Veritable revolution for Danube wetlands
This week the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is holding its triennial global conference in Bucharest, Romania. The little known international convention, which was launched in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971, is dedicated to the protection and sustainable use of wetland areas around the world.
Unfortunately, much of the news coming out of the conference will be depressing. Wetlands are under enormous pressure worldwide. This is bad news, as all of humanity depends on these areas in one way or another. Wetlands cover only 6% of the Earth's surface, but are vitally important for people and nature. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment gave wetlands a value of US$15 trillion in 1997, and wetlands are home to an estimated 40% of the world’s species.
Between 300 and 400 million people live close to wetlands. Despite this, latest figures suggest that wetlands are disappearing; half the world’s wetlands have been lost in the last 100 years.
But not all is doom and gloom, and some of the best news the Ramsar delegates hear will be coming from Romania and the broader Danube basin.
In the 20 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, a veritable revolution has taken place in the way wetlands are seen and treated across the Danube basin. The results go beyond commitments to real change on the (wet) ground.
Pikeperch in the desertThe transformation of Tataru Island in the Ukrainian Danube Delta is a remarkable example. Like many areas in the Danube Delta and Lower Danube, in the 1970s dikes were erected around the island to win additional land for agriculture. As in many other areas, the results proved disappointing. Cut off from the ebb and flow of the river, within a few years the area became barren.
But in 2005, WWF and the Ukrainian authorities joined forces to breach the dikes of Tataru and reconnect the island to the river. Within a few years, large parts of the island had once again become a wetland paradise. The area now teems with pikeperch, and other fish and wildlife that are attracting fishermen and tourists, giving new hope to the local economy.
The transformation of Tataru Island is illustrative of the changes that are happening at dozens of sites across the Danube basin. Similar initiatives are underway in Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, Moldova, Austria and Germany. Taken together, they are bringing back at least some of the 80% of Danube floodplains and wetlands lost to diking and dredging since the 19th century.
Saving what's leftRemarkable efforts are also underway to preserve the 20% of valuable wetlands that remain.
In 2000, facilitated by WWF, the governments of Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine agreed to establish the Lower Danube Green Corridor. Ten years on, Europe’s most ambitious wetland conservation initiative is well on its way, with 1.4 million hectares of valuable floodplain areas under some form of protection.
A similarly ambitious initiative is now underway on the middle Danube. When established, the Mura-Drava-Danube Trans-Boundary Biosphere Reserve will secure many of the continent’s most outstanding wetland areas, including “Europe’s Amazon” at the confluence of the Drava and Danube rivers.
Just in time for the Ramsar Conference in Bucharest, the Romanian government has officially designated another 400,000 hectares of floodplain and wetland areas as sites protected under the Ramsar Convention.
A new paradigmThese efforts are all the more remarkable given the dismal record of floodplain and wetland management across the Danube basin. Over a period of 150 years, motivated by agriculture, navigation and development, dikes, dams and dredging straightened large sections of the “blue river”. Lost in the process was the rich diversity of fish and other species that depend on wetlands, not to mention valuable ecosystem services, from flood management to water purification, tourism and recreation.
One of the victims is the giant Beluga sturgeon, which once migrated upriver as far as Germany. Having outlived the dinosaurs, these ancient fish are now on the brink of extinction. With them have disappeared former ways of life, including the thriving fisher communities that once lined the banks of the Danube.
Yet, today, there is better understanding of the benefits and services that wetlands provide – and that working with nature rather than against it is not only good for the environment, but makes good economic sense as well.
Taken together, the economic value of the benefits and services from Danube floodplains, including flood and draught management, climate change adaptation, water purification, fish production, reed harvesting and recreation is estimated to be at least €500 per hectare a year.
The growing frequency and severity of floods and droughts in the Danube basin – which are expected to worsen with climate change – have highlighted the value of floodplains and called into question traditional paradigms of water management based on diking and dredging.
The focus increasingly is on working with the river and relying on wetlands to even out changes in water level by soaking up floodwaters like a sponge, and slowly releasing them when water levels decline. Floodplains also play an important role in recharging stocks of groundwater – the source of drinking water for many people in the Danube basin.
Wetlands can also purify the water of excess nutrients, including phosphates and nitrogen from agricultural fertilizers, which are damaging local waterways and slowly killing the Black Sea (often aptly referred to as Europe’s toilet bowl). This makes it possible to avoid some of the heavy investments needed for waste and water treatment plants, while providing habitat for fish and fowl and attracting fishermen and tourists.
Looking aheadAfter decades of abuse, the Danube has significantly recovered over the last 20 years. The next 10 years will be crucial in determining the extent to which this will continue, or any gains are lost.
WWF has been working with EU and national governments to identify solutions for improving navigation without destroying the river’s greatest jewels. Some early results are promising; the idea of fitting ships to the river rather than altering the river to fit ships is gaining traction. But in many areas, including Croatia, the jury is still out.
Similar challenges are looming with plans to build hundreds of hydropower plants along virtually every tributary of the Danube – disrupting not only habitats and fish migration, but also the flow of water and sediment, with potentially far-reaching implications for areas downstream.
While hydropower is a promising source of “clean” energy, care needs to be taken to ensure that not more harm is done than good. Otherwise, much that will be celebrated at the Ramsar Convention meeting this week in Bucharest could be lost.