The breathtakingly blue Danube River which flows from its source in the German Black Forest to its immense Delta in Romania’s Black Sea extends over ten European countries. The Danube Delta reservation is home to 7,000 known species of plants and animals, and contains the world’s third-richest biodiversity after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.
A Thriving Wetland
The remarkable alluvial topography of the Danube Delta serves as a critical habitat for migratory birds and animals. It is renowned for its contiguity of wetland ecosystem that supports numerous endangered flora and fauna. The Delta is one of the major wetlands on the flyway between Central and Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa. However, this thriving wetland faces numerous threats from intensive fish farming, hunting, canal and dyke construction and rising pollution levels.
Flourishing Flora and Fauna
Comprising a labyrinth of water and land, the Delta is made up of countless lakes, channels and islands that support 30 types of ecosystem. It has a large population of plant and animal species estimated at 2,994 and 4,262 respectively, which is the most varied in Romania. Approximately 70 percent of the Delta’s vegetation is dominated by various reeds and rushes, some of which form the floating islands locally known as ‘plauri’. The higher ground supports stands of willow, popular, alder and oak. There are also sandy areas covered with feather grass and other steppe species.
The Delta is also famed for the abundance of fish, which include over 90 species such as sturgeons, herrings, sheatfish, pikes and carps. Its swamps are home to a growing number of egrets, geese, herons, ducks and other birds of the prairie such as the grey shrike, finches, woodpeckers, owls and various songbirds. It is also serves as the last refuge for the European mink, the freshwater otter, the wildcat and the globally threatened monk seal.
Jacques Cousteau’s Survey of the Delta
Small wonder then that Jacques Cousteau, the great French undersea explorer, scientist and conservationist, along with his team explored the river for two years, from 1990 to 1992. The Cousteau team in Romania included Jacques Constans, Bertrand Charrier, François Sarano, Grégoire Koulnis, Anne-Marie Roth, and several other explorers. Exploring the planet’s great rivers alongside the aquatic space, was an idea that made great sense to Cousteau, as he believed that the seas’ health was dependent on the rivers’ health. In fact, it was Cousteau’s efforts that ensured the Danube Delta achieved biosphere reserve status.
Coursteau’s team researched not only the natural area, but also the mammoth hydro-technical constructions that influence so much the river’s life, along with the pollution sources. The aim was to evaluate the quality of the environment, study the pollution and its consequences on the environment, and formulate opinions on how to protect the life quality of future generations. They observed the river as it flowed according to the rhythm of the seasons, displaying its environmental features: frozen in winter, flooded in spring, nearly dry towards the end of summer.
Excerpts from Cousteau’s Danube Report
In 1993, with the help of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the final report of the mission was published, under the title ‘The Danube… for whom and for what’ (186 pages), under the direct supervision of Bertrand Charrier, prefaced by Jacques Yves Cousteau. In his preface, Cousteau presents the three great problems that he came across during a helicopter flight in September 1990, from the river’s source to its mouth: the Gabcikovo dam, the Kozlodui facilities and the Delta itself.
Cousteau considers the dam to be a monstrous project with multiple implications across fields such as energy production, water resources, fishing, and forestry. He simultaneously touched upon sensitive issues including national frontiers that had dire consequences on the area’s ecosystems.
The Kozlodui atomic facility contains six reactors, of which four are obsolete. In fact, they are in such shambles that they pose a grave threat throughout Europe, a catastrophe that is closer home and more serious than the Chernobyl disaster.
A great part of the Delta deteriorated because of the digging of transversal canals that obstruct the water’s normal flow. This occurred as a result of reeds collecting around a bankrupt paper factory. The decline was also attributed to industrial exploitation of the sands as well as of the aberrant politics involved in attracting foreign hunters, who caused immense damage to the Delta birds.
Towards the end of his text, Cousteau recommended the creation of a Danube Supreme Council of multinational composition. The Council would be tasked with collecting data that could be shared with the respective country governments along with recommendations for necessary measures to undertake natural environment protection.
Continually Reinvigorating Life
Across the length and breadth of its 2,860 kilometers of blue waters, the Danube sweeps along tons of debris spilled out by an unconcerned humanity. Carrying the waters downstream, the tolerant Delta turns the waste over to a sea that has turned swollen black from years of accumulated pollutants. Yet, it is a wonder of nature that the Danube Delta survives the daily onslaught of pollution, heroically conserving its beauty and biodiversity.