Wetlands and floodplains of the danube river basin




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WETLANDS AND FLOODPLAINS OF THE DANUBE RIVER BASIN


Edited by Dr. Pamela Stedman Ed-wards
The methodology for this study was developed and piloted by AIDEnvironment of the Netherlands in cooperation with two WWF partners. The research team consisted of Mr. Charlie Avis and Mr. Jeroen Van Wetten (AIDEnvironment, Amsterdam, the Netherlands); Dr. Jan Seffer (Director, Daphne Centre for Applied Ecology, Bratislava), who coordinated the case study in Slovakia; and Mr. Georgy Tinchev (Head of the Protected Areas Division, Committee of Forests, Sofia), who coordinated the case study in Bulgaria. The research team had full responsibility for authorship of this report. Terms of reference and overall project direction was given by Mr. Philip Weller (Director, WWF Danube Carpathian Programme, Vienna, Austria).
Environmental degradation of the Danube River Basin is centuries long. Some of the causes of habitat alteration and biodiversity loss are found to be historic and irreversible, such as the 40-year period of socialist government in Bulgaria and Slovakia. Other causes are still driving biodiversity loss in the current period of economic and political transition and offer a place for intervention to halt the unsustainable use of resources.

Damage to natural resources in Central and Eastern Europe has traditionally been less widespread than in Western Europe, and the region remains relatively rich in biological and landscape diversity. The two study areas selected for this project–the Danube floodplains and islands, and the wetlands of northern Bulgaria and the Morava River floodplain of western Slovakia–exemplify this high biodiversity. The two case study sites, indeed, the two countries, share some common legacies in terms of the socialist experience, but differ greatly in their ecological character, intensity of development, and location within the Danube basin.


The legacy of 40 years of socialist planning and maximum resource consumption, with little regard for sustainability and the conservation of scarce natural resources, has deeply and damaged the natural environment throughout this half of Europe. As the newly democratic countries of Central and Eastern Europe emerge from this painful period, threats have emerged to the unique natural capital of the region. A new form of over-consumption can be observed, based not on the rhetoric of centrally planned, socialist ideology but on the adoption of free-market approaches, re-privatization of resources, and seemingly uncontrolled and unregulated flows of international capital.
At the same time, the economic crisis that has accompanied these far-reaching political and social changes continues to bite hard into the daily lives and budgets of individuals and government. These new challenges to rational resource use in the region are a significant threat to biodiversity. The factors that influence this threat are complex and may be seen as an intricate network of inter-related, multi-level, and temporally variable “root causes.”
Both Bulgaria and Slovakia have signed European Association Agreements that declare their intention to join an expanded European Union (EU), which means that their governments are committed to harmonizing their policy, legislative, and management systems with those of the EU. Both governments have taken important first steps in this regard. The emerging environmental policy climate appears to offer significant opportunities for more sustainable management of natural resources–including wetlands–in these two countries. Further, the recent entry into force (October 1998) of the Danube River Protection Convention (DRPC) offers a framework for international cooperation and more integrated river basin management, which up until now was lacking.

Site Descriptions




Wetlands in the Bulgarian Portion of the Danube River Basin



Figure 9.1 Case Study “Morava River Floodplain in Slovakia”

In Bulgaria, the total area draining to the Danube basin is 46,896 km2, or 48 percent of the country’s total territory. The Danube River forms the boundary between Bulgaria and Romania for 471 km, with the high southern banks of the Bulgarian side contrasting with the low marshy areas of the opposite bank. Permanently flooded marsh areas cover some 70-90 km2, with seasonally inundated floodplains making up an additional area of 450-470 km2. The numerous Danube islands, 61 of which belong to Bulgaria, total more than 10,000 ha in area and support significant biodiversity.


These wetlands constitute only a very small fraction of the former wetland, yet within the context of this case study represent a relatively large area. The study will concentrate on certain wetlands for which information is both readily available and relatively complete, such as the Belene complex of islands and marshes near Svishtov.
The marshes and islands of the Bulgarian portion of the Danube contain some of the richest wetland habitats in the Danube basin, with important plant, fish, animal, and bird populations. Communities of white willow (Salix alba), almond willow (Salix triandra), Purple willow (Salix purpurea), black poplar (Populus nigra), white poplar (Populus alba), Vardim oak (Quercus longipes), and elm (Ulmus foliacea) characterize the natural forests on the islands. These forests provide important habitats for a wide range of animals and birds and include at least one endemic tree, the Vardim oak (Quercus robur/Quercus pedunculiflora), an oak population that is adapted to extended periods of flooding.
Where intact primary and typical plant communities exist, for example on Kitka, Milka, and part of Vardim Islands, a unique formation of specific flora and fauna has developed. Large numbers of fish and amphibian species are present, including pike (Esox lucius), carp (Cyprinius carpio), tench (Tinca tinca), and the rare amphibians spadefoot (Triturus cristatus and Pelobates syriacus), of which the latter two are included in the Bulgarian Red List of Threatened Species. The islands offer refuge and food for migratory and threatened bird species such as the dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus), ferruginous duck (Aytya nyroca), and read-breasted goose (Branta ruficolis). Other rare and endangered species that can be found in locations within the study site include the white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), corncrake (Crex crex), and lesser gray shrike (Lanius minor).
Birdlife International has designated many areas as “Important Bird Areas” (IBAs). The wetlands and forests house numerous and often very large heron colonies, including gray heron (Ardea cinerea), night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), squacco heron (Ardeola ralloides), and spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia). Srebarna Nature Reserve, a Ramsar and UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to 179 species of birds, 99 of which are known to nest here. Of these, 24 species are classified as rare or threatened. Highlights include a large colony of dalmatian pelicans (Pelecanus crispus) and the only known Bulgarian nesting site of the white heron (Ardea alba).
Mammalian species of conservation value found in the Danubian marshes and islands include the wild boar (Sus scrofa), otter (Lutra lutra), red deer (Cervus elaphus), and jackal (Canis aureus). Wild boar, red deer, and wolf populations are controlled by conservation authorities.
Current levels of protection: Wetlands, such as Srebarna and parts of the Belene complex, are designated Nature Reserves and are generally managed by the State Committee of Forests and/or Ministry of Environment. Further classifications include that of Nature Monument (eg on Belene Island) and Protected Site (eg on Vardim Island) while other wetlands in the Danube basin are found within national parks. Activities within such protected areas are theoretically strictly controlled and subject to management planning processes. However, due to a lack of financial resources and sometimes indifferent coordination between respective authorities, this is often difficult to enforce in practice.
The Belene complex includes Nature Reserves, Protected Sites, and Nature Monuments and is managed by the Committee of Forests. The state owns the land, including all the lands managed by the State Committee of Forests and the main island of Persina, which is owned by the Ministry of Justice due to the presence of a prison. In total, the area with some form of protection is 1,714 ha. Since all Danubian islands are border areas, they will remain property of the state, despite the re-privatization of land proceeding elsewhere. In such areas, the outlook for protected areas is relatively bright. However, as a result of the new law on nature conservation, protected areas management in Bulgaria is currently under debate, and it is unclear as yet which authorities will be responsible for management. Until this position is clarified, the situation is even more difficult than usual for conservation and resource managers.
Current land-use patterns: It is difficult to generalize concerning land-use over this large area. Agriculture is the principal livelihood for many. Widespread drainage of Danubian wetlands has opened up large areas of land that have been used for agriculture and grazing. Some 25 percent of the country’s production (by monetary value) originates here, with the principal commodities including corn, sugar beet, orchard fruits, and vegetables. This is also an important wine-producing area. The region also contains much industry, particularly around Russe, including machinery construction, chemicals, power generation, cellulose and paper plants, and food production and processing.
There are almost 600 settlements in 49 municipalities, with a total population (in 1992) of more than 1.3 million, or 15 percent of the country. Population density, at 73 inhabitants per km2, is slightly below the national average. Unemployment is very high within the study area, in some municipalities as high as 50 percent. Many unemployed or part-employed rely upon fishing as an economic fall-back and subsistence activity.
Forestry is an important and visible activity. It has been estimated that over 21,000 ha have been planted with intensive poplar stands, which have replaced the indigenous varieties of willow and poplar that now remain only as small remnants covering about 13 percent of the floodplain. The Danube islands are generally uninhabited and commercial exploitation is often restricted to the managed poplar plantations of the Committee of Forests. The introduction of hybrid poplar trees on the islands and in the floodplains has been responsible for significant reductions in species diversity and large areas of such land are effectively under monocultural silviculture. Such activity is, however, being scaled down within protected areas while indigenous or rare assemblages are being protected and replanted.
Loss of wetlands and wetland biodiversity: Intensive drainage programs have drastically reduced the number and extent of the wetlands, marshes, and floodplains of the Danube basin in Bulgaria. As yet, without extensive GIS mapping, it is very difficult to determine the precise historical extent of these lost resources. At present, anecdotal evidence is all that exists, such as documentation of the drainage between 1925 and 1935 of 28,000 ha of Danube floodplains to accommodate refugees from the First World War.
The widespread drainage and dike construction programs of this century have probably been the principal reason for wetland loss. Official documents and plans show this quite clearly. Systematic post-war pumping and diking programs followed the somewhat experimental and isolated works of the 1920s and 1930s. The years from 1947until 1953 marked the height of such programs, which were driven by the need to increase agricultural land. Earlier schemes had also been driven by the necessity to eradicate malaria, which was a significant threat to human health well into this century.
Other related factors causing wetland loss include agricultural encroachment and the conversion of seasonally flooded lands into forestry plantations. Less significant factors affecting biodiversity in the region include isolated but possibly intensive over-consumption of resources, such as fishery or reed and rush resources; the impacts of the many armed conflicts and wars; urbanization; and hunting of birds and game. Lastly, construction of the barrage scheme at Iron Gate significantly decreased the size of floods, according to reports, which negatively affects the forests, islands, and remaining floodplains that rely upon annual replenishment for biodiversity support.
Probable future threats: Future threats to the wetlands are likely to include further agricultural and forestry expansion into natural floodplain areas, particularly the islands, if secure conservation management regimes are not put in place. The possible continuing invasion of alien or damaging species related to this expansion is also a danger.
Pollution from the Danube (industrial, municipal, river transport) is not a major problem for the region as a whole, but in localized and specific areas, the hazard is significant. On the tributaries, pollution is more acute and “inland” wetlands and those at river confluences could be threatened in this way. Immediate and localized threats to biodiversity include urbanization and small-scale drainage; over-consumption of wetland products, including over-fishing and hunting of rare or threatened species; and the burning and over-grazing of meadows. Lastly, a recent joint Bulgarian – Romanian summit discussed the possibility of constructing another bridge over the Danube, with obvious environmental implications for the study site.

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