Prior to World War II, the European Commission of the Danube, dating back to the 1856 Treaty of Paris and made up of representatives from each of the riparian countries, was responsible for administration of the Danube River. Its primary goal was to ensure free navigation along the Danube for all European countries. World War II resulted in new political alliances, resulting in a new management approach. At a 1948 conference in Belgrade, the East Bloc riparians shifted control over navigation to the exclusive control of each riparian. This Belgrade Convention also gave the Commission semi-legislative powers, but only regarding navigation and inspection.
By the mid-1980's, it become clear that issues other than navigation were gaining in importance within the Danube basin, notably problems with water quality. Recognizing the increasing degradation of water quality, the (at the time) eight riparians of the Danube signed the "Declaration of the Danube Countries to Cooperate on Questions Concerning the Water Management of the Danube (Bucharest Declaration)" in 1985.
The Bucharest Declaration reinforced the principle that the environmental quality of the river depends on the environment of the basin as a whole, and committed the countries to an integrated approach in water management, beginning with the establishment of a basin-wide unified monitoring network. Basin-wide coordination was strengthened at meetings in Sofia in September 1991. The countries and interested international institutions draw up an initiative to support and reinforce national actions for the restoration and protection of the Danube River. With this initiative, the so called Environmental Programme for the Danube River Basin (EPDRB), the participants agreed that each riparian would:
- adopt the same monitoring systems of assessing environmental impact;
- address the issue of liability for cross-border pollution;
- define rules for the protection of wetland habitats,
- define guidelines for development to conserve areas of ecological importance or aesthetic value.
An interim Task Force was established to coordinate the efforts. Its work was suported by a Programme Coordination Unit (PCU) based in Vienna, Austria.
One of the major tasks of the EPDRB was the development of the Strategic Action Plan (SAP), with the provision that, "consultation procedures should be strengthened." In moving from planning to implementation, it was determined, the proposed SAP should include the following concerns:
- Measures must be "concrete" and achieve results in short term;
- major environmental threats must be addressed with realistic costed actions and constraints to problem-solving;
- the SAP should be up-dated regularly;
- wide consultation during its preparation is desirable, in particular with parties who would be responsible for its implementation.
During late 1993 and early 1994, another major Danube River activity was being carried: At the same time that the EPDRB was developing the Strategic Action Plan for the Danube River Basin, the countries were developing the Convention on Cooperation for the Protection and Sustainable Use of the River Danube (Danube River Protection Convention).
When drafting the SAP, it was agreed that the SAP should be designed as a tool to support the implementation of the Danube River Protection Convention, which was finally signed in Sofia (Bulgaria) on June 29, 1994.
The Danube River Protection Convention forms the overall legal instrument for co-operation on transboundary water management in the Danube River Basin. The Convention was signed on June 29 1994 in Sofia (Bulgaria) and came into force in 1998. It aims to ensure that surface waters and groundwater within the Danube River Basin are managed and used sustainably and equitably.