Valuing and conserving ecosystem services in the Danube River Basin

Posted on 13 December 2010    
Local and regional officials work with WWF to restore wetlands and promote local development in the Danube Delta in Ukraine.
Ecosystems provide a wide range of benefits that are essential for human well being, from provision of goods such as food and water to services like carbon storage, flood regulation, soil formation as well as recreation and spiritual values. However, the economic benefits of these services are not widely recognized or captured in markets, resulting in ecosystem degradation and the loss of our natural capital.

Recent initaives such as the study on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), published by UNEP, have therefore highlighted the importance of better understanding the economic value of ecosystem services.

WWF and the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) have carried out a scoping assessment of how to put the key recommendations of the TEEB initiative into practice, through a case study on ecosystem services in the Danube River Basin. The study identified key ecosystem services and their sources, flows and beneficiaries; quantified them, where possible in terms of social and economic values; assessed their current status and likely future trends; and identified and recommended further research studies and policy measures needed to secure them.

Danube floodplains

The Danube’s floodplains provide a range of different goods and services, from fish, reeds and crops to water purification and regulation (e.g. flood management) as well as recreation and tourism. Putting a price tag on these myriad services is difficult,but some cautious estimates collected by the study can help us appreciate the value of the benefits that we too often take for granted. Estimates ranged from €250 to €1,354 per hectare of lower Danube wetland per year, with nutrient removal weighing in especially heavily in calculations. Furthermore, the role of wetlands in flood management was not included in the calculations and would presumably significantly increase the figures. A low average of these estimates of €500 per hectare compares favorably with the average annual income from agricultural land in eastern Europe, which has been estimated at approximately €450 per hectare (excluding agricultural subsidies).

Securing our natural capital

The evident importance of ecosystem services in the region supports the rationale for taking a precautionary approach to the conservation of ecosystem services. Unfortunately, ecosystem services are often weak drivers in decision making because their values are often unknown or underestimated, and rarely fully captured in economic markets. So a first step is to improve our knowledge of the relationships between ecosystem properties and the value of ecosystem services – in supporting welfare in the Danube region, to better inform decisions of policy makers as well as of businesses, markets and consumers.

More comprehensive and effective policies and regulations are needed to protect key ecosystem services, at least in the short-term, while measures to capture the values of ecosystem services in markets and other economic instruments are developed and implemented. EU, national and international policy instruments that are in place across most of the Danube Basin, including e.g. the EU Water Framework Directive and Natura 2000 network of specially protected sites, provide a good framework for conserving biodiversity and some associated ecosystem services.

But these require much better implementation and complementary measures aimed at the intergrated protection and sustainable use of broader ecosystem services. Upcoming decisions on the EU’s next financial period, which will be taken at both EU and national levels, must support rather than further erode the region’s natural capital. Longer-term measures can include the creation of commercial markets for some ecosystem services, such as carbon; the use of ‘green taxes’; or the development of sustainability criteria (e.g. to inform decisions on public procurement, public support and by private consumers).

Finally, the study has shown that all policy instruments must be better targeted and integrated to encourage multi-functional land use that supports a balanced range of ecosystem services rather than those driven by short-term and narrow economic needs. This will require a focus on governance and institutions and increased communication and integration across different sectors.

Local and regional officials work with WWF to restore wetlands and promote local development in the Danube Delta in Ukraine.
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