Cross–border Cooperation: Managing the Danube

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The first ever management plan for the Danube River Basin has been adopted, detailing the significant pressures that affect the region and the solutions to meet the requirements of the Water Framework Directive in 2015 and beyond. Jasmine Bachmann reports.


In 1994, the Danube countries came together to sign the Danube River Protection Convention, and established the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICDPR) in 1998.

The ICPDR is made up of 15 Contracting Parties (Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine and the European Community) who have committed themselves to implementing the Danube River Protection Convention. The ICPDR serves as a forum for coordination and cooperation on fundamental water management issues and takes all appropriate legal, administrative and technical measures to maintain and improve the quality of the Danube River Basin and its tributaries.

The Danube river basin crosses the most international boundaries in the world and includes the territories of 19 countries. The area is home to more than 80 million people with a wide range of cultures, languages and historical backgrounds. For centuries, the people of the Danube countries have relied upon the resources of the river and its tributaries. Today this dependence is as strong as ever across the entire region, with the basin providing domestic drinking water, industrial and agricultural water supply, hydroelectric power generation, navigation, tourism, recreation and fisheries.

A management plan for the Danube and its tributaries demonstrates an innovative approach for basin–wide issues by offering up answers to the pressures and impacts on water status in the region in the form of a Joint Programme of Measures – for some 20,000 river kilometres.

The Danube River Basin Management Plan is a result of fifteen contracting parties focusing their efforts to achieve shared goals. The Plan was adopted in February at a Ministerial Meeting held in Vienna, Austria. The meeting brought together ministers and high level representatives responsible for water management from Danube River Basin countries including Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Montenegro, the Republic of Moldova, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine and the European Union. They also endorsed a 'Danube Declaration', expressing their commitment to implement the Joint Programme of Measures to improve the environmental conditions of the Danube and its tributaries.

"The Danube waters are shared by us all and therefore we also share the responsibility," said Mitja Bricelj, Secretary at the Slovene Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning and ICPDR President for 2010.

The EU Water Framework Directive

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) establishes, for the first time, a framework for the protection of all waters and the wildlife that depend on them. The WFD aims to protect and enhance all surface, ground and coastal water bodies and sets requirements for all water bodies to achieve 'good status' by 2015.

Far reaching: the Danube includes the territories of 19 countries, including Hungary, which are home to more than 80 million people

In contrast to other water management systems using arbitrary boundaries for management units, this significant water legislation focuses on river basins, which are natural geographic areas that occur in the landscape.

The WFD requires these basins to be managed using River Basin Management Plans with a Programme of Measures, consisting of policies and strategies to reduce the risk to water bodies and allow them to achieve 'good status'.

The Danube covers territories of several EU Member States, but many Danube countries are not Member States of the EU and therefore not obligated to fulfil the WFD's requirements. However all the Danube countries have agreed to work together as a whole river basin to implement this directive.

Addressing transboundary issues

The Danube River Basin Management Plan was a particular challenge in a river basin as large and diverse as the Danube. The Plan identifies – from a basin–wide perspective – four of the most significant water management issues: organic pollution, nutrient pollution, hazardous substances pollution and hydromorphological alterations, as well as transboundary groundwater issues. The Danube River Basin Management Plan provides a description of each of the significant pressures in the basin corresponding to each significant water management issue, and responds to each with visions and management objectives for each issue.

Organic and nutrient pollution

Organic pollution comes from untreated or partially treated wastewater from industry, agriculture and especially large communities. "The most serious organic pollution problems occur in tributaries that receive only partially treated wastewater, and in fact there are still many agglomerations along rivers in the basin with no wastewater treatment facilities at all," says Mihaela Popovici, technical expert for pollution control at the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICDPR).

Come together: Ministers from Danube River Basin countries agreed to help improve environmental conditions of the river

Meeting the WFD's requirements for organic pollution means zero emissions of untreated wastewater into the basin's rivers and tributaries. The progressive implementation of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive and the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive in EU Member States, together with the development of wastewater infrastructure in Non–EU Member States, are the most important measures to reduce organic pollution in the Danube River Basin by 2015 and beyond.

Phosphates are commonly used in domestic and industrial detergents to soften water and make washing more effective. However they can also lead to excess nutrients in the river and reduce biodiversity.

Through the planned measures, phosphate and nitrate emissions by 2015 are expected to reach a level that is below the present state but still far above targets. EU Member States will have to implement the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive and the Nitrates Directive. The overall application of nutrient removal technologies are expanding, but new investments in wastewater collection and treatment in Non–EU Member Sates must also consider nutrient removal technologies during upgrades or new construction.

"For many Danube countries, financing the building or rehabilitating of wastewater treatment plants will be the largest burden," says Popovici. The ICPDR will hold a meeting in May on how to finance the measures needed.

Putting the plan into action

"It was a remarkable achievement getting everybody together to create the Danube River Basin Management Plan and getting the political will from the ministers," says ICPDR executive Secretariat Philip Weller, "but it isn't the end, it is a step along the way. The need now is for implementation."

The Danube River Basin Management Plan is a significant first step towards achieving the 'good status' of water bodies that the WFD requires. However, measures within the Joint Programme of Measures will not be sufficient to achieve the environmental objectives of the WFD on the basin–wide scale by 2015 and need to be addressed by further actions.

"The Danube and its tributaries such as the Sava and the Tisza are lifelines for man and nature. The actions for protection are set – their joint implementation will follow", concludes Bricelj.

Author's note: Jasmine Bachmann works on public participation in the ICPDR Secretariat. For more information on the Danube River Basin Management Plan or the work of the ICPDR, please visit or email


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