Ten years ago, the countries through which the Danube flows formed an alliance to better protect the mighty river. Environment ministers from all 13 member nations meet soon to take stock of their efforts.
The Danube flows past many historic cities, such as Regensburg
The Danube starts its life in Germany's Black Forest, and around 2,850 kilometers (1,770 miles) later, flows into the Black Sea on the Romanian coast. It passes through such cities as Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, and together with its tributaries, affects 13 countries. Bosnia Herzegovina is the latest country to join the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, which celebrates its tenth birthday this year.
"The Danube river basin is the most international basin in the world, with very diverse social, economic and environmental standards, from Germany with high standards to Moldova with low standards," said Fritz Holzwarth from Germany's Environment Ministry. "But we have achieved a common vision that we act together to improve the water quality in the Danube basin."
When Johann Strauss composed his famous "Blue Danube Waltz," the river likely still sparkled blue and clear. Not so today. Fertilizers, chemicals and untreated sewage have all taken their toll on the river, said Philip Weller, executive secretary of the river protection commission.
Bratislava on the Danube river
"There are major municipalities along the river which do not have sewage treatment plants, such as Belgrade or Bucharest," Weller said. "These communities need to improve their pollution control systems. As well, it's important that we undertake efforts to reduce pollution from large animal farms and agriculture in general to reduce the amounts of nutrients, phosphorus and nitrogen in fertilizers that are ending up in the river."
Some progress made
While progress has been made, large stretches of the Danube are still not subjected to the kind of rigorous clean-up efforts that can be seen, for example, on the Rhine river, which undergoes a three-step purification process -- mechanical, biological and chemical.
"The Danube is cleaner than it was 10 years ago," Weller said. "The amount of nutrients in the river have been reduced as a well as the concentrations of most of the toxic contaminants. The quality of the water and the monitoring that we've done in terms of water chemistry has shown it's better and many aspects of biological assessments show quality is improving."
At the commission's upcoming meeting in Vienna, environment ministers will be presented with an exact analysis of the river's water quality. They will then identify further weak points in order to develop a plan of action for the next five years.
An additional area of concern for the meeting on Dec. 13 is flood protection, following the damaging floods that affected regions of eastern Europe in the summer of 2002.
Anger over Ukrainian canal
The general view of the canal which links the Ukraine's sector of the ecologically sensitive Danube River delta to the Black Sea in the Ukraine's southern Odessa region
But the most pressing issue, experts say, is what to do about Ukraine, which has built a new canal from the Black Sea to the river right through one of Europe's most prized wetlands. The project has drawn sharp criticism from the EU, not just for Ukraine, but also for Germany, as the Hamburg-based company Möbius Bau was contracted to dig the canal.
Ukraine has since said it will better inform neighboring states and international organizations about its projects in future, but that promise doesn't go far enough for Holzwarth. "We won't be removing this topic from our agenda," he said. "We need even more transparency in this process. The step that Ukraine has taken to inform us -- which came about under pressure but is nonetheless positive -- is just the first step. The second step is that we actually get the information that Ukraine has promised us."