The Danube floodplain between river bank and the flood protection dike has relics of oxbows lakes as well as flood channels and depressions, islets, remnants of wetlands and floodplain lakes in the disconnected floodplains. These are all typical habitats for the Lower Danube and of particular importance from an ecological point of view, with many of them protected under the Ramsar Convention for the protection of wetlands as well as the annexes of the EU Habitat Directive.
The species inventory of both terrestrial and aquatic habitats reveals an impressive number of species, many of them globally important, including 906 species of terrestrial plants, 502 species of insects, 10 species of amphibians, 8 species of reptiles, 56 species of fish, 160 species of birds, and 37 species of mammals.
The hydrological dynamics of the river, its erosion and sedimentation processes and periodic flooding, have determined the formation of numerous islets along the border in Romania (111 islands covering 11,063ha) and Bulgaria (75 islets covering 10,713ha). These islets host rich floodplain ecosystems including natural floodplain forest, sand banks, marshes and natural river channels. They are integral parts of the Danube migration corridor, essential for the distribution of many plant and animal species.
A bird watcher's paradise
The islets represent a very important feeding area for many threatened bird species, including: Dalmation Pelican (Pelecanus crispus), glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), squacco heron (Ardeolla ralloides), pygmy cormorant (Phalacrocorax pygmaeus), common spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), cormorant (Phalocrocorax carbo), little egret (Egretta garzetta), great egret (Egretta alba), and ferruginous duck (Aythya nyroca). In the woods, species like black kite (Milvus migrans), blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), tawny owl (Strix aluco), long-eared owl (Asio otus), nightjar (Caprimulgus europeus), and black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) are nesting. On the muddy banks can be found kingfisher (Alcedo athis) and sand martin (Riparia riparia). White-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) and saker falcoln (Falco cherrug) are also breeding in the old oaks from the islets.
From the original large floodplain area of the Lower Danube, about 72% has been cut off from the river and transformed into fish ponds or drained for agricultural use. Important functions of the floodplains have been reduced and typical habitats no longer exist.
Because of the loss of a large part of the floodplain areas, the remaining areas under influence of river dynamics (between the river banks and the flood protection dike and in particular the islets), the fish ponds and the floodplain lakes have become even more important for flora and fauna. The existing fish ponds and floodplain lakes preserve features of the former floodplain habitats and are important feeding, roosting, staging and breeding areas for many bird species. Pelicans (common and dalmatian) breeding in the Danube Delta use these fish ponds to feed and rest in their migrating route.
What future for the Lower Danube?
Despite the loss of most of the river’s floodplains, the Lower Danube still has an exceptional collection of natural jewels. But the survival of these areas is in doubt: current approaches will lead to the loss of the remaining natural areas as well as the benefits and services that they provide.
Fortunately, there are alternatives, ones that can secure prosperity while holding onto and even enhancing our natural heritage and the many benefits it provides. The Lower Danube Green Corridor Agreement, signed by the governments of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Moldova in 2000, provides a framework for facing challenges and taking opportunities.
Facilitated by WWF, the Lower Danube Green Corridor (LDGC) is the most ambitious wetland protection and restoration project in the world, encompassing 11,574 km² of natural areas from the Iron Gates on the border of Serbia and Romania to the Danube Delta in Romania and Ukraine.
The Agreement commits Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova to:
- Preserve a total of 935,000ha, including enhanced protection for 775,000ha of existing protected areas and new protection for another 160,000ha;
- Restore 223,000ha of former wetland areas; and
- Promote sustainable development along the Lower Danube
Living river or shipping canal?
Present plans for inland navigation only consider waterways as transportation corridors rather than as living rivers with a range of functions and benefits.
Currently, EU plans for the Trans European Transport Network for Transportation (TEN-T) threaten circa 1,000km of the most valuable river stretches along the Danube. Existing approaches, focused on unplugging Danube 'bottlenecks' by canalising and deepening the river, could destroy the last remaining 20% of the floodplain and wetlands and significantly lower the water table, threatening important groundwater sources for drinking and other uses, not to mention important spawning areas for fish.
There is an alternative – fitting boats to the river, rather than the river to the boats. By using innovative technologies, including flat-bottomed vessels and information technology, we can increase the value and volume of goods transported by water without turning the living river into nothing more than a shipping canal.