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July 7, 2020

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A vanishing way of life in Danube Delta

As the “last rower” left in one of the villages dotting Romania’s Danube Delta, Iosif Acsente is all too aware of how the traditions and vistas of the region are slowly disappearing — an issue brought into sharper focus by the coronavirus pandemic.

Acsente has been plying the delta with his wooden boat for more than four decades from his home village of Sfantu Gheorghe.

“I know the Danube so well that if you throw me out of a helicopter I’d know where I am,” said Acsente.

But living in a natural labyrinth, accessible only by boat, has its drawbacks.

Although the region has largely been spared the ravages of the pandemic, residents worry they may end up beyond the reach of necessary medical care.

“There’s a good chance it will be too late when the rescue boat arrives,” said Acsente.

It’s only the latest challenge the modern world has thrown the delta’s fragile equilibrium.

Included on Unesco’s World Heritage list, this natural paradise spread across 5,800 square kilometers has more than 300 bird and 45 freshwater fish species.

Respite for nature

During normal times it’s a magnet for birdwatchers and other tourists, with locals opening the doors of their traditional thatched houses for visitors every summer.

But this year that vital source of income looks likely to drastically shrink in the wake of the pandemic.

The deputy mayor of Sfantu Gheorghe, Aurel Bondarencu, hopes Romanians make up some of the shortfall by vacationing in the delta instead of heading abroad, but that would only offer temporary relief from the region’s problems.

The region’s tourism industry wasn’t without its problems before the virus.

Fisherman Marius, 51, relies on tourists eager to discover the delta’s canals and ponds in order to make a living.

He guides them between the swamps pointing out sights such as yellow water lilies and pelican colonies.

But as he slows his boat to avoid disturbing a shag drying its wings in the sun, even he admits the shortage of tourists has “given nature some respite.”

The streets may still be unpaved, covered with fine sand and framed by flower-filled gardens, but these days the roar of motor boats drowns out the gentle rippling of oars through the water.

Marius fears the dilapidated cars that have replaced horse-drawn carts of old “destroy Sfantu Gheorghe just as the boats equipped with powerful engines ravage the delta.”

Meanwhile, purpose-built houses have joined the landscape alongside traditional homestays.

Marius says the increasing noise and pollution in the delta are not good for the millions of migratory birds that return from Africa each spring to nest in the islets.

As for fish, the other mainstay of inhabitants’ livelihoods, they are also becoming increasingly scarce.

Perhaps it’s little wonder Sfantu Gheorghe is emptying out.

The village has lost 1,500 people since the early 1990s and now numbers just 500.

Both Bondarencu’s and Acsente’s children have emigrated, joining millions of their compatriots seeking better lives in the West.

“I love everything about this place, but I wouldn’t want my children to stay here because they would be isolated six months a year,” said Bondarencu.

Life has always been rough in the delta, especially in the cold and windy winters when fog complicates navigation and the Danube freezes in some places.

Sitting on a small bench in front of his house, retired 75-year-old fisherman Ilie Ignat recalls spending weeks at a time cut off from the outside world in harsh winters. His trips to the Black Sea almost ended in disaster many times, but he nevertheless laments yesteryear’s lost way of life.

“The young people today don’t want to put in the effort,” he said bitterly. “The days of the oars are over.” Even Acsente is voting with his feet.

When the weather cools off later this year, he will leave Sfantu Gheorghe behind and move to Tulcea, the nearest big city, for the winter.

The journey there takes at least four hours — on a passenger boat, of course.


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