Dragonflies are reliable indicators of the ecological quality of land–water ecotones, habitat heterogeneity and the hydrological dynamics of water bodies. In recent years, surveys of dragonfly communities have become a powerful tool for the ecological assessment of floodplain areas. The goal of this paper is to present a new approach towards assessing the ecological integrity of river–floodplain systems by analysing resident breeding dragonfly species. The methodology is based on experiences with existing approaches using macroinvertebrates as bioindicators, in particular, calculations of saprobic indices, longitudinal zonation and functional feeding group patterns. In addition to the total number of species and the number of sensitive species, the ‘Odonate Habitat Index’ (OHI) is a key element of the assessment method. It indicates characteristic features of a river–floodplain system, such as connectivity aspects, flow dynamics and terrestrialization processes. The OHI is calculated from the species-specific habitat values (expressing habitat preferences), abundances and the species-specific indication weight, which distinguishes eurytopic from stenotopic species. The comparison of the status quo with a reference condition allows an assessment of individual water bodies and/or of a whole area in a five-tiered classification scheme. The approach presented may also be used for the evaluation of restoration measures (e.g. reconnection of side arms) and for the definition of management objectives. Apart from the methodological framework, the results of a first application of this approach are presented in the paper as well. The study areas were selected floodplain systems of the Austrian section of the Danube and man-made inshore structures of the impounded Danube section in Vienna. Copyright © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.