Nurturing a delta

EUROPE's largest remaining wetlands may yet be saved from devastation. The Global Environment Facility has given a $4.5 million grant to Romania to help it preserve the rare flora and fauna of the Danube delta.

The greatest threat to the delta comes from the pollutants and waste accumulated by the Danube river as it meanders for 2,700 km through the industrial heartland of Europe. Besides, excessive use of fertilisers, phosphates and nutrients in intensive farming has led to a significant increase in algae and a consequent decrease in the oxygen content of the lake. As Grigore Baboianu, executive director of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority, points out: "This is very dangerous. Algae cover the surface of the water and block light and oxygen for the water plants and animals below, eventually killing them."

One of the major aims of the World Bank is to reverse the damage wrought to the delta over the past 50 years. The 5-year project aims to restore the reed banks and land reclaimed by the communist regime for agricultural use to their natural state.

Representatives of the Authority say that damage control is critical because large areas of reeds have been destroyed by heavy harvesting equipment used under a grandiose plan by Romania's former rulers in the '50s to harvest 500,000 tonnes of reeds a year from the delta for manufacturing paper. As the delta acts as a buffer between the Danube and the highly polluted Black Sea, its restoration has to take top priority.

The greatest challenge, however, will be to garner support from financially-constrained neighbouring countries, like the Ukraine, through which the Blue Danube flows. Nevertheless, there is hope that the Danube delta will endure as a reminder of Europe's rich environmental legacy.