The Danube
The Danube
Danube and Europe
Living Force

Mr Neal Ascherson

The two first symposium voyages of Religion, Science and the Environment were both encounters with a sea: the Aegean and the Black Sea. The third was very different. A sea is a situation, offering time and space for meditation between ports of call. But a huge river like the Danube is a narrative pressing irresistibly forward, imposing its own rapid change of topic and context as the ship is carried downstream from one country - one set of problems, outlooks and sometimes tragedies - to the next.

There were other differences, too. The first voyage in 1995 had a strongly spiritual and metaphysical content, as the participants contemplated the new Apocalypse of the world's threatened waters and sought - successfully - a common approach to the questions of human and Divine responsibility for the natural environment which could embrace both profound theological perceptions and the need for trained scientific and political action to rescue those waters. The second voyage, around the Black Sea, advanced from that common approach to deal with the positive problems of a given maritime environment and to gather the religious and lay communities of the Black Sea behind a programme which would combine the energies of churches, governments and non-governmental organisations in a rich series of initiatives. The third symposium of Religion, Science and the Environment deepened the understanding of the Black Sea's problems by focusing on a single source - the Danube. Between our departure from Passau on October 17, 1999 and our arrival at "Kilometre Zero", where the Danube Delta opens into the Black Sea, we visited no fewer than eight nation-states. Inevitably, it was a more densely packed and demanding experience.

Some participants felt that the Danube Symposium was very "political", and that its rapid succession of meetings, presentations and experiences allowed limited room for the enrichment of spiritual understanding around which the whole enterprise of Religion, Science and the Environment is built. But there is another way of looking at it. A river is also a theological metaphor for continuous renewal, for that which is at once eternal and changing every second, and for the chance of rebirth and purification which is ceaselessly passing away at each moment and yet offered again at each moment.

Each traveller on this journey down the Danube could select his or her scene of most intense meaning. To me, it was the magical "blessing of the Danube" at the start of the voyage. We stood in the early morning on the river bank at Niederaltaich under a tall wooden cross as priests of many faiths sang and prayed, while two women, pushing a skiff out into the current, gave to the river a flotilla of tiny boats bearing candles - one for each nation along the Danube's course.

The Danube, rising in the Black Forest near Germany's frontier with France, runs for 2,600 kilometres across Central and Eastern Europe to the sea. Its vast drainage basin covers 817,000 km2, including all or part of 16 nation-states. Symposium III took 125 participants down to the Delta in Romania and Ukraine, hearing statements from over 30 regional and international experts, and holding seven plenary sessions aboard or on shore as well as numerous workshops. Along the river, the Symposium visited Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine; Moldovan representatives came on board, but there was no stop at the few hundred metres of bank which give Moldova the title and rights of a Danubian state.

We visited many places, from the wetlands at Hainburg and the Delta to the huge dam at Gabcikovo in Slovakia, the old concentration camp at Mauthausen, and the churches and monasteries of many cities. No sight was more ominous than the twisted girders and ruptured concrete of the Danube bridges at Novi Sad, destroyed a few months before by NATO bombing and now blocking the river itself.

This was a reminder that the Danube is not simply a highway which unites a variety of peoples, but that its role as "Europe's Messenger" has often been to bring bad news. Only a few years ago, and not for the first time in Balkan history, the bodies of the murdered dead came floating downstream from Bosnia and Croatia past the walls of Belgrade. Indeed, for many centuries the river served to divide rather than to unite. The Roman Empire used the Danube as a frontier, often artificially sundering ethnic groups who lived on both sides of the stream so that "outsiders" constantly strove to force their way across the river to rejoin their kindred on the Romanised bank. The Byzantine and Ottoman Empires continued this tradition of using the Danube as a defensive frontier line rather than as a means of long-range transport or communication.

At that time, the barrier of the Iron Gates gorges and rapids, where the Danube cuts its way through the Carpathian wall, still divided the river into two sections. It is hard to realise that there was almost no regular contact by boat between the upper and lower Danube countries until the Iron Gates were dammed and tamed in the later 20th century. This vast series of TYPEering works, following the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire in Europe, in effect opened Vienna or Budapest to the oceans. But the creation of a single Danube navigation from Bavaria to the Romanian/Ukrainian Delta also made necessary international institutions to regulate river traffic, and international treaties to control the use of the Danube waters. Recognition of this need long antedated the opening of the Iron Gates. The Habsburg Empire was the first Danubian power to realise the economic potential of the Danube as a means of communication, and the first agreements on freedom of navigation date back as far as the 17th and 18th centuries. The first international Danube Commission was established in 1856, but the present Commission dates back to 1923 - ironically, only a few years after the Habsburg "Danubian Monarchy" had broken up at the end of the First World War.

War along the banks of the river - above all, in the middle sections between Bavaria and the Iron Gates - has defaced the history of the Danube from late-mediaeval times into our own. These wars have been imperial (the Turkish invasions and conquests), religious (the Thirty Years' War), dynastic (the Seven Years' War and many others), national (the Hungarian uprising of 1848 and the independence struggles on the lower Danube) and global (the Great-Power conflicts of the First and Second World Wars). There followed the Cold War (c.1947-89), in which the Iron Curtain's east-west partition line through Europe crossed the Danube near Bratislava. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and the Soviet republics of Moldova and Ukraine spent the next 40 years under various types of Communist regime.

Finally, the Danube witnessed ethnic war in the 1990s, as the disintegration of the old Yugoslavia degenerated into merciless minority conflicts, often involving racial mass murder, torture, group rape, and wholesale expulsions. The ruins of Vukovar in Croatia lay close to the route of Symposium III, and we arrived at Novi Sad in Yugoslavia only a few months after the end of the Kosovo war and the bombing of Serbian industrial and infrastructure targets by NATO aircraft from Italy. The broken bridges severed all navigation between the lower and upper Danube for nearly two years, trapping Bulgarian, Romanian and Ukrainian shipping in the upper reaches and ruining the economies of the lower-Danube ports from Vidin to Galati and Izmail, where mass unemployment prevailed. It was the most serious interruption of river traffic since the Allied bombings of the Second World War, and it was accompanied by the bombing of chemical plants along the Serbian section of the Danube which - especially at Pancevo - leaked toxic material into the main river with long-term consequences which are still not clear.

The effects of warfare on the ethnic and religious map of the Danube Basin have been overwhelming. Apart from frontier changes, many of which have used and re-used the river as a demarcation line, the most profound consequence was the gradual expulsion of the Ottoman Empire from the middle and lower Danube in the course of the 19th century. This leaves the Danube carrying its ecumenical message through territories which are traditionally Christian in faith, although substantial Muslim groups survive in Bulgaria, and the Danube drainage basin includes parts of the Muslim populations of Bosnia and Kosovo. The cities of the upper and middle Danube - Ingolstadt, Regensburg, Passau, Linz and Vienna - all have well-established Muslim communities, mainly Turkish in origin. Catholic Bavaria, with its strong Protestant minority, is succeeded by mainly Catholic Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, and then by mainly Orthodox-affiliated Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine. This is not to forget the powerful Protestant congregations in Transylvania and eastern Hungary, living on Danube tributaries. The great Jewish populations of the Danube port-cities, however, have almost entirely vanished, with the exception of the flourishing Jewish community in Budapest.

It is worth noting that few, if any, of those wars over the last 500 years were fought to gain possession of the river, or even to use it as a temporary military resource. The Danube carried the blood and wreckage of wars down to the sea, but in itself was not central to the warriors' plans. As a cause of war, this river can justly plead not guilty. Armed conflict in the Danube Basin sooner or later blocks its course, while peace usually restores an open Danube along which shipping can safely venture for over a thousand miles.

If the Danube has not featured in the plans of generals, however, it has dominated for 150 years the blueprints of TYPEers, ship-owners, industrialists and the governments which subsidised them. The traces of modern human intervention and exploitation are far more dramatic and visible on a great river than in a sea, and if the Danube is to be used as a test of how the human race has exercised its trusteeship for the waters of the natural creation, then the outcome of that test is deeply depressing.

Modern exploitation of the Danube falls mainly into two categories: the use of its water and the use of its flow. The first category includes the use of water for domestic use, for irrigation, for industrial purposes and for carrying away waste. The second covers navigation, and especially the "improvements" carried out in order to "canalise" the Danube by deepening its channels, by embanking its shores and by reducing or suppressing altogether its seasonal rise, fall and overflow. But the "flow use" category also includes the dams: above all, the three colossal barrages across the Danube, constructed in the late 20th century by Communist governments, which were designed to generate hydroelectricity and to incorporate large-capacity locks for shipping.

Water use is the principal source of pollution, and there have been periods in recent years when the Danube has come to resemble a huge international sewer. When a toilet is flushed in Ljubljana, on an upstream Danube tributary, the organic waste dilutes after the first few hundred kilometres but the phosphorus and nitrogen content, principally from detergents, is carried all the way down to the Black Sea - 1,575 tons of nitrogen and 350 tons of phosphorus annually in the case of that small city alone. Below Austria, few of the Danubian cities have anything like comprehensive sewage treatment. The durable waste elements are joined by the run-off from agriculture treated with chemical fertilisers, principally nitrates and phosphates; reaching the Black Sea, they produce the phenomenon of "eutrophication" in which explosive algae growth, generated by excess nutrients, blocks the access of light to the shallow seas where fish species breed and find food.

Water use also, of course, includes water used in industrial processes which produces toxic waste - heavy metals, acids or radioactive materials with, in the case of the Danube, a massive tonnage of spilled oil. But arguments about which riparian countries are most responsible for the filthy condition of the Danube waters remain inconclusive. The post-Communist states on the lower Danube are inclined to blame Germany and Austria, suggesting that these highly-industrialised nations are not fulfilling European Union standards on effluent control. But German and Austrian officials were at pains to assure Symposium III that they have in place the most advanced equipment and the most comprehensive legislation for controlling and reducing river-water pollution. And it is also true that industrial pollution and the run-off of fertiliser nutrients on the lower Danube have been sharply reduced by the virtual collapse of industrial economies following the end of the Communist systems, an effect reinforced by the economic disaster created in those states by the blocking of the Danube by bombing during the Kosovo conflict.

In the past, and to some extent today, pollution has been controlled by the "filtering" effect of the floodplains and wetlands which used to extend along the length of the Danube, and above all by the cleansing effect of the Delta. Reckless exploitation of the Danube flow has disastrously reduced this natural process, above all through the embankment of the river, drying out wetlands, and by the construction of dams. There are no fewer than 58 dams in the upper 1,000 kilometres of the river, with the threat of another barrage in Bavaria which will abolish the last natural and unembanked reaches of the river in Germany. But the main problems are created by the three huge structures of Gabcikovo in Slovakia, completed in 1992, and the two Iron Gates dams between Serbia and Romania, finished respectively in 1971 and 1983.

The impact of these great projects on the environment is entirely noxious. In the first place, they block the movement of sediment downstream, halting the natural build-up of the Delta. Some 30 million tons of sediment have now accumulated behind the Iron Gates dams, while the Delta is shrinking at the rate of ten metres a year. The damage to beaches on the western shore of the Black Sea, deprived of the Danube's supply of sand, has been even more dramatic. The water below the Iron Gates has been largely sterilised; anadromous fish species such as sturgeon, which used to run up the Danube to breed, have been decimated, and the local fisheries on the lower Danube have collapsed. In addition, the dams have accelerated the water flow and almost eliminated the seasonal rise and fall of river levels; Gabcikovo in particular has reduced the ground water-level which provided drinking and irrigation water to the region, including part of western Hungary. Symposium participants visited the dam and hydroelectric plant, and were able to see for themselves how the old floodplain forests were drying out; lakes had vanished and the water table had sunk by several metres. Something like 80% of the Danube's flow has been diverted into hard-walled canals and reservoirs in the Gabcikovo complex, and little of the original ecosystem remains.

Further evidence of human megalomania's impact on the Danube ecology can be found in the Delta, especially in the Romanian sector. The Delta, a world of reed-beds, narrow channels and sandbanks, has long been recognised as one of the natural wonders of Europe for its bird-life, its fish stocks and its peaceful villages of creek-dwellers. In the 1960s, however, the Romanian regime led by Nicolae Ceauκescu launched a project to drain and cultivate huge areas of the Delta, principally for rice. Channels were blocked, reed-beds felled and some 40,000 hectares of wetland had been destroyed by 1989, when the regime was overthrown. On a smaller scale, there were similar developments in the Ukrainian sector of the Delta, where large wetland areas were destroyed to create irrigation schemes and canals. Throughout the Delta, the impact was catastrophic on the fragile human communities there, on the birds and especially on fish life; the numbers of sturgeon, mullet and Black Sea herring, species which used the Delta for breeding and nourishment, fell away steeply.

Here, however, there was also good news to counterbalance the decades of human abuse of the Danube and its waters. Led by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), working through several programmes, the Delta is being restored; dykes are being opened and wetlands re-flooded, and joint monitoring teams with the Romanian and Ukrainian authorities have recorded a rapid revival of the ecosystems. This encouraging turn in the river's fortunes was part of a changed mood which the Symposium had already encountered all along the Danube. The restoration of wetlands is the focus of these changes at present, a movement pioneered by the popular resistance to the proposed power station at Hainburg, below Vienna, which was able to rescue and repair a substantial stretch of Danubian floodplain.

There is a very long way to go before the Danube can again become a true "river of life". A few months after the Symposium voyage, there was a disastrous escape of cyanide into the Tisza river, killing almost all fish life down to the Tisza's confluence with the Danube. The spill was brought about by the collapse of a mine dam in the Romanian mountains, at a site acquired by an Australian mineral corporation. It illustrated the threat to the environment in post-Communist countries, where industrial projects constructed without regard for safety or the local ecology remain disasters waiting to happen, especially in the new conditions of almost completely unregulated free-market exploitation. This ecological lawlessness may diminish in the years ahead, but there is little to be done about the existence of the three colossal dams which have fundamentally altered the course and function of the Danube. In practice, they are not removable, although much can be done to alleviate their impact. The battle must be to ensure that no new project of that type or scale is ever launched again. Meanwhile, there are reasonable prospects for refunctioning or mothballing lesser hydroelectric schemes in the upper and middle Danube, replacing them as power sources by renewable energy schemes and working to restore some of the natural flow of the river into the old floodplains and islanded webs of side-channels which are the Danube's own mechanism for cleansing its flow.

On its voyage, the Symposium encountered many of the international organisations - several of them venerably old - which are responsible for the free navigation and maintenance of the Danube. They had survived intact through the Cold War years which had threatened to end all co-operation between Danube states, but the new isolation of Yugoslavia - even before the Kosovo war and the bombing of the Novi Sad bridges - had renewed their sense of helplessness. The representatives of national governments along the Danube, officials and politicians concerned with the water environment, showed much more energy and enthusiasm, even though some - particularly those from the lower Danube states - suffered from a tragic lack of funding, equipment and detailed planning which only outside support can alleviate in the short term. In those stricken countries, where human living standards have fallen so low and national economies are so poverty-stricken, the fight to gain spending priority for the environment is usually a losing battle against life-or-death claims on resources.

If the national authorities had one common weakness, it was their tendency to adopt a defensive, competitive attitude towards the policies of their neighbours. Each government eagerly asserted its own achievements or regulations, without much attention to coordinated action to save the Danube ecology as a whole. Water pollution, in particular, was often represented as some other government's fault.

But this particularism could not conceal the fact that transnational strategies for the rescue of the Danube are already emerging. Two Danubian states, Austria and Germany, are already European Union members, and the rest - with varying prospects - are all in the queue for accession. In 15 years or so, the Danube will be the main waterway of a united Europe, from its source to the Delta, and there will presumably be one coherent international regime for the use of its water and its flow. There is no time to lose.

The pressure for these strategies has come from the UN agencies, from the European Union itself and above all from the non-governmental organisations: some of them global (WWF especially) and others which are little more than tiny local groups of idealists struggling against great obstacles. Here the faith communities take a vigorous part. All along the river, from the Niederaltaich monastery in Bavaria down to the Orthodox parishes in the islands of the Delta, the Symposium encountered religious men and women convinced that the despoiling of the Danube waters was a crime against the Divine gift of the natural world.

This dense web of governmental, supranational, global-voluntary and local-voluntary organisations has now assumed many institutional forms and acronyms. At the centre, and potentially the most effective, is the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube river (ICPDR), established under the Danube River Protection Convention. In a similar way, the Danube Action Plan (combining all the riparian states and six more in the drainage basin) emerged from the 1991 Danube Environmental Programme: its signatories are committed to ending further flow-regulation schemes and to restoring wetlands. The Transboundary Analysis Report provides guidelines for the Danube Pollution Reduction Programme (DPRP), funded by two UN agencies, UNDP and the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The Danube Programme Management Task Force (PMTF) is inter-governmental, while the Danube Environmental Forum, set up in 1999, coordinates the activities of voluntary groups and NGOs in thirteen countries.

The voluntary sector has achieved more than could have been expected in the ten years since the collapse of Communism had united all the Danubian countries (with the temporary exception of Serbia/Yugoslavia) under plural democratic systems. In contrast, the official authorities, governments or transnational agencies had not made much headway in transforming their paper commitments into positive action along the riverbanks. There have been political difficulties which contributed to the delay. But it was clear to the Symposium members that the basic problem confronting official or unofficial rescue plans was the monstrous wealth gap between the countries of the lower Danube and those upstream.

At the grassroots level, much could be done. The Symposium identified the longing of religious congregations along the Danube to do something for the rescue of their river, and suggested "Sustainability Partnerships" between monasteries, church-led environment projects, a Danube Pilgrimage and perhaps a Danube Sunday; the "poverty gap" was not going to obstruct the Symposium in its mission to build connections between scientists, local inhabitants, church groups and environmental activists. Schools and the local media could combine in programmes upstream and downstream across frontiers to foster their "Danube consciousness". In any case, not all initiatives were prohibitively capital-intensive; the admirable operations to re-flood the Delta and restore its floodplain were an example.

But without international assistance and economic revival, there is no chance that the poverty-stricken lower Danube states could undertake any large-scale programme to improve the Danubian environment. And when these economies do revive, who will provide funds to prevent gross industrial pollution and chemical fertiliser run-off poisoning the river ecology as they had in the past? Or who will pay for reconstructing the Danube bed between and below the Iron Gates dams, so that fish species can run up the river and breed again? The Symposium recognised that these were responsibilities on a European scale. They amount to an obligation which must be accepted by the European Union as an integral part of the preparations for the enlargement which will eventually include these states of the central and eastern Balkans.

The mangled wreckage blocking the river at Novi Sad was in itself a horrifying sight for the Symposium. But it also seemed to symbolise the indifference of the prosperous West to the sufferings of south-eastern Europe, many of them the direct or indirect outcomes of Western policy. The immediate demand of Symposium III, in its "Final Report", was that the nations involved in the Kosovo conflict should at once unblock the river and re-open it to navigation and trade. The European Union should finance a new "Europa Bridge" across the Danube at Novi Sad, and deal with the threat to water content and public health caused by the bombing of chemical plants along the river in Serbia. But the Report went on to call on the European Commission to prepare and carry through a "Regional Environmental Reconstruction Plan" for the Balkan region, centred on the protection and improvement of the Danube itself.

At the Symposium's closing session in Bucharest, Tom Spencer quoted the words of our Co-Patron, President Romano Prodi: "We have to treat the problem of south-east Europe as part of the Enlargement process, not as foreign policy". And Spencer went on: "We have to offer, and feel, and live an historical reconciliation that pledges to the people of the Balkans their rightful place as full members of the European family".