go fishing with my son, and I it's striking to notice that in the same places, with the same methods we can not achieve the same catch as30 years ago' said Mr. Guti.
© Gabor Guti / WWF Enlarge
Maya Todorova is the Project Manager of the Danube PES project.
Maya Todorova is the Project Manager of the Danube PES project.
© David Strobel / WWF DCP Enlarge
“I am by far an optimist and I believe that the biggest opportunities for the Danube lie in Public Private Partnerships, that is all stakeholders and the relevant sectors working together on conservation in partnership, transnationally for one goal”, says Eda Pogany, Public Affairs and Communications Director at Coca-Cola HBC Hungary.
“I am by far an optimist and I believe that the biggest opportunities for the Danube lie in Public Private Partnerships, that is all stakeholders and the relevant sectors working together on conservation in partnership, transnationally for one goal”, says Eda Pogany, Public Affairs and Communications Director at Coca-Cola HBC Hungary.
© Eda Pogany Enlarge

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required