Standort: / Meldung: "At Europe's Watery End"

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

2. 7. 2016 - 09:41

At Europe's Watery End

The Romanian Danube Delta is naturally and culturally rich, but economically poor. Can it achieve green development? A Saturday Reality Check Special.

FM4 Reality Check

This week's programme takes you into the Romanian Danube Delta. Hear the programme in the FM4 Player or subscribe to the podcast and get the whole programme after the show


Cristian, a cheering smiling bear of a man, is piloting me on a small boat down a narrow channel on the Danube Delta near to Sfantu Gheorghe on the Black Sea coast. From a wooden pier in the village, Cristian is taking me down on one of the hundreds of waterways that criss-cross the delta – nearly 3,000 square kilometres of wetlands that constitute one of Europe’s greatest biodiversity treasures.

Bird watching

Chris Cummins

We’re heading out to Sacalin Island, alluvial mud banks, which are home to Europe’s largest populations of pelicans. The delta is home to 110 species of fish and 43 species of mammals including wild horses, wolves and even jackals, as well as, perhaps most significantly, being home to 300 species of birds, many of them migratory.

Every now and then, the blackened branches of half-submerged trees loom out of the water, providing perches for watchful cormorants. The banks are lined with tall yellow reeds, half-concealing the odd weather-beaten fisherman. This strange land feels oddly familiar – tapping me into the half-remembered stories I read and loved as a child – the stories of freedom written by Mark Twain:

Bird watching

Chris Cummins

“If you have read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn", says conservationist Ovido Bufmilla: “Just imagine you have just arrived at the island where they were hiding. It’s a childhood dream.” The area is now a World Heritage Site heavily protected by environmental legislation – so we can hope it can remain intact for the next generation of dreamers.


Chris Cummins

“It’s another world;” agrees Dragos Anastasiu who runs an eco-resort Green Village in Sfantu Gheorghe: “It’s one of the last places on our crowded continent that nature has been left to rule the roost.” Dragos says the Delta takes you “back to the roots.” For the businessman, based in bustling Bucharest, the region is a place to unwind, to escape from the hectic of 21st century urban life and a place to contemplate the tranquilizing effect of nature. “I come here for the silence,” he says.

Cow in field

Chris Cummins

It’s not really silent, of course, in this soggy land beyond roads. There is the sound of the chugging of our motorboat, the splash of fish, the croaking of frogs and the call of the birds.

"The first land they see."

As a squall of rain sweeps in quickly off the Black Sea, hammering on the thatched roofs of Sfantu Gheorge, I’m driven inside, where I meet Fabian Schneider a Swiss ornithologist. He spends months a year, ringing and studying the birds:

“It’s an important place for the big birds like the pelicans and the cormorants,” he tells me “but also for the small migratory birds because they fly for 450km across the Black Sea from Turkey and the delta is the first land they see.”

Fabian and his team of scientific volunteers spend months on end in the Delta. They live communally in a rickety beach-side hut hidden among the scrub bushes by the beach that lays a short walk east of the village. It seems a romantic but uncomfortable life for the multi-national multi-lingual troupe of ornithologists: Fabian says there is a leak in the roof and they cook on an improvised oven that they have fashioned from a rusted washing-machine that they found among the flotsam and jetsam washed up by the Black Sea . Fabian’s cheeks are reddened from the outdoor life. What makes it worth the hardship?

“I think for all bird-watchers in Europe the Danube Delta is like a dream place because of its biodiversity, which is amazing. It’s just a crazy place. It’s well preserved nature and it is a really huge area and with a lot of diverse habitats – so there are the reeds but also a lot of bushes."

A boat

Chris Cummins

Sfantu Gheorghe itself is a simple place. It’s a village of mud-streets, barking dogs, clucking chickens and wooden houses with thatched-roofs. The village is reachable only by boat and supplies are brought down by the ferry from Tulcea, the next sizeable city at the edge of the delta. “It’s not easy to do anything in the Danube Delta because you can only reach it by boat,” says Dragos Anastasiu, “It is difficult and expensive to bring anything into the heart of the Danube Delta.”

The 20,000 people who live in the Romanian part of the delta have had a tough time recently. The forces of globalisation have had both push and pull effects. The competitiveness of the locals’ fish catches has been hit by cheap imports and rising prices, and the young have been attracted away from the villages and to the big cities. New environmental laws to ban the fishing of sturgeon, while ecologically sound, have impacted the culture and pockets of the locals. There is a feeling that the area has been forgotten – left behind.

For the casual visitor that is enchanting. Every morning I jog through the sandy streets watching the fishermen slowly working on their tangles of nets. It is this very simplicity that attracted Bogdan Iftemie to the village. “I’m in love with the Danube Delta. It’s one of the last places in Europe where nature is still virgin – where everything still revolves around nature. It’s not dominated by concrete or supermarkets or stuff like that.”

Bgdan in the Delta

Chris Cummins

Of course the Delta cannot be allowed to become a museum for stressed tourists – there has to be a viable future for the locals.

"Celebrate their knowledge"

They want to protect their traditions but move their lives forward. Yet perhaps the nostalgic tourists could help combine these various needs. Bogdan has not only made the Delta his home, but has also studied the possibilities of eco-tourism here. We sit in the morning sun by a channel of the Danube as the wind sends ripples through the reeds:

“We must find a way in which the locals can be fully involved in tourist development. And the type of tourism must encourage and celebrate their knowledge and their skills.”

Beyond the natural beauty and the biodiversity, it’s the human culture that makes the Danube Delta so special, agrees Dragos Anastasiu.

He points out their colourfully painted wooden houses with roofs made from the local reeds. The locals have their own ways of fishing and they have their own delicious recipes for cooking these fish. Protecting this form of wealth is just as important as protecting pelicans.

Fish soup

Chris Cummins

Teodor Frolu, who is trying to encourage soft tourism ventures that involve locals as a way of keep a fascinating culture healthy for the future: “The Danube Delta is not only about nature it is also about local communities. What we are trying to sell is this combination of nature and tradition in local villages. We’re trying to work with local people to develop gastronomy in a traditional way.”

Many of the most optimistic voices are those of city dwellers who have moved to the Delta. The locals I speak to are more pessimistic. “The village is basically doomed because only rich people will be able to afford to buy the houses which are deserted now,” says Mihail, a 60 year old electrician. “And they will change the architecture and the layout of the village.”


Chris Cummins

Certainly the locals who fished and worked these waters – don’t want to become extras in a museum region. But with their traditional livelihoods no longer able to sustain modern life – maybe embracing tourism is a chance – to show off their culture. But this will take a concerted effort – tourism managers like Dragos, who recently opposed a concrete footpath lining the otherwise dust roads of Sfantu George, knows the challenge:

“It’s not easy to convince the people of what we are asking. We don’t want these people to live like a hundred years ago. We want them to live with the comfort of today but in a way that preserves tradition.”


Chris Cummins

Tourism managers see the concrete footpath as an ugly monstrosity that could alienate visitors but the locals just see dry feet. It is hard not to side with the sympathise with the residents who spend the entire 12 months in the village, but the task of outsiders like Dragos is to persuade them that a more natural solution would be in their own interests.

Tourism, he argues, is a chance to align the needs of nature, culture and economic development – but it has to be carried out in a well thought-out way. Brash weekend tourism from the cities has had a damaging impact of the delta’s environment says conservationist Ovido Bufmilla – bringing city hectic to an oasis of peace.

Fishermen. Left behind?

Chris Cummins

“Actually the main threat, I think, is the speed boat. If an engine has more than 50 horsepower, it shouldn’t be in the small channels of the delta. The main threat is us – humans – and the speed that our lives have. We want to experience everything in just one hour or two. And it just doesn’t work like that.”

Danube at night

Chris Cummins

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Life can get slower. It would do the delta a lot of good, and it would do us a lot of good. Teodor Frolu, who is an architect, first fell in love with the area, when, by chance he took a multi-day canoe trip:

“I think it was the best experience you can have in your life – if you have this chance to really dive into the nature. And I realised it was just by coincidence that I had this opportunity. So I thought why not create such a soft infrastructure for doing this sort of thing.”


Alex Spring

Respecting the nature – can, if you allow me to go a bit esoteric – mean respecting your soul! “I think we are living in an urban world where we lost our connection with nature,” says Teodor. “Nature is like a battery for our life.”

FM4 Reality Check Special

Hear the programme on the Romanian Danube Delta live on Radio FM4 o Saturday, July 2nd at 12:00 or in the FM4 Player or subscribe to the podcast and get the whole programme after the show