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Discovery and connection along the Danube

by Sandra de Vries and Camille Janssen

Sandra is the founder of citizen science research and consultancy Pulsaqua. Based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Pulsaqua leads the consortium of DANUBE4all partners that are working on citizen-science projects. Sandra is a Water Management engineer, experienced in project set-up and management, citizen science research methods, and connecting science to policy and people.

Over the course of two weeks in October, Sandra and her colleague Camille hit the road on a voyage of discovery and connection along the Danube. She has put together a great log of her journey and some of their projects, learnings, and insights along the way.

All photos courtesy of Pulsaqua. 🗺️📍denotes Google map locations


Setting off...

Sandra de Vries (l) and Camille Jaansen (r) of Pulsaqua

The team at Pulsaqua has been longing to explore and spend time close to the Danube ever since the start of our participation in DANUBE4all. An experience to feel and see the water and engage in conversations with those that live around and with it. This train of thought has led us to the decision that it was time for us to pack our bags, and hit the road to follow the river downstream for a period of two weeks. Accompanied by Community & Co-Creation Specialist Camille Janssen, we set our target. The destination: the project's Middle Danube Demonstration (research) site - located upstream of Budapest, in the Duna-Ipoly Park.

Before heading on our adventure, we highlighted significant locations that we wanted to visit, such as relevant museums and information centers, interesting hydrological features of the Danube - such as where the Danube flows underground during certain periods of the year, places where tributaries meet the Danube, at dams, and sitess where restoration measure are currently being carried out.


Danube source...

The first day brought us to the Donauquelle in southeast Germany - the source of the Donaubach, which flows into the Danube in Donaueschingen. This site is often referred to as the source of the Danube.

The source is presented as a small pool filled with water, accompanied by a sculpture of mother "Baar" showing her daughter “Danube” the way. The introduction to this place was gentle by nature – almost magical in a sense. It might have helped that we arrived at this location in the dark, giving us clear sight of the small bubbles that rose to the surface every few seconds, which looked like little sparkles. We promised ourselves to return to this spot the next morning.

Donaueschingen, the town in which the Donauquelle is located, was quiet as we arrived on a public holiday. Eager to meet those with a relationship to the river, we decided to continue our journey. The manner of traveling was rather unique; driving slowly along the river stream while gradually experiencing the increase in river width and current. While making a short stop, we used the observation tool ObsIdentify, to identify the plants growing on the riverbank.

After driving for a few hours, we arrived at the Donauversickerung or the Danube Sinkhole, between Immendingen and Tuttlingen. It is here at this very ordinary sight that the Danube softly flows underground for some months of the year! The river disappear from the surface to travel through underground caverns to the Aachtopf, where it emerges as the river Radolfzeller Aach, a tributary of the Rhine. Thus, a part of the Danube water also flows in to the Rhine!

It is quite impressive to see how such a big river can suddenly disappear!


Visiting the Upper Danube region...

In order to make sure we are getting a comprehensive image of which organizations are already working with and along the Danube and are carrying out activities with visitors and local residents, we took the time to visit several information centers such as the Haus der Natur Obere Donau, home to both the office of the Upper Donau Nature Park and the Upper Donau Nature Conservation Center

1 - Haus der Natur Obere Donau, Beuron, Germany

2 - Fish pass at Niederaichbach Wasserkraftwerk (Hydroelectric power station)

We stopped at the first dam 🗺️📍we came across on our journey at Niederaichbach hydroelectric power station and were delighted by the fish ladder that was created next to it. The ladder gives the opportunity for fish to migrate. When paying a visit to the other side of the dam, we had the chance to see several of them pass through, and we also were lucky enough to spot a water rat!

It is important for us to be aware of nature restoration projects that are already taking place along the Danube. This picture was taken along the river Isar 🗺️📍, an important Danube tributary. Pictured is the Renaturierung in Landau an der Isar project - a river renaturation programme aimed at improving ecological conditions.


Confluence point...

Embankments where the Isar flows into the Danube

The next stop was the location where the Isar flows into the Danube 🗺️📍. Although we did not have the chance to reach the exact spot where these two streams meet, it was clear that the character of the river was changing into a more mature form. Not only that, but the riverbanks had also changed and were constraint with groynes, ensuring that there is no erosion nor sedimentation transportation or buildup is possible anymore and also limiting the possibility for flora and fauna growth. The context for the DANUBE4all project in terms of the removal and adaptation of man-made barriers to natural river processes was very clear here.


Connection to the environment...

We could not have been greeted more welcoming than when we met Karin Wundsam in Engelhartszell 🗺️📍 - a district of Schärding in Upper Austria. As Tourism Industry lead in Engelhartszell she gave us a full tour across the town, where we had a private visit to the “Gigant de Donau" (Giant of the Danube) and the Mini-Danube water experience. This hugely impressive organisation comprises a number of interactive vistor experiences focused around telling the story of the town and its relationship and connection to the Danube and the environment. The project's mission is to inform citizens and tourists about the importance of the river Danube and about the importance of water in general. It also includes sustainable environmental education on biodiversity, water pollution and climate change.

During our visit, Karin shared with us how they are currently measuring the water quality and level in Engelhartszell and the impact this has on their day-to-day lives.

1 - Drawings made by children in Engelhartszell for the online exhibition The Water We Want organised by the Global Water Museum Network

2 - Camille is playing with the Mini-Danube dams, letting water from upstream pass to the downstream area, experiencing the effects of a dam to the streamflow

Tune into Sandra's podcast in which she interviews Karin to learn more about Karin’s work in the region.

You can also enjoy the view in Engelhartzell via their webcam!


Celebrating river restoration...

Ekofarm Ostrov, Hungary

During the last days of our first week, we had the honor to be included in the DANUBEPARKS - Network of Protected Areas LIFE WILDisland public event & project meeting (Hungary/Slovakia, 5-7 Oct). With Zsanett Kovacs working at Ekofarm Ostrov in Slovakia 🗺️📍, one of the locations that was included in the fieldtrip, we again recorded podcast material. Zsanett told us about her experiences working at Ekofarm, and how she believed citizen science could enhance the work of the ecofarm and the understanding of how important ecological welfare is for everyone.

Images : WILDisland annual meeting and Festival 2023


Ecology in Hungary...

While Camille returned back home, I continued the journey. There was only some small distance to travel onwards, where I met with Balazs Tóth, Ecological expert in the Duna-Ipoly, and idea holder of the ecosystem restoration plans for this Middle Danube Demonstration site. Balazs gave me a private tour, showing the area that will be remodelled.

1 - Passing cruise and commercial boats create waves stress, which has a highly negative impact on fish species, particularly on spawning and on juvenile fish.

2 - Balazs Tóth spots a beaver lodge (left of image)

The remodelling aims to remove river groynes and create a spawning area for fish where wave stress, in particular, caused by larger commercial and cruise ships won’t harm young fish. The research area and issue of wave stress is outlined in the video below. While the area is remote, it does have plenty of local animal inhabitants - we found a bever, or perhaps bever family, and observed it's beautiful house or 'lodge’.


The final leg...

After this wonderful visit, I had to start the travel back home. Of course, not without making use of the opportunity to visit another four museums on the way: The Hungarian Environment and Water Museum , the Danube Bastion, the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum, set on top of the Hydroelectric Power Plant dam in Slovakia, and the Waterworks Museum in Slovakia, just on the border with Austria. At some of the museums, I was able to speak to the staff introducing the DANUBE4all project and discussing the plans to start a Danube Water Museum network as part of the Global Water Museum network.

Passing Vienna, I met up with some of our Austrian DANUBE4all project partners, discussing the new findings from the road trip, but also the opportunities for our proposed citizen science toolbox and applications in the different research sites.

As the icing on the cake, Georg Frank from our partner DANUBEPARKS guided me on a kayaking tour downstream of Vienna, paddling along the Danube through the Dona-Auen National Park, approximately 30km west of Vienna. We discussed in detail the many aspects of the park, the reconstruction of the riverbanks that have taken place there for many years now, and the slow improvements on ecological habitat and wildlife living in the area. I also had the chance to take a good swim in the already fresh Danube waters!

The first dive was on purpose, the second a bit less so, almost taking the complete kayak with me in my fall. Soaking wet but extremely satisfied and enthralled, we ended with a beautiful sunset in Hainburg an der Donau.

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