A campaign to turn the watershed of five European rivers into the first UNESCO biosphere reserve is expected to create an important floodplain buffer for central Europe. The Mura, Drava and Danube are three connected rivers which together stretch 434 miles across central and southeast Europe. They are free-flowing rivers for much of their journey, and support 1 million hectares of what conservation organizations call highly valuable natural and cultural landscapes. Many endangered species such as the little tern, black stork, beaver, otter and the nearly extinct ship sturgeon, find their home here. Migratory waterfowl are hard to miss, since every year more than 250,000 of them use the rivers to rest and feed. Since most rivers in Europe have been altered and their ecological value lowered, a watershed this size is unique in the world.
In a new model of environmental cooperation, five countries — Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia and Serbia — are working towards the creation of the largest transboundary natural reserve in Europe and the first five-country UNESCO biosphere reserve in the world. It would unite 12 major riverine areas that are already protected.
With protection of the Amazon rainforest making headlines in the context of fighting climate change, proponents say this watershed is also an important battleground for climate protection, as the “Amazon of Europe.”
The development of this new model of transboundary management was initiated in 2000 by regional offices of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF).
“In the current era of climate crisis and species extinction, it is absolutely not a luxury pastime but a matter of humankind’s survival to protect our last natural areas,” said initiative leader Arno Mohl from WWF Austria. He said the area had the Danube basin’s largest floodplain forests. “The planned biosphere reserve is of key importance as it aims to protect and restore our Amazon, an important step away from nature exploitation and towards sustainable living together with nature,” he said.
“The main reason why we lead this initiative is the necessity for a joint and harmonized management of this remarkable river corridor. Water bodies in this area are still mostly managed with solutions that are not in a correlation with nature. Some of the biggest issues are threats of potential new dams, extraction of sand and gravel, channelization of rivers. Due to an astonishing biodiversity of this landscape and support which this ecosystem provides to people, WWF decided to act and support [the] governments of [the] five countries towards its protection“, explains Ivana Korn Varga from WWF’s office in Croatia.
The goal is for the biosphere reserve Mura-Drava-Danube, to be protected by UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere program. The culmination of seven years’ work, the reserve is close to becoming a reality. In 2012, UNESCO approved the joint nomination of the Croatian and Hungarian protected areas, which was followed by the approval of the Serbian rivers in 2017, Slovenia in 2018 and Austria this year. The next step is for all the countries to receive joint approval from UNESCO, which will give the reserve global recognition.
It has not been easy. Four out of five countries involved are members of the European Union but there are still many differences in laws and regulations and in the management of protected areas.
“The goal behind the biosphere reserve is to have harmonized management and at the end to protect those beautiful rivers. Nature has no boundaries, humans are the ones who are creating differences and from our perspective the unique ecosystem should be managed in a unique way,” points out Korn Varga.
Since the reserve covers a very large area, public engagement was complex. Some people use the river for activities like fishing or tourism. As the reserve project takes shape, new sustainable activities have emerged, including transboundary routes for cycling tourism which tie in with farmers markets.
“Of course, our aim is also to provide local people possibility to benefit from the nature they are surrounded with. We see the five-country reserve that we will soon have as an amazing opportunity to harmonize river management in order to amplify the benefits for local communities while providing the rivers with an opportunity to restore to its natural state and support people, but also animal and plant life,” says Korn Varga.