GWP Senior Knowledge Management Officer Dr. Danka Thalmeinerova attended the 5th European River Restoration Conference (ERRC) in Vienna on 11-13 September 2013.
Counting the number of conferences I have attended, this year has been special. All organizations and world leaders want to demonstrate how much everybody cares about water cooperation (2013 is the International Year of Water Cooperation). As the end of the year approaches, I am getting tired of conferences. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I attended the 5th ERRC in Vienna. Even with more than 300 participants from over 30 countries, the conference was well organised in content and format. Not once did I get bored with the same message or the same routine even though there were over 100 presentations!
One presentation consisted of a keynote speech followed by discussion, another one included video material, and in some sessions participants were spontaneously picked from the audience to speak at the podium. It was the excellent combination of content that made every presentation relevant and informative. And while all this was going on, there was a young man drawing a picture on the wall (a really big painting canvas) – and it took him three days to capture all the water links.
The conference organisers also arranged three field trips, each very different: a National Park, a river trip, and a visit to two hydropower plants.
On top of a finely tuned programme, the participants also impressed me: a mix of politicians, policy makers, researchers, public servants, and local NGOs –representing every level of decision-making. I want to say ‘congratulations!’ to the organisers – and especially to its Chair, Bart Fokkens – for a great conference. There were many organising partners, but Bart represented the glue to this event.
The International River Foundation (IRF) awarded the first ever European River Prize at the conference. The winner was the Rhine River. The conference and the River Prize raised political attention because Mr. Janez Potocnik, the European Commissioner for the Environment, was present. He gave a clear signal (and I hope a commitment) that there is a shift toward environmental protection in all sectoral EU policies. He said there will no longer be a dilemma between environmental protection or economic development. These aspects are interlinked and we need to move from local pilot projects to a broader EU initiative.
A few presentations have stayed in my memory. The Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA), Hans Bruyninckx, talked about the challenges with river restoration. He gave a clear commitment regarding the future development and enhancement of EEA’s WISE-WFD database. The agency’s on-going work is transforming the database from an information source to a knowledge source – what used to be mere statistics are now in-depth analyses of data.
Gheorghe Constantin, Water Director of the Romanian Ministry of Environment, pointed out that river restoration is not only financially difficult but even more politically difficult. Policy makers have tough decisions ahead of them to ensure that river restorations don’t lose out to other projects.
Klement Tockner, Director of the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, asked: How wide are the rivers? Rivers form part of a multi-dimensional ecosystem, where vegetation, animals, people, and their interactions all influence each other. Isn’t this the raison d’etre for integrated water resources management?