Between the 1950s and 1980s, the Danube Delta’s biodiversity suffered from highly damaging hydraulic engineering projects. In Romania, Ukraine and Moldova, a life-sapping network of dykes and irrigation systems disconnected huge swathes of floodplain from the river’s main channels. This not only impacted biodiversity, but also impaired vital ecosystem services such as provisioning of clean drinking water, flooding mitigation and supporting commercially sustainable fish stocks.
With funding from the Endangered Landscapes Programme, the Danube Delta project team are focused on the delta’s recovery by improving connectivity and natural water flows. A key example is the ongoing restoration of Kartal Lake, a 1500-hectare shallow body of water and RAMSAR site located in the upper part of the Ukrainian Danube Delta, near the village of Orlovka (see map below).
In the second half of the twentieth century, Kartal Lake was isolated by a system of dykes and sluices, severely disrupting natural processes. The lake filled with silt and became overgrown with aquatic vegetation, which dramatically decreased both the size and depth of the lake, and deteriorated water quality. Over the years, fish populations plummeted and the area became increasingly unattractive for tourists.
Efforts to restore Kartal Lake started in 2016. In collaboration with a Ukrainian NGO, the Danube Basin Water Management Department cleared several natural channels leading to the lake, reconstructed a sluice, and partially restored floodplain meadows.
In 2017, with the flora and fauna of the lake already recovering, the restored area was designated the “Kartal Eco Park”, with a herd of water buffalo translocated from Transcarpathian Ukraine to boost natural grazing and attract tourists. Wildlife highlights now include glossy ibis, Dalmatian and white pelicans, pygmy cormorants, spoonbill, red-breasted goose, squacco heron and a range of rare plants, as well as 15 of these hefty herbivores.
Building on this work, the ELP-funded Danube Delta project (which began work in early 2019) has continued to step up the recovery of Kartal Lake’s health and connectivity. The Black Sea and Lower Danube River Basin Directorate (a partner in the initiative) have laid pipes through a dyke separating Kartal and Kugurluy lakes, restoring water exchange. In 2019 the lake was also designated a landscape sanctuary of national importance under Ukrainian law, affording it added protection.
“By the end of the summer, Kartal Lake will be reconnected with Kugurluy and Kagul Lakes, as well as the Danube itself,” explains Rewilding Ukraine Executive Director Mykhailo Nesterenko. “This will see restored natural processes continue to rejuvenate the lake and its diverse wildlife populations, and in turn support the development of nature-based tourism.”
Restoration efforts will be resumed in the early summer of 2021, with the cleaning of natural channels between Kartal Lake and Lake Kagul, and between Kartal Lake and the River Danube.
“Once this work is finished, the water system of Kartal Lake will be much closer to what it should be naturally,” says Mykhailo Nesterenko. “Water quality, productivity and nature-based tourism will continue to improve and develop, creating the conditions for the integrated and sustainable use of the lake, its meadows and floodplains.”
The latter will be facilitated through the development of a new Kartal Lake water management plan by the Black Sea and Lower Danube River Basin Directorate and Rewilding Ukraine team, which the project aims to have in place by the end of the year.
It is critical that restoration efforts in the Danube Delta continue to benefit local communities as well as wildlife. Going forwards, the project will support the development of Kartal Eco Park by installing information boards, building wildlife hides and a wildlife watchtower, and developing an eco-trail. By boosting nature-based tourism, it is hoped this will support a wider network of local enterprises.
Rewilding Ukraine, a leading partner in the project, will also help local nature-based businesses to promote Kartal Lake as a destination, as well as their products and services. To enable this, the project plans to hold a nature-themed community festival in Kartal Lake in either 2021 or 2022.
Hear more from Mykhailo about this part of project work below:
To find out more about the Danube Delta project, please visit their project page.
A version of this article first appeared on Rewilding Europe’s website.
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