Romanians strive to restore damaged Danube delta Bold effort would reclaim wetlands from agriculture


TULCEA, Romania -- Marius Condac, a wildlife warden in the immense delta of the Danube River, remembers when a sudden frenzy rippled through this quiet, waterlogged world, one where change is usually measured by the rising and falling of the seasonal floods, by the reed harvest or the nesting of pelicans.

It was the mid-1980s, and Romania's Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, a man known for ambitious and destructive schemes, had decreed that large sections of the delta be transformed into grain fields. He sent 6,000 men to build dikes and pump the land dry. Water plants died, animals were driven from more than 240,000 acres, and the new grounds were flattened and planted with wheat and rice.

Uncounted pelicans and cormorants were shot because they were eating too many fish. The birds were upsetting a state plan known as "optimizing fish species."

But, by the time Ceausescu was executed by a firing squad in 1989, the delta scheme was failing.

"The soil was not suitable, and there was no money for chemicals," said Condac, 39, standing on the deck of a boat as it chugged along one of the river's murky branches near its mouth at the Black Sea.

Now, in the name of economics and the environment, scientists and engineers from several countries are trying to reverse the damage.

They have punched gaps in half a dozen dikes and dams and let the river spill back over more than 9,000 acres. Other drained areas are set to be reflooded.

The agency overseeing the project is the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, which was created by the Romanian government in 1991 and encompasses most of the wetlands' 2,200 square miles. Ukraine, which owns about one-sixth of the delta, is expected to join. Financing comes from the World Bank's Global Environment Facility and other foreign donors.

The boldness of the restoration project has caught the attention of engineers and ecologists.

"Nothing on this scale has ever been tried before," said Erika Schneider, a scientist at the German Institute for Flood Plains Ecology.

Converting wetlands into arable land and construction sites is, of course, an age-old practice, and such land is rarely returned to nature. But that view is being slowly eroded by a movement to restore wetlands and flood plains for the purpose of protecting wildlife and controlling flooding.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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