The Danube floodplain forest – where nature won the fight

1 Conversation

During the 19th Century the Danube was regulated to improve it for shipping. Originally it was an ever changing environment with many side arms. Through dams at the river banks, side arms were split off and floodplains dried out. In Austria a series of 10 hydroelectric power stations were erected since the 1950s, basically converting the flowing river to a series of reservoires. These hinder the migration of animals as well of the flow of sand and gravel downstream, making the Danube a bit deeper each year.

The two last freeflowing sections of the Danube in Austria are the Wachau region about 50 km west of Vienna and the floodplain forests east of Vienna. Floodplains are an ever changing habitat with new gravel and sand banks being created by the river and are slowly overgrown first by bushes and then trees. Other areas are removed by the river.

The floodplain forests lie at tthe border between atlantic (mild and wet) and pannonic (warm and dry summers, cold and dry winters) climate, making it a habitat for a diverse ecosystem. There are banks of rubble, which today are rare at the Danube.

The Hainburg dam

In 1984 work began to build a 16m high dam in the Danube about 30 km downstream from Vienna in the middle of a floodplain forest at the town Hainburg. The course of the river was supposed to be changed by 2 km. The operators of the Danube hydroelectric power stations (most shares owned by the state and the largest producer of power in the country), industrials and unions approved of this plan due to rising demands in electric power.

In addition to producing power, the dam was also supposed to be part of a system of weir and locks, which would have made shipping for large cargo ships on the Danube independant of water levels – this was a requirement of a convention signed between all the nations at the Danube, most of which were behind the Iron Curtain1 at the time.

Inhabitants of the town Hainburg were in favour of the new power station, although realising the plans would have meant flooding part of their town. They hoped for new work opportunities and tourism at the reservoir.

Environmental activists on the other hand tried to fight it by any means. Political discussions about the dam were ongoing since 1983.

In May 1984 a group of politicians, journalists initiated the 'Konrad Lorenz Volksbegehren', a petition for the saving of the floodplains. It was planned to be open for signing in March 1985. One of their figureheads was Konrad Lorenz, animal behaviour scientist and Nobel laureate. To advertise for their petition they organized a 'pressconference of the animals', where people dressed up as animals of the floodplain explained their view on the dam. This actually managed to increase resistance and protests against the project.

The politicians in power however did not care about any of this and continued with their plans to build the dam at the Danube. When even a report for environmental sustainability by the province Lower Austria argued in favour of the project, activists peacefully occupied their government building on the next day.

In early December 1984, thousands of people protested in the streets of Vienna. Shortly after the first trees fell on the floodplains. Environmental activists, especially students but also prominent people packed their bags and made their way to the forest. They tried to block the loggers' way and occupied the area. Tents were put up in the snow at freezing temperatures. At times over 2000 people were on-site. Barricades were erected on the roads, which actually managed to stall the clearing of the forest.

Politicians still were not impressed, they did not want to wait until March, when the public petition was scheduled to be discussed in parliament. The police was sent out to protect the loggers and get rid of the activists, who were threatened with prison and monetary fines. Still, they went on literally hugging trees to protect them.

Activists even managed to storm a TV gameshow which had the Austrian chancellor as a guest and showed a poster which advertied their cause. The game master allowed them to hold a short speech.

On 17th December, unions threatened to remove activists themselves if the police does not do it. Two days later the police came with about 300 men to clear the floodplain forest of about 3000 activists. Batons were used. As word got round about this through the media - who condemned the police's actions – 40000 people went on the strees in Vienna. The church called for peace at Christmas. Pressure got too high for the politicians, who decided to stop the clearing for the forseeable future.

Many activists still spent Christmas in the forest and stayed until in January, when the surpreme administrative court decided a halt on all actions until all legal complaints were settled. In March 1985, finally, the public poll brought an end to the project. The dam would not be built.

This was only 6 years after the negative poll about the atomic power plant in Zwentendorf, Lower Austria and over 10 years after plans for the hydroelectric power station in the Wachau region was also given up due to severe protests2. In 1986 the green party – which of course worked with the activists - managed to get into parliament for the first time.

Soon the idea came up to protect the floodplain forest by making a national park. Especially fishers, hunters and owners of boats had to be convinced of this idea and it took until 1996, when politicians finally signed all papers.

The Nationalpark Donauauen

The national park encompasses an area of over 9600 hectares around 36km length of the Danube between Vienna and Bratislava (Slovakia). The water levels rise and fall up to 7 meters.

Today over 5500 species of plants and animals live in the national park. For many it is their largest sancuary. It is the largest breeding ground for the little ringed plover and other birds whitch nest on gravel. There are also white-tailed eagles and kingfishers. The Nationalpark Donauauen is home to Europe's last healthy population of the European pond turtle. Most of Austria's species of fishes and amphibias can be found here. The European mudminnow fish was believed to be extinct in Austria until it was found again in the floodplains in the 1990s. There are also many endangered species of plants.

Regular floods are essetial in the floodplains as they create environments like gravel banks and heaps of driftwood, which are inhabited by specialised species. Endangered trees are part of the forest, on dry gravel plains there are orchids and other dry resistant plants.

The Nationalpark Donauauen is a popular recreation area for people from Vienna and Lower Austria. There are many paths for walking and riding bicycles. The national park also organizes tours on boat and other guided tours. An information center can be found in Orth an der Donau, approximately in the middle of the national park.

Today the national park does not fight against loggers but invasive animal and plant species which bring inbalance to the eco system. Dams further up the Danube prevent gravel to be washed down to the floodplain, which makes them lose ground. This makes it necessary to mechanically add gravel from time to time. Also, climate change leads to sinking water levels on the floodplain, therefore and old arm of the Danube was re-united with the river to add more water.

The Nationalpark Donauauen is part of a network of environmental protection areas along the Danube which work together to protect nature along Europe's 2nd longest river. Bordering the national park in the south is the archeological park Carnuntum.

1Between 1945 and 1991 the so-called Iron Curtain was the border between western Europe and the alliance of socialist countries in the east.2Today the Wachau is recognised as UNESCO world heritage.

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