WWF: Protect Floodplains to Prevent Disastrous Danube Flooding

BUCHAREST, Romania, March 22, 2012 (ENS) – The heavy snowfall and unprecedented low temperatures that hit Central and Eastern Europe this winter are likely to be followed by massive flooding in Lower Danube countries, conservationists are warning.

In February, thick ice closed hundreds of kilometers of the Danube River in six countries. Now the melting snow could lead to rising floodwaters, harming thousands of homes, damaging vast areas of farm and industrial land and taking human lives.

Looking across the frozen Danube River in Romania, February 15, 2012 (Photo by Constantin Firescu)

But, according to the global conservation group WWF, this could be avoided if closer consideration is given to measures that restore the natural capacity of the Danube and other river floodplains to retain floodwaters.

“Floodplains are like sponges allowing large volumes of water to be stored and slowly and safely released down rivers and into the groundwater,” said Orieta Hulea, head of freshwater at the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme.

“If we cut them off from the main river beds and drain them for agriculture, as has happened on the Lower Danube and across most of Europe in the last century, their potential for flood retention is lost and the risks from floods are increased,” Hulea said.

According to a 2010 WWF study, the potential for floodplain restoration along the Danube is about 800,000 hectares, about 500,000 hectares of these along the Lower Danube River.

In partnership with local authorities and communities, WWF is implementing floodplain restoration projects along the Danube in Romania and Bulgaria with financial support from LIFE+, the EU’s financial instrument supporting environmental and nature conservation projects.

Hulea said, “What we know is that inaction, waiting for the next floods to hit again, is not an option.”

Flood plains across the Danube in Romania (Photo by Cuki)

But the Danube will be transformed into little more than a regulated canal if Croatian plans move forward. A major project from the Croatian Water Management Authorities to channel the Danube River in this unique and natural area is currently in the final stage of decision.

If the Danube is channeled, the Kopacki Rit, the Danube’s most valuable and best preserved floodplain system along the Croatian – Serbian border, would be destroyed, conservationists say.

The Natural Park Kopacki Rit is recognized by the Ramsar Convention for being a major natural floodplain of International Importance and is the core zone of the Transboundary Biosphere Reserve “Mura-Drava-Danube,” the so-called Amazon of Europe.

This area is a candidate for inscription on UNESCO’s World Natural Heritage List.

To protect this stretch of the Danube, national conservation organizations have come out with a “Save the Amazon of Europe” petition to Croatian Minister for Nature and Environment and Nature Protection Mirela Holy, asking her to immediately halt this project.

If the project becomes reality, the natural Danube will be transformed from a living river into a canal, with fatal consequences for its wildlife. The white-tailed eagle, the black stork and the Danube sturgeon would be in greater danger of extinction, say the conservation groups. They fear that the dynamic exchange of water between the river and its floodplain would stop and the unique wetlands would dry out.

The Kopacki Rit hosts 300 different bird species that will be put under threat and the White-tailed Eagle, and threatened species such as little tern, black stork and ship sturgeon would be in severe danger of local extinction if the Croatian plan to canalize the Danube River is carried out.

Romania is taking action to conserve its Danube wildlife. On July 4, 2011 the Romanian President confirmed a new law for the protection and management of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve.

The Danube Delta is the second largest delta in Europe, and one of its most important wetlands. It hosts 320 bird species and 30 different ecosystems. It is designated as a Special Protection Area and Site of Community Importance under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.