The Danube River Symposium took place in October 1999 and was held under the auspices of His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and His Excellency Mr. Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission.
The Danube is the second longest river in Europe. Its main source is in the German Black Forest. It covers significant parts of 13 countries and enters the Black Sea through a wide delta.
Since prehistoric times and until the advent of railways and modern road networks, the river represented the most important communication and transport route for ideas, goods, technologies and people inhabiting or passing through the Danube Basin. In the past, the rich and diverse ecosystem of the Danube provided a wealth of fish. Extensive floodplains and wetlands were associated with the main watercourse and its numerous tributaries. The Danube was truly a “river of life” which united the people of its Basin, it also served as the border for various civilisations.
The changes in the “natural” conditions of the Danube started about 150 years ago with TYPEering works, originally intended to regulate its course and thus facilitate navigation and prevent damage from flooding. As a consequence, the floodplains and wetlands were gradually reduced with considerable loss of biodiversity and fish yields, while the numerous dams radically upset the natural flow rate and sediment transport regime of the river. Pollution followed soon upon the heels of technical “advances”.
Today, the upper reaches of the Danube are totally devoid of wetlands. Large parts of the river’s floodplains have been turned into agricultural land. Several large cities and innumerable smaller ones have grown up on the banks of the river. The location of Industries along the Danube, have caused the loss of wetlands and floodplains. Pollution from industrial, domestic and agricultural sources has considerably reduced the biodiversity and biological wealth formerly associated with the river.
Until recently serious ideological, political and economic divisions separated the people of the riparian countries, hindering their cooperation to halt the further decline of the Danube’s environment.
The Danube River was selected as the focus of the Symposium as it was felt that it could contribute to the growing efforts of the riparian countries and their people, to alleviate the regional political tensions and improve their cooperation on the protection of this unique river.
The overarching goals of the Symposium were:
- to explore the common ground between pragmatic, scientific and environmental policy issues and the spiritual dimensions of nature, with specific focus on the impacts of war, urban development, industrialisation, shipping and agriculture on the Danube River;
- to raise public awareness about the present state of the Danube River’s environment and about the forces contributing to its continuing decline; and
- to suggest approaches and measures that may mitigate or reverse the accelerating degradation of the Danube River.
The Symposium took 125 participants on a voyage by boat starting at Passau in Germany and ending at the Danube Delta in Romania and Ukraine. On-shore visits were made to specific sites in Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine.
More than thirty statements and presentations were made at the Symposium by regional and international experts, about the general environmental problems of the Danube and the particular problems of the visited sites. The statements and presentations were delivered during seven plenary sessions and on-shore visits, and were supplemented by discussions at numerous workshops, highlighting the technical and ethical dimensions of the identified problems.
Local input was ensured from the outset, by the involvement of non-governmental organisations, national and local authorities in the Symposium’s planning process.
The participants were a mix of people from the countries visited and international experts concerned about the environmental problems associated with the Danube. People of various professional backgrounds and beliefs, ranging from religious leaders, national and regional policy-makers, scientists, representatives of non-governmental organisations and media were included. This diversity allowed for effective sharing of ideas and knowledge without sectoral barriers, and ensured that the Danube’s environmental problems were considered from a variety of perspectives.
At on-shore plenaries, hundreds of additional local participants joined the Symposium and took an active part in its deliberations.
The main themes presented and discussed at the Symposium’s plenary sessions were related to the sites visited, and included the following issues:
- the nature of water resources and the downstream consequences of their inappropriate use;
- the environmental and public health impact of industrial, agricultural and domestic wastes;
- the ecological problems caused by damming and other TYPEering works leading to changes in the hydrological regime of the Danube and its dependent ecosystems;
- the ecological and societal impacts of war on a river environment (bombing of a chemical factory in Novi Sad);
- the relationship between energy supply choices and river ecology;
- the international legal implications of transboundary water resource use and pollution control; and
- the rights of future generations to receive clean water and rivers rich in natural life.
A number of proposals were made at the Symposium:
1. International organisations and funding institutions were invited to strengthen the existing cooperative arrangements and provide adequate support and funding to alleviate the substantial economic and financial obstacles faced by transition states in their efforts to protect and improve the Danube’s environment.
2. Countries were invited to strengthen and harmonise their national legislation and practices relevant to the protection of the Danube River, in particular legislation regulating the control of pollution from various sources, the protection of wetlands and biological resources, and the changes in the Danube’s hydrological regime.
3. The disruption of navigation caused by the recent military activities in Yugoslavia should be eliminated and other environmental and public health problems caused by the same activities should be repaired without delay.
4. The role of faith communities in the environmental protection of the Danube River should be increased through a number of possible activities specified by the Symposium.
An integral part of the Symposium was the participation of some two-dozen international and regional journalists. The reportage of these participants was complemented by local and regional coverage in each of the ten Danube states through which the Symposium travelled. In addition to providing an important critical perspective on the issues raised, media participation enabled the various messages of the Symposium to reach a wide audience, particularly across Europe and North America.
The media attention generated by the Symposium raised political awareness and interest in a number of significant issues, especially the dangers to the Danube River and its peoples.
In addition to communicating to a broader audience the issues related to protecting and improving the Danube environment, the Symposium enabled the formation of new partnerships and the strengthening of existing ones along the Danube. These partnerships are providing the basis for broadened environmental protection activity in the region:
The Symposium made a significant contribution to reinforcing co-operation and joint action by Danube states under the Danube River Protection Convention. The event provided the first opportunity for representatives of the parties to the Convention to travel the length of the Danube together. In addition to reinforcing the international nature of the Danube to participants, the Symposium enabled regional leaders to examine firsthand the river’s problems and develop strategies for future action.
Representatives of the Lower Danube countries – Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine – confirmed their agreement to sign a Declaration for the creation of a Lower Danube Green Corridor. The Lower Danube Green Corridor will promote the restoration and conservation of an interconnected network of floodplains along the Lower Danube.
The international conservation organization World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) announced that it will commit resources to further the aims of the Symposium through the Vienna-based Danube-Carpathian Program Office. Environmental NGOs met with local religious representatives to explore means of co-operation between environmentalists and religious leaders to discuss potential projects including the joint publication of informational materials and collaboration in local land stewardship projects.
Danube-region non-governmental organizations, such as the Danube Environmental Forum, reported that the increased networking resulting from the Symposium enabled the acceleration and broadening of their action agendas for protection of the Danube environment.
Following the Symposium, groups such as WWF Ukraine and other NGOs organised smaller-scale symposia and other activities to help sustain the national dialogue between religious communities and environmentalists and strengthen local efforts to protect the Danube.
A celebration of the ‘River of Life’
The Danube Day initiative celebrated for the first time in June 2004, was conceived during the Symposium. This involved more than 100 events held simultaneously throughout the Danube Basin.