Because the Danube is oriented east-west and traverses half of Europe, it has been a key to transportation and communication links ever since Antiquity. Historically the Danube and some of its main tributaries have formed important trade routes across Europe.

Today ships can navigate the Danube from 2,411 kilometres upstream all the way down to the Delta. This is 87% of the river's total length. The ships can call in at 78 harbours located along the Danube between Kelheim in Germany and the Black Sea.

But the harnessing of the river to facilitate navigation has radically changed its physical and ecological characteristics, while pollution from ships and boats is also a significant problem.

In recent times, there has been an upsurge of interest in using the river for larger deepwater ships that can run long transit courses. In the new European strategies the whole Lower Danube is referred to as “a navigation bottleneck that is to be improved”. The name of the Danube is often replaced simply with the phrase “part of Corridor VII” of the trans-European transport network.

The next years will be crucial in determining the extent to which the Danube remains a living river.  Further diking and dredging would destroy many of Europe’s last great river landscapes and remaining wetlands. The plans are to incise the river, redirect the river current, close the side arms with concrete weirs, enforce the river banks with shot rock, transforming the river into a ship canal.  

At stake are not only the spectacular natural values of the river, but also a multitude of benefits and services on which people depend, from drinking water and flood management to fishing, tourism and recreation.  

Threatened by these developments are the last free-flowing stretches of the Upper Danube, including the Straubing-Vilshofen section in Germany and the river section east of Vienna, Austria; the exceptionally rich wetlands along the Hungarian, Croatian, and Serbian stretches on the Middle Danube; as well as the extremely valuable lower part of the river along the Romanian-Bulgarian border and the Romanian section from Calarasi to Braila.  

WWF analyses show that the price to pay for canalizing the river will be too high: incision of the river bed and sinking of the ground water that is connected with it, drying out of wells and riparian wetlands. The destruction of habitats will lead to the disappearance of many plant and animal species, which in turn will inevitably bring about the disappearance of some traditional human activities along the river.  

Environmental organizations support sustainable navigation, promoting particularly lower cost solutions focused on “fitting the ships to the river, not the river to the ships”. The Danube can remain a lifeline where ecology and river users (including for the purposes of navigation) thrive together to provide life and ecosystem services, as well as to continue supporting the livelihoods of the people who live in the Danube basin.


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WWF staff

Occupation: WWF staff
Location: Bulgaria


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