River navigation specialists meet water and wetland experts at Romanian conference


Past and Future in Establishing Institutions
on Danube Cooperation

27-29 June 2006, Galati, Romania

Freight transport in Europe via road, rail and air suffers from congestion, capacity problems and delays which affect mobility and economic competitiveness, and are detrimental to the environment and quality of life. The European Union is therefore committed to shift transport to less energy-intensive, cleaner and safer transport modes. Inland waterway transport is an obvious choice to play a more prominent role in reaching these targets, as outlined in the integrated European action programme for inland waterway transport ("Naiades") published on 17 January 2006 by the European Commission.

In 2002, WWF published an overview study on the impacts, threats and opportunities of increased waterway transport on the Danube, indicating that a huge, largely unused, transportation capacity already exists on the Danube. It deplores that the discussions on upgrading the waterway are largely focusing on economic factors without giving due attention to ecological consequences of interventions on the river ecosystem (water abstraction, damming, dredging, canalization, etc.), and recalls the obligations introduced with the EU's Water Framework Directive, as well as through the need to establish the network "Natura 2000" of areas important for wild species and natural ecosystems.

A recent conference, on 27-29 June 2006 in Romania, provided the opportunity for river navigation specialists to meet with environmental, water management and wetlands experts. Unfortunately, both groups spent much time discussing amongst themselves in separate halls. However, during a joint session, chaired by Philip Weller, Executive Secretary of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (established in 1998, more information here), Alexandru Cucu, General Director in the Romanian Ministry of Transport, reported on the recently established cooperation between his Ministry and the Ministry of Environment to elaborate win-win solutions for improvement measures for both, inland navigation on the lower Danube between Braila and Calarasi, as well as for the management of the Ramsar Site "Small Island of Braila" and other wetland ecosystems of the Lower Danube Green Corridor. This is a very encouraging development indeed. Similar cooperation needs to be established in many other areas of the Danube river floodplain to develop common measures for integrated flood management, navigation support, environmental restoration and biodiversity conservation. After repeated extraordinary floods in the lower Danube floodplain which caused much harm and human losses, it is probably a good moment to address this in earnest.

On the eve of Romania's accession to the European Union (foreseen for 2007), the conference was organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with the Ministries of Environment and Water and of Transport, to commemorate the150th anniversary of the conclusion of the 1856 Paris Peace Treaty after the Crimean War, and the establishment, at this occasion, of the "European Danube Commission", having its seat at the river mouth in Sulina and the town of Galati. The Commission was the first to regulate and oversee free international navigation on the lower Danube. The theme of the conference, taking place in the river port towns of Galati and Tulcea, was "Past and Future in Establishing Institutions on Danube Cooperation". This provided the opportunity for two additional specialist groups to discuss historical aspects of the institutional evolution since the establishment of the first Danube Commission, and to focus on the most recent political Danube Cooperation Process, initiated by the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, after the 1999 Kosovo war.

The conference on Danube cooperation culminated on 29 June, prior to the Romanian celebrations in the city of Galati for Danube Day. The Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu, and the Minister of Environment and Water Management, Ms Sulfina Barbu, the President of the Danube Protection Commission (ICPDR), Environment Minister Constantin Mihailescu of the Republic of Moldova, as well as the Special Coordinator of the Stability Pact, Erhard Busek, underlined the need for reinforced cooperation among the Danube riparian states to elaborate in common integrated solutions for river navigation, socio-economic development, sustainable water and flood management, environmental restoration and biodiversity conservation. The Ramsar Secretariat recalled the conclusions from the international conference on the Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Danube Delta held on 27-28 February 2006 in Odessa.

Besides Romanian and international participants, there was a strong and active participation by experts from Moldova, presenting common activities along the Prut river. Unfortunately, no Ukrainian delegate was present. Nevertheless, the Romanian authorities understood this conference as a step in the process of transboundary cooperation, as recommended by the Odessa conference. Regretting the absence of Ukrainian friends, Minister Ungureanu announced that Romania will invite later in 2006 for a trilateral meeting to progress with the work on the Danube delta sub-basin river management plan, as suggested by the Odessa conference. He also stated that Romania will accept the recommendations by the compliance commission of the Espoo Convention, to be published on 10 July 2006, regarding transboundary environmental impacts of the proposed deepwater navigation way through the Ukrainian part of the Danube delta. Working together across sectoral interests and national boundaries is becoming more than ever a crucial imperative to find lasting solutions for sustainable development and human wellbeing in the lower Danube region. This political imperative is evidenced by the density of Ramsar Sites in this region, most of them of transboundary nature.

Danube flood retention in the natural floodplain near Galati

Closing session of the conference with (from right to left) Philip Weller (ICPDR), Ms Sulfina Barbu, Romanian Environment Minister, Constantin Mihailescu, Moldovan Environment Minister, Alexandros Galiatatos, Romanian State Secretary, Erhard Busek, Stability Pact Special Coordinator, Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu, Romanian Foreign Affairs Minister, and Lucia Varga, Romanian State Secretary for Environment

Preparing for 29 June Danube Day celebrations on the river terrace of Galati town

Report and photos by Tobias Salathé, Ramsar Secretariat

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