Restoring Resilient Freshwater Ecosystems in the Danube Delta, Ukraine

This story is part of a series on adaptation in the Danube-Carpathian region.

When WWF first started working in the Danube Delta back in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t in the name of climate change adaptation. However, WWF’s main goals – implementing model sites to show how large-scale wetland restoration can be beneficial to both people and nature – are right in line with what adaptation work is all about; that is to reduce the vulnerability of the Danube’s ecosystems and natural resources to the effects of climate change via preserving/reestablishing the natural processes of ecosystems and decreasing other nonclimatic pressures.

From the early 20th century, the Danube’s natural system and surrounding lands have been heavily impacted by interventions to improve flood protection, agriculture, power production and waterway transport. According to a WWF case study “Floodplain restoration along the lower Danube” published last week in the journal Climate & Development, conversion of the river’s floodplains has cut off 95, 75 and 28 percent of the floodplains of the upper Danube, the lower Danube and the Danube Delta, respectively. These land use changes limit the Danube’s ability to react to climate change, including changes in precipitation patterns, drought and flooding.

Until 50 years ago, the Ukrainian part of the Danube Delta (which makes up about 20% of the entire delta area) remained largely intact, boasting some of the most important wetlands in Europe. However, between the 1950s and the mid-1980s, large areas of the delta floodplain in the territory of the former Soviet Union were enclosed by dikes and equipped with irrigation and drainage systems for industrial farming. The dikes interrupted natural hydrological processes and retention areas that, among others, help filter water and absorb floodwaters.

At first, the intense crop and wood production was economically viable and provided locals with income, but in later years a number of problems began to arise. Fish population and catch declined due to the disappearance of natural spawning places in the cut-off wetlands. Water in the inner lakes became salty and unsuitable for drinking or irrigation. Soil fertility was lost because of the formation of salts during the summer and the lack of spring flooding to cleanse the cut off areas. River water was no longer purified by reed beds and passed directly into the Black Sea, contributing to the problem of hypoxia, or a ‘dead zone’ around the mouth of the river. The long term costs to the environment and natural resources far outweighed the initial economic benefits from industrial farming.

WWF-DCP, with the support of WWF Netherlands, started to implement wetland restoration projects about eight years ago in the Ukrainian Danube Delta. The tiny Tataru Island was the first WWF restoration project on Ukrainian territory. In October 2003, WWF, together with the local forestry authorities who manage the island, removed the 6 km dikes built around the island. This allowed for the re-establishment of natural flooding conditions, creating rich feeding, breeding and spawning grounds for fish, flora and fauna. Today amazing rare birds, such as white-tailed eagles, pygmy cormorants and ferruginous ducks, thrive on Tataru Island, while inner lakes serve as spawning places for young fish from the Danube.

In 2005, a herd of grey cattle was released to roam wild on Tataru Island. Grazing animals, like grey cattle, used to live on the island, but were hunted. Without them the floodplain forest ran wild due to lack of grazing. Four years later, the herd has multiplied and soon it may provide the local community with organic meat.

Ermakov Island –one of the bigger islands in the Ukrainian Danube Delta (3,500 hectares) – has only recently followed suit. Removal of the dike in August 2009 will make way for the annual spring flooding, which over time will return water and life to the island.

Resilient, healthy habitats such as wetlands and natural riversides not only provide habitat and shelter for the Danube’s rich biodiversity, but also enhance the services that ecosystems supply to local people. Among these ecosystem services are drinking water and the availability of natural resources like fish, reeds and timber. Restoration measures, like those implemented in the delta, should be replicated upstream as a practical means of climate change adaptation. For example, restoration of wetlands and floodplains is one way to implement “low/no regret” flood protection measures in some key areas.

You can read more about restoration work on the lower stretches of the Danube in the case study that appears in the special edition of Climate & Development (published 20 November 2009). The Danube is one of seven case studies that highlight WWF’s work on freshwater climate adaptation around the world, including areas in Brazil, China, India, Mexico and Tanzania. Climate & Development is a leading international, peer-reviewed journal on understanding of the links between climate and development. It is published in partnership with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).

Adapted by Suzanne Ebert, Freshwater Officer at WWF DCP, based on an article by Katya Kurakina, WWF DCP Communications Officer in Ukraine, and Olga Apostolova, WWF-DCP Regional Communications Manager.