The River Drava flows through five different countries (Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary). It is one of the five largest tributaries of the Danube River, while Drava’s main tributary is the Mura River. The upper part of the river flow is heavily regulated and its ecological status has deteriorated, while the lower part of the river flow hosts some of the last free-flowing river sections in Europe, thanks ironically to the former political situation of the Iron Curtain.
The free flowing sections of the river Drava is protected by national legislation (National Ecological Network) and proposed to be a Regional Park under IUCN international protection, and possibly as a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Trans-boundary Reserve. However, due to an old-fashioned water management system over the last decade, the River Drava on its flow through Croatia had been used for massive gravel and sand sediment excavation.
Although the commercial excavation of sediments is now forbidden in Croatia by an order from the EU, there are still some activities performed in the river bed such as regular river maintenance for flood protection mainly to cover up the on-going excavation activities. These activities have been performed by Hrvatske vode- the state company in charge of water management in agreement with various companies at several main points, such as Pertijevci, Pitomača and Varaždin.
According to the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) the most devastating activity was at Petrijevci, 30 km from the mouth of the Danube, where more than 3,000,000 m3 of sand was excavated. The activities in Petrijevci do not count with any licence, legal document, environmental impact assessments or nature impact assessments, however the state characterized this action as of national interest, as the extracted sand was used in construction of Vc highway. Besides this 22 Hydro Power Plants are planned on Drava which would further endanger the ecosystem of the Drava River. Since 2003, the NGO Zelena akcija (Green action) together with WWF, The Drava League, Euronatur and The Drava Federation from Hungary have been actively campaigning against gravel excavation. They claim that excavation activity at the River Drava is in contradiction with the Croatian Environmental Impact Study (EIS) and Croatia’s Biodiversity Strategy, violating various international conventions and EU environmental laws, such as Convention on Biological Diversity, EU Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC), the Birds Directive (79/409/EEC), and the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC). The opponents also pointed out on gravel extraction activities impact on the habitat of endangered bird species little tern (Sterna albifrons).
From 2003 till 2005 Green action and supporting organisations managed to close the gravel excavation site near Varaždin, by stopping the recent public tender for excavation of a further 2 million m3 of sediments from Drava. In turn, the illegal extraction in Petrijevci was stopped abruptly in September 2009 after an EU report on the Drava regulation project was issued. In 2009, Croatia and Hungary signed the Joint Declaration on the Establishment of Mura-Drava-Danube. In November 2011, based on the Declaration, the Croatian government adopted the Regulation and the Mura and Drava area was proclaimed a Regional Park banning the gravel and sand extraction from the Drava river.
The private companies working in the gravel extraction complained on the decision, claiming that many persons will lose their jobs and the sand and gravel would have to be imported under the high prices. In Pitomača it was reported that the owner of one of the private companies verbally and physically attacked a local eco-activist, who has been reporting of illegal excavation activities on social media network. In April 2013, the governments made a proposal for change of the law in relation to water regulation, in order to allow the gravel and sand exploitation in special cases (where it is necessary in order to regulate the river and where excavation activities do not disturb the river's natural processes). The rationale for such a move was partly explained by the fact that Croatia was being heavily impacted by having to import sand and gravel from other countries (which also caused a significant increase of sand and gravel prices on the market). It remains to be seen what social and environmental repercussions will have these changes of the law.