Interview with Christine Bratrich, head of WWF's Danube/Freshwater Programme

Posted on November, 08 2006

We need to find ways to balance different uses and benefits of the Danube
Interview with Christine Bratrich on the blue, green and grey Danubes, kayaking down the Danube and getting married on top of a mountain.
Christine Bratrich is head of WWF’s Danube/Freshwater Programme. ‘Tine’, as she is called by pretty much everyone, holds a PhD in environmental science at the ETH/Zurich. Before coming to WWF, she worked for seven years at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag) and for three years at the Institute for Hydraulic Engineering at the University of Stuttgart (Germany). Among the highlights of her professional life, Tine notes the development of an eco-labelling system for “green hydropower” and a two-month research expedition to Antarctica.

AB: Tine, tell me: “Blue Danube” – is it true? Strauss wrote his waltz celebrating the “Blue Danube” in the 19th century. Could he write the same song today?

CB: To a certain extent, yes. The river is significantly cleaner today than it was some decades ago, in particular in the upper part of the catchment. A lot has been done to decrease pollution to the river, including construction of waste and sewage treatment plants as well as installation of cleaner industrial technology.

The collapse of industry and agriculture that occurred in Central and Eastern European countries like Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria following the fall of the Communist regimes in 1989 also had a beneficial side-effect for the environment in cutting pollution. Nevertheless, sewage, waste, diffuse inputs of pesticides and heavy metals are still a major problem in some of the lower Danube countries. And overall, the Danube is still dumping too much pollution into the Black Sea.

But I think that today, Strauss would need more colours to prepare a modern Danube waltz. Green is perhaps more important than blue in capturing the river’s real environmental significance and value as a living river. The really interesting thing about the Danube is not only its ribbon of “blue” water, but rather the “green” corridor of wetlands, floodplain forests and wet meadows that follow much of its course. This is where the river’s greatest biological riches lie – riches that are important not only for nature, but also for humans, providing a host of different services from fish, rest and recreation to water purification and flood protection.

AB: Where is the river “green”?

CB: In terms of “greenness”, the middle and lower stretches of the river down to the Black Sea are really exceptional. The entire lower stretch of the river from the Iron Gates on the border with Romania and Serbia to the spectacular Danube Delta is still free flowing over almost 1000 km, with natural dynamics including gravel banks, naturally formed islands and many intact wetland areas – something absolutely exceptional for a major river, especially in Europe.

While the Lower Danube is still remarkably green – and still has a lot of potential to be even greener – the same unfortunately can’t be said for the upper part of the river. Here grey is a more apt colour, with tons of concrete constricting the river between dykes and over 50 dams. The Danube here is not so much a living river as a series of lakes or reservoirs, with only individual wetlands remaining. Here areas like the famous Wachau region in Austria, the Austrian National Park east of Vienna, or the beautiful section between Straubing and Vilshofen in Germany, are rare exceptions to the norm.

AB: Grey or green – should we really care? The countries on the lower part of the river might have a living river, but they are poorer, while the upper Danube countries are rich…

CB: Yes, we should care, because it makes a big difference – one that is becoming increasingly clear not only in terms of nature, but also hard economics.

On the upper Danube, we are slowly coming to realise and appreciate all of the former benefits and services that we have lost. Fish populations have plummeted; as a result, fishing has all but disappeared as an industry. The upper Danube has only a fraction of the fauna and flora that it once had – and that the lower Danube still has. Risks and damage from flood events have increased in frequency and intensity, in large part thanks to the narrow concrete corset that we have placed on the river, cutting off more then 80% of the original Danube floodplain areas and causing billions of Euros in damage.

For these and many other reasons, some of the Danube countries have begun to fundamentally change their approach to the river, seeking to work with nature rather than against it. The EU’s groundbreaking Water Framework Directive – the EU’s most important piece of water and river basin legislation – sets as its central objective achieving living rivers by 2015. In an increasing number of cases, governments and communities e.g. in Germany or Switzerland are removing dams and dykes and restoring former wetlands – often at very considerable expense but unfortunately on a relative limited space. In all too many cases, however, restoration is unfortunately no longer really an option.

The big question is whether the lower Danube countries will learn from this experience and strike a new path – their own path – or simply repeat the mistakes of their upstream neighbours. These countries have a unique opportunity to have their cake and eat it too – to develop while holding onto, and indeed profiting from, the prodigious natural riches that they still have.

On the lower part of the Danube, there is still great potential to protect existing floodplain areas or to restore previous wetlands, with many areas agricultural and relatively unsettled. Much of the arable land along the Danube has lost its productivity, so many of the local people are actually eager to break down dykes and restore the previous use and benefits they received from the former wetlands. Add to this other benefits, especially for flood control and water purification, and you get a pretty compelling argument for restoring many of the Danube’s former floodplains.

AB: You sound hopeful…

CB: Yes – very much so. In fact, the governments of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Moldova agreed in 2000 to establish the Lower Danube Green Corridor. The agreement, which was facilitated by WWF, is the most ambitious wetland protection and restoration project in Europe, with nearly 1,000,000 new and existing protected areas, and 224,000 ha to be restored to their natural floodplain. A large part of WWF’s work on the Danube is focused on making this promise reality. We have already restored a number of wetland areas, demonstrating that it can be done as well as the benefits it brings.

AB: It sounds too good to be true…

CB: Perhaps…While taking one step forward we are risking taking two steps back. The EU has identified the Danube as one of Europe’s most important future transportation arteries, transportation corridor “No. 7”. While it is clear that transportation on the Danube will increase as Europe becomes more integrated, the question is HOW this will take place. The traditional response, digging out the river and dyking its banks, would spell disaster for the living river and its rich wetlands.

We need to reduce road transport by using rail and inland waterways. But it will be essential to fit the boats to the river, and not the river to the boats. And yes, we have the technology, the know-how as well as resources to do so – if we have the will. The problem with the current transportation plans for the Danube is that they only consider the river in terms of this one aspect – but in fact, the river is much more than a shipping canal, it is a living river with a multitude of other benefits and interests.

The challenge – and the hope – for the Danube, is to hold on to what we have…
and – especially in the lower reaches – to restore what we had. We need to find ways to balance different uses and benefits of the river – for transportation, agriculture, fishing, flood protection, rest and recreation, and also biological diversity.

AB: You have covered a lot of issues related to the Danube. What is WWF’s role in expanding the hope, as you say, for the Danube as a living river?

CB: Simply put, we are focused on the one hand on maximising opportunities and on the other hand minimising threats.

On the positive side, for example, we are working closely with the governments of Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine and increasingly also with local stakeholders to realise the promise of the Lower Danube Green Corridor. We have a number of on-the-ground, feet-in-the-mud field projects that practically demonstrate the feasibility and promise of wetland restoration. In the Ukrainian Danube Delta, for example, we have been working with the Odessa provincial government and other stakeholders to remove dykes and restore former wetland areas on Katlabuh and Tataru islands – part of a greater vision that we have developed with the Ukrainian authorities for the future restoration of the Ukrainian Danube Delta. We have just started an EU-supported project focused on restoring and protecting the unique Danube island habitats in Romania, and have worked with the Bulgarian State Forest Company to develop a plan for the sustainable use and restoration of forest habitats on the Bulgarian islands.

These practical efforts are supported by our policy work both at national and international levels. In Bulgaria and Romania, for example, we have been working closely with the Ministries of Environment and Agriculture to plan for use of EU agricultural and rural development funds, which can provide a lot of the financial support needed for conservation activities. We are also working with farmers and agriculture extension services in these countries to ensure that these funds are used, and used well.

We are also working closely with the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR), and other partners to ensure implementation of the EU’s Water Framework Directive, which I mentioned earlier.

In addition, we are also increasingly working with other stakeholders, including the private sector, which will be increasingly important for putting paper into practice. Together with the private and public sector, we have begun exploring so-called payments for environmental services. In September 2006, we held a “People’s Summit” for the Lower Danube Green Corridor, part of our broader efforts to engage local leaders, activists and entrepreneurs in realising the vision of the Lower Danube Green Corridor.

Finally we have campaigns running on sustainable inland navigation, as well as to fight the Ukrainian government’s plans to dig the so-called Bystroye canal through the core zone of the Ukrainian Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve.

AB: Almost 20 years ago, when you were a student, you participated in the Tour International Danubienne, the annual boat trip down the Danube, paddling your kayak from Bratislava all the way down the Danube to the Black Sea. What did you gain from this trip that informs your work today?

CB: Spending 2 months and 2000 km in a kayak, travelling on, bathing in, eating and sleeping on the river, you get into tune with the Danube and really begin to appreciate it as a living river in the fullest sense of the word.

I carry with me a kaleidoscope of memories… the incredible jungle of reed beds in the Danube Delta with their completely different dimension from anything I had experienced before; the Danube islands with their sand banks and cacophony of bird songs; but also the many people I met, connected by the river – their music, laughing eyes, Hungarian salamis, Bulgarian hospitality… a myriad of details, facets that make up the life of the river, a river that connects Europe.

That experience, perhaps more than anything, has given me the thankfulness, the motivation and energy to work to preserve the riches that I was fortunate enough to experience.

AB: Tine, you recently got married on top of a mountain. Is there a connection between this choice of location and what seems to be your life’s passion, lowland freshwater?

CB: Following our wedding on top of a Swiss mountain, Bernard (my husband) and I spent our honeymoon hiking in the Carpathian Mountains, including in Retezat National Park in Romania. I was amazed at how much freshwater there is there – really a freshwater paradise!

In fact, all of the water that flows in the Danube comes from the mountains. So, ultimately, freshwater protection also requires protection of the landscape at source, in the mountains – a fact underlined by much of the recent flooding in the region, which was at least partly due to deforestation in the upper reaches of the river’s tributaries in the mountains.

This is also the explanation behind the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme, which is focussed on preserving two distinct but intimately intertwined and interrelated ecological regions.

That is one answer. A simpler one is that the world is simply a wonderfully beautiful and diverse place, and having our wedding on a mountain was a nice change!

The questions were asked by Andreas Beckmann

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Christine Bratrich, Head of Danube/Freshwater Programme of the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme
© Christine Bratrich
Christine Bratrich's feet during her 2000 km kayak trip down the Danube, an experience that motivates and energizes her work today.
© Christine Bratrich
Tine Bratrich and her new husband Bernhard Wehrli, an aquatic chemist, on their honeymoon in "freshwater paradise" Retezat National Park in the Romanian Carpathians.
© Christine Bratrich, 2006