There was a moment of drama, when their boat became stranded – this hot and dry summer has led to rather low water levels – but after a concerted effort they managed to get it afloat again.
So just now might not be the best moment to match it with appearances but the fact remains that up to 90% of Europe’s floodplains have been lost. Why does it matter? Because by retaining water, floodplains buffer the effects of heavy rainfall and protect communities and areas further downstream. They are also the natural habitat of many endangered species.
Around 20% of European cities are vulnerable to floods, one of the continent’s most frequent natural hazards. In 2002 and 2013, hundreds of thousands of hectares of land were flooded when the water level in the Danube rose beyond 10 meters. And climate change is expected to make floods even more frequent and intense.
People across Europe have been trying to control flooding for centuries. In the Danube region, too, dams have been constructed, large continuous flood areas have been reduced and divided by dykes and numerous branches of the river have been cut off from the main course.
Along with the conversion of floodplains to agricultural and urban use, measures such as these have altered water flows throughout Europe. They have transformed the natural landscape at a cost to wildlife, fish and river ecosystems. Ironically, they have also contributed to increased run-off and raised the risk of floods further downstream.
Even partially reversing these actions is often a very effective way to prevent and mitigate floods. Floodplain ecosystems are great natural defences and restoring them to health brings, in the long term, greater environmental and socio-economic benefits than the use of man-made structures. It also requires less money.
This is one of the implicit aims of the LIFE Danube floodplains project, which is looking to restore key natural habitats in the area and to introduce their sound, sustainable management.
The habitats around the Bratislava region are rich in variety and support many animal and plant species of European importance. Especially birds such as the black stork, the white-tailed eagle, the black kite and the black woodpecker, but also for example the endangered orchid species the autumn lady’s-tresses. (What a name!) The entire PLA is included in the list of wetlands of international importance (Ramsar Convention).
Another significant benefit of the project is that groundwater resources close to wetlands will be supplemented. Kenneth and Susann visited the Žitný ostrov, Europe’s largest river island which holds the largest subterranean reservoir of high-quality drinking water in central Europe.
The Danube being a long and international river, an intelligent management of flood risk would obviously require coordinating plans between upstream and downstream areas and the different countries.