Volga River Delta (Russia)
The Volga delta, globally the tenth largest delta by size, is located in the southeastern part of European Russia, in the Astrakhan Province. The delta is part of the North Caspian Lowland, a flat sedimentary basin largely located below oceanic sea level. The dynamic location, structure and sedimentary composition of the actual Volga Delta are influenced by two systems: the Volga River and the Caspian Sea. The present-day delta developed on young Holocene sediments, exhibiting a classic triangular form. The delta comprises two distinct landscape sub-regions: the terrestrial delta and the shallow waters of the fore-delta, separated by the transitory kultuk zone (freshwater bays with slow flowing water and many small islands). Typical ecosystems include wet and dry meadows, back-swamps, reed and reedmace dominated communities, freshwater bays with islands, and open water. The global importance of the Volga Delta for wetland biodiversity is widely recognized. The delta occupies a strategic position on 3 important flyways, and supports a large diversity of common as well as globally threatened flora and fauna species, specifically birds, mammals as well as highly valuable sturgeon species. The wetlands’ natural resources have long supported the local population, providing products like waterfowl, fish, caviar, plant materials and freshwater. During the 20th century, the Volga Delta wetlands and their biodiversity became subjected to intense and increasing pressures from human activities. Since the 1960s the Volga River flow is regulated, its hydrological regime changed towards reduced interannual and seasonal variation. In the terrestrial part of the delta, large areas of land were converted for irrigated agriculture, many of which today remain abandoned and degraded. Annually flooded meadows are intensively used for grazing and haymaking. More recent, urbanization and infrastructure caused increased disturbance, fragmentation and degradation of wetlands, augmented by unsustainable use of terrestrial and aquatic natural resources, including legal and illegal hunting and fishing for commercial, livelihood and touristic purposes. Flow regulation and diking has affected the delta ecosystems’ natural capability to adapt to dynamic environmental conditions, especially variable river flow and sea levels. Nature conservation is pursued in the State Nature Biosphere Reserve “Astrakhansky”, several State Nature Reserves and Nature Monuments. Since 1975, the southern part of the Volga Delta is designated as wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, expanded in 2009 to include the “Western Ilmen Area”. Within and beyond protected areas, institutional and individual capacities for successful management of biodiversity conservation remain weak, inhibiting effective enforcement of land use restrictions. The challenge towards successful conservation of the Volga Delta’s wetland biodiversity is to install an adaptive holistic management approach to integrated sustainable use and conservation of its natural resources, linked to wetlands in the wider landscape to account for natural environmental variability.
KeywordsVolga river Delta wetlands Europe Regulated flow Freshwater ecosystems
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