Damaged Danube springs back to life

In a special report from the Danube Delta, the BBC's Nick Thorpe says that there is a new vitality in the waterways which have endured years of neglect and exploitation.

Monday, 24 July, 2000

For 11 years, the former Soviet countries poured industrial waste into the Danube river.
Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's agro-industrial projects scarred its banks.
Later during the war in former Yugoslavia, bomb damage blocked its flow.
Last year, a cyanide spill killed fish and birds. Despite these traumas, there is evidence that the once mighty Danube is recovering.
Everywhere the channels which criss-cross the vast delta region are alive with birds, fish and plants.

Years of exploitation
Pelicans search for prey driven to the Danube by the dry summer.
It is a paradise that is recovering from appalling damage.
Communist era projects damaged 50% of the delta.
One factory once exported sand to Japan.
Reeds were cut down for paper production.
Islands were drained for crops, and wet areas turned into fish ponds.
New channels were carved to transport it all away.
Romania's former rulers tried to tame a wilderness, and created a wasteland.
Ioan Munteanu, who works with the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, explains: "The problem for agricultural areas was and is the quality of the soil because this soil is former lake or channel bottom.
"And after five to 10 years, the quality of the agriculture is bad because the salt rises to the surface of the soil."
The Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve was set up seven years ago.
It has been an ambitious project to reverse the damage. The results are spectacular.
Dykes were cut through and water allowed back in.
I rowed out to see the results of the work done so far.
Scientists were astonished by the speed with which the ecosystem recovered.
Seeds which had lain dormant for 10 years burst back to life.
One island has become a model for other damaged areas. Fish are crucial as they provide a staple diet and an income.
Fishing is the only industry left to local people in one of the poorest regions of Romania. Environmentalists are viewed with suspicion.
Authorities are trying to persuade the people that restoration projects are good for them.
Fish stocks are dwindling mainly because of over-fishing upstream. The Biosphere reserve has been limiting licences which has upset local fishermen.
"I've got a son," says one.
"Soon, he'll finish school. What other work could he get than fishing?"
"So I take him with me in the boat, and try not to get caught because he doesn't have a licence."
"But if I don't teach him to fish while he's young, who will teach him later?"

Grigore Baboianu, director of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, says that he and his colleagues are trying to persuade the people that restoration projects are good for them.
"We promoted some small projects in order to involve local people," he says.
"Not only working in fishery, but combining fishery with tourism, with cattle-breeding.
"Just to learn that the fishery is not the only source of income for the local people as they used to consider."
The scars left by those projects, are visible everywhere.
The enormous damage to the ecology of the delta which took place during the communist years cannot all be undone.
Romania, with international help, is doing what it can to restore the natural balance, and beauty.

Original article