Controlling pollution in the Danube

As Hungary plans to sue the Romania-based mining company Aurul, for damages caused by this year's cyanide spill, international teams led by WRc have been working on water quality management for this key river basin.

The poisoning of the river Tisza in Hungary, at the beginning of this year, highlighted the vulnerability of countries whose livelihood depends on international river networks. While a polluter in one province may escape the consequences of his actions, those further downstream are left to rebuild their economy – and ecology.

The cyanide spill into the Tisza, a tributary of the Danube, brought home to many European countries just how dependent they are on their near neighbours for the quality of their own drinking water.

The Danube is one of Europe’s longest and most commercially significant rivers. From its source in Germany, it finally empties into the Black Sea. Along the way, the river basin cuts through two EU Member States (Germany and Austria), four more countries in the process of accession (Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia) and others working towards accession in the longer term (including Romania and Bulgaria).

Strategic and important

Mindful of the strategic and commercial importance of the Danube, and in particular its contribution to pollution of the Black Sea, the EU, under its PHARE Programme, has been undertaking a number of significant studies of the river basin. The latest of these is designed to strengthen the sustainability of water quality management in the basin.

Led by the UK’s WRc, a specialist environmental and water consultancy, seven national water organisations across Europe have been tasked with a number of important initiatives. The programme is designed to protect the long term future of the basin as well as reduce pollution levels in the Black Sea.

An important part of this work revolves around the identification of pollution hot spots by monitoring and assessment of production and use of priority polluting substances, and the implementation of an effective early warning system. The latter is designed to minimise the effect of disasters like that in the Tisza through improved communications between riparian countries. The early warning system ensures that downstream countries can take any necessary precautions, ceasing water abstraction for drinking for example.

The Danube river basin, which is almost 3,000km in length and covers over 817,000 km2, has been the subject of EU studies since 1993, when the first major transboundary work was undertaken (co-incidentally also by WRc). WRc’s Dr Peter Whalley, who has overall responsibility for this €1M project, explains: ‘Many countries rely on the Danube and its tributaries for much of their drinking water. However, the effluent burden placed on the river by industrial waste and domestic sewage is enormous. Accurate monitoring of the water quality at various points, coupled with the identification and implementation of effective means of remediation are vital.’

A major part of WRc’s role is managing and co-ordinating the work of 30 EU experts and 25 Danubian beneficiary experts, in addition to the water quality sampling work that is being carried out within the project.

International analysis

Hot spot monitoring is undertaken through regular analysis of water samples taken at 50 test stations along the basin. Each Danubian country has established a national laboratory responsible for carrying out the analysis. This work is undertaken as part of an internationally agreed Trans National Monitoring Network (TNMN) established for the Danube by WRc in 1994. A major challenge for the scientists within the team is the implementation of a laboratory inter-calibration scheme. This is designed to ensure that data acquired by different countries can be compared accurately. The data are incorporated into an information management system, designed to provide information on pollutant flux. WRc’s Dr Whalley points out that this is not intended to be used to point the finger at a specific polluter, more to enable clean up and remediation programmes to be prioritised. However, significant amounts of data are now available on the basin, which point to over 100 high priority, localised pollution hotspots. In addition to the water quality monitoring performed by all the Danube countries within the TNMN, each country is required to report chemical spills and contamination to its neighbours, as part of its obligation to the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River.

Satellite warning systems

Should an accident occur, an early warning system is now in place, based on satellite communications, which is designed to alert others of any accidental discharge into the river. A database of toxic substances can be accessed by chemists and clean up teams. WRc sees part of its role in the Danube project as being able to provide Danubian countries with tangible ecological and social benefits, as a result of the research work currently being undertaken. ‘It is important that knowledge is transferred from international agencies and consultancies such as our own, to local experts and those responsible for maintaining water quality,’ concluded Dr Whalley.

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