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The Danube

Between you and I…

My source lies in Germany, at the heart of the splendid mountainous region of the Black Forest. I come into my own at the confluence of two rivers, the Brigach and the Breg and then flow 2,860 km to link the Black Forest to the Black Sea. The only European river whose course travels from west to east, I cross legendary cities like Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade. The beauty of my banks has inspired composers such as Johann Strauss and many writers. My name? The Danube.

After the Volga, I’m Europe’s second longest river and my watershed, covering 802,266 km², encompasses or lies astride 19 countries and is the home of 81 million people. With such a wide diversity of peoples, languages and cultures, I’m the most international river in the world!

A mythical river given World Heritage status by UNESCO, my history is marked by the power struggles that have forged Europe over the centuries, between Christianity and Islam, and between the East and the West during the Cold War. Like so many rivers around the world, my management now highlights the importance of the challenges they face with respect to environmental protection, economic competitiveness and intergovernmental cooperation.

A little history

Initially used as a military route by the Greeks and Romans, I served as a military and trade corridor under the Ottoman Empire, before the rise of the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary in the 17th century.

Navigation as the first lever of cooperation

By forming political, cultural and religious bonds between the East and the West over the centuries, I have been subject to various types of cooperation between the different countries I cross. My overriding role in river transport during the European wars as from the end of the 19th century, strengthened the need to set up an institution responsible for governing navigation along my course.

The first organisation created by the Treaty of Paris in 1856 was the European Danube Commission. It was replaced in 1948 by the current Commission which brings together ten adjacent countries (plus Russia), and is responsible for ensuring unhindered, simplified and safer navigation along my entire length, and for making sure I am acknowledged as a major European waterway.

Better management and protection of my resource

At the end of the 1980s, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, the geopolitical situation changed, and with it came the first warnings regarding my ecological situation. An international commission for the protection of the Danube was set up in 1998.It has three main goals:

  • ensuring the sustainable and fair management of my resource,
  • controlling risks of flooding and accidental pollution,
  • reducing the pollutant load flowing into the Black Sea.

Today, most of the countries I cross are members of the European Union and I form a link between their populations, some of which are the richest of the continent, while others are among the poorest.

Technical sheet

  • Source: the Black Forest (Germany)
  • Mouth: the Black Sea with a huge 4,500-km² delta
  • Average discharge: 6,500 m3/s
  • Total length: 2,860 km
  • Watershed: 805,260 km²
  • States crossed: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldavia, Ukraine
  • Tributaries: Morava, Tisza, Olt, Siret, Prut, Inn, Save, Isker, Yantra

My many uses

Navigation: restoring the place of river transport

Confronted by the region’s separatist conflicts, the priority of the developments constructed and the regulations in force is to ensure my navigability. Indeed, I am a strategic corridor and the only means of access to the sea for Hungary, Slovakia and Serbia. Boats can sail along almost the entire length of my course, from Kelheim in Germany to my mouth in the Black Sea, at Sulina, that’s to say 2,400 km! From Belgrade onwards, my width and depth allow me to accommodate convoys up to 27,000 tonnes, meaning much more than on the Rhine, where convoys are limited to 18,000 tonnes. Despite these advantages, goods traffic is only a tenth of that on the Rhine.

Fortunately, I was declared a priority corridor of the future European multimodal network, via the Marco Polo programme of March 2005. One of the objectives of the European Union’s strategy is to increase goods transport along my course by 20% from now to 2020.

The Danube, a major energy producer

I am a major source of energy, especially for Austria, which operates nine hydropower plants, for Slovakia with its two dams, and for Serbia and Romania and their two hydropower plants. Certain countries like Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania have also built nuclear power plants on or close to my banks. I provide 25% of Austria’s energy, 10% of Slovakia’s, 37% of Serbia’s and 27.6% of Romania’s.

Some dam projects have nonetheless led to strong protests from ecological associations and neighbouring countries. The project to build a new dam in Hungry, which should complete the hydropower scheme built in Slovakia, has caused diplomatic deadlock that continues today.


An example of fruitful cooperation: the dam system of the Iron Gates

This dam was built between 1964 and 1984 between Serbia and Romania. Operated by the two countries, it is now a symbol of binational cooperation. The name of the Iron Gates dam comes from the era of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, during which a huge iron chain crossed the river at its narrowest point, creating a customs barrier for boats. 350,000 tonnes of concrete and 170,000 tonnes of steel were needed to build it. In addition to holding back the floods of the beautiful Danube, it also participates in river navigation with its two locks that allow the circulation of from 3,000 to 4,000 vessels.

Tourism: the boom in river cruisers

Like other navigable waterways in Europe, growth in cruiser tourism on my waters has boomed since the 1990s. There were only 60 cruisers in 2002 though there were as many as 170 in 2015, nearly three times as many! Then there is passenger boat traffic which carries more than 2 million people a year, mainly over short distances in the Danube delta, for ecological tourism.


countries crossed


2nd largest river in Europe


European river whose course travels from west to east

Looking to the future

Underexploited potential for navigation

The fall of the communist regimes, the large number of countries with different visions regarding energy and the environment, make it complicated to set up a stable regulatory system. The result is that I am obviously underexploited in terms of river transport. The problems of bottlenecks affecting the road network in the region (especially Austria) should nonetheless increase the attention given to me in the coming years. I count on Germany and Austria in particular, which are the driving forces behind the development of river transport!

Protecting ecological heritage

Did you know that my waters are three times more polluted than those of the Rhine! Frequent industrial accidents such as the poisoning of the tributary Tisza in Romania in 2000, and the toxic “red tide” in Hungry in 2010, undermine the resilience of my watershed. My delta is a filter and a space for storing these pollutions, especially given that my ecosystem is slowly and painfully recovering from the marsh reclamation projects overseen by Nicolae Ceausescu.

The emergence of coherence

Despite the multitude of cooperation projects, treating me as a homogenous space has long been a pious wish. For all that, the European integration of the Danube basin, symbolised par by the Strategy for the Danube adopted by the European Union in 2011, could play the role of a catalyser for a common vision of my basin and shared development. The environment, tourism, flood prevention, police cooperation, trade and the modernisation of the fleet on the Danube are all dealt with in the Strategy.

In 1917, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig pleaded for the “the river to cease being divided by the borders of empires, and for it to become the main corridor of a united central Europe, and the pacific mediator between the East and the West”. A century later, the successful shared management of my waters still depends on this capacity for States to cooperate and the driving force of the EU…

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