European River Restoration Conference highlights Danube efforts
“As partners of this event, which takes place along the Danube, I think this is a great opportunity to highlight the restoration efforts of conservation organisations such as WWF”, said Laurice Ereifej, Regional Freshwater Team Leader for WWF in Central and Eastern Europe.
“River restoration generates benefits for nature and humans – better water balance, rich biodiversity, regulation of CO2 levels, nutrient reduction, water purification”, Ereifej said. “Over the past 150 years, the Danube has been much abused. Flood protection dikes were built to straighten large sections of the river and more than 80% of wetlands and floodplains were lost. Dams were built that hamper the migration of fish and other animal species, capture sediment, change the water regime of the river and its floodplains”.
River restoration also helps manage floods and reduces flood peaks, such as those which affected Austria, Germany and other countries in Central Europe this summer. Rivers have natural capacity to retain flood waters, but they need to be restored to their natural state in order to serve this function.
“River floodplains are like sponges allowing large volumes of water to be stored and slowly and safely released down rivers and into the groundwater”, said Ereifej. “If we cut them off from the main river beds and drain them for agriculture, or settlements, as has happened across most of Europe in the last century, their potential for flood retention is lost and the risks from floods are increased.”
According to a 2010 WWF study, the potential for floodplain restoration along the Danube is about 800,000 ha. About 500,000 ha of these are along the Lower Danube. WWF calculated that if at least 100,000 ha from these potential areas would be restored at an estimated cost of 500,000 €/km², this would mean an investment of 500 million €, costing less than the damages caused by floods or the investment in higher and stronger dykes. For large scale restorations, Danube countries need to start strategic prioritization, proper restoration potential assessments, feasibility studies, realistic, but ambitious time planning and proper public participation.
WWF, in partnership with local authorities and communities, has several completed as well as ongoing river restoration projects along the Danube and its tributaries. In Hungary, the restoration of Liberty Island in the Middle Danube has revitalized the island’s natural floodplain forest and secured drinking water for local communities. In the Lower Danube, a joint effort by Romania and Bulgaria, has improved breeding and feeding sites for important bird species as well as the overall ecological status of the Danube floodplain. In Serbia, in partnership with The Coca-Cola Company, the restoration of Strbac swamp has promoted the reestablishment of mosaic natural habitats like wet meadows and shallow ponds, improved the conservation status of species, and enhanced opportunities for eco tourism.