The Green Danube

Article excerpt

A multi-million dollar investment raised by the United Nations Development Programme to clean up the Danube in the heart of Central Europe could bring together many bickering neighbours to protect their abused common environment.

The Danube is the second largest river in Europe. It is used for drinking, irrigation, fishing, energy, transport, industry and waste disposal. Heavy usage has created many pollution hot-spots. The UN agency has committed $8.5m to collect pollution emission data, prepare water quality criteria, select sites for new water purification installations and undertake feasibility studies for waste disposal plants.

The resulting data will be used to create an action plan for reducing pollution and building local institutions for environment management. The UN programme will embrace technology transfer and training, pre-investment surveys and fellowships in environmental monitoring and management.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has also promised funds for an extensive scientific study of the river system. And the European Community is considering proposals for early action for the protection of the Danube.

These developments have been announced in the wake of an important new survey of the Danube conducted by the Paris-based Fondation Cousteau. The study has just concluded on an optimistic note, pronouncing the health of the river -- as defined in terms of the abundance of wildlife supported by it -- to be better than expected and far better than that of any other major European waterway.

Captain Jacques Cousteau, the famous French aquatic explorer, and his associates used every opportunity created by their much publicized one-year study to bring together the policy and opinion makers of the ten Danubian countries. Many of them are divided by smouldering regional prejudices and conflicts. The UN programme may well enable them to work together in the common interest.

One area of high international tension which could benefit from a new spirit of co-operation is the romantic Danube Bend in Hungary. There, the river flows between gentle wooded hills with charming villages and Baroque churches, the scene of a hideous hydro-electric construction halted by the government for environmental reasons.

The ill-fated Gabcikovo-Nagymaros hydro-electric construction scheme had been launched before the collapse of communism in Europe. Hungary's refusal to complete its part of the construction has developed into an ugly row with neighbouring Austria and Czecho-slovakia, neither of which wants the project but both are much too involved just to forget it.

The UN programme may well involve the three countries in a co-operative research and conservation scheme for the establishment of the world's biggest transboundary park and protected area along the river.

Other proposals include improved scientific co-operation and support essential for the more than 1,500 square mile Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve. The UN programme will also encourage preparations by the Danubian neighbours of a major environment convention for the protection of their common river which links big landlocked industries with the sea and the world markets. The convention, agreed in principle at a conference in Budapest last year, is to introduce common standards for water quality monitoring and establish liability for cross-frontier pollution. The accord should affect many investment decisions as well as public health standards.

A group of international and non-governmental organizations have also formed a partnership to promote technical co-operation for the joint management of the river. Discussions in Sofia, sponsored by the World Bank, the European Community and other international authorities, have produced a work programme for the synchronization of the environment protection laws of the region with a view to formulating common legislative proposals. …